“Dame the First: The First Countess of Wessex”

For my PhD, I am reading some Thomas Hardy short stories that were compiled into a collection called A Group of Noble Dames, and they are craaaaack-tastic. Each one follows the pseudo-historical, kinda-true tale of a young noblewoman who gets up to shenanigans, always involving total stupidity with a husband, or a lover, or both.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to summarize each of the ten short stories because I can't not recap this crap for you guys. This is precisely the reason why I started this blog. The publication info is: A Group of Noble Dames. Thomas Hardy. ed. F.B. Pinion. The New Wessex Edition of the Stories of Thomas Hardy. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan London LTD. 1977.

I would also like to warn you about triggers for child-molestation, although Hardy writes this story more to be absurdly funny than to be horrifying.

This first story is "Dame the First: The First Countess of Wessex".

Once upon a time there was a 13-year-old heiress named Betty. Her father was an affluent country squire, named Dornell, who doted on her, and her mother was a strong-willed biyotch named Sue.

So Sue goes up to Dornell one day and is like, "Hey, husband, our daughter is 13 and there is this 30-year-old guy named Reynard sniffing around her. His family is toooootally popular at court and he's definitely going to be given a title, so let's let him marry our child." And Dornell is like, "You and your pedophile friend can fuck right the fuck off." And Sue goes, "SNARL, HISSSSS."

So Dornell and his wife get into a big fight and he leaves her at the big family mansion and goes up to his bachelor-pad hunting-palace to live indefinitely and become an alcoholic with his buddies. Finally he goes, "You know what? I love my daughter and I'm going to bring young Betty here to live with me in my bro mansion forever and ever instead of with her horrible mother, because I am a good father who kind of abandoned his family, whoops."

So he goes back home to take Betty with him, only he discovers that his wife has already taken Betty on a totally legit fun girls' weekend to London, nothing suspicious here at ALL. And he thinks, "Okay, I'll collect her when she comes back. Let's go party it up with my boys!" So in the middle of his drinking binge, one of his buddies goes, "Hey, Dornell, congrats on your 13-year-old getting married today!" And Dornell goes, "Jigga-whaaa now?" And the friend says, "Yeah, I just got news from people in London that your 13-year-old got married to Reynard, and there is absolutely nothing creepy about that."

So Dornell goes, "CURSE YOU, BITCH WIFE!", shakes his fist at the sky, and has a stroke. After he recovers, his wife tells him that it was better to ask for forgiveness than for permission, so she took Betty to London, stalked the shops where she knew Reynard hung out, and when she saw him, told Betty to go up to him and say, "Hey baby, baby, you wanna marry me or what?", because nothing is hotter than a child propositioning you. And Reynard said, "Do I ever!" so they went to the church that same day. BUT IT'S OKAY, BECAUSE HE AGREED NOT TO TOUCH HER FOR 5 YEARS, NOTHING PERVY HAPPENING HERE, NO SIR.

So Sue takes Betty back to their house, and Reynard goes back to court. And this is where I go, "So if the marriage hasn't been consummated, why doesn't Dornell just arrange and annulment, since Betty hasn't reached her maturity? I don't think she legally CAN marry without her father's permission." But Dornell is a bit thick and says, "What's done is done, it's fine, whatever. I'll just hate you, wife, for all eternity."

Then Betty goes off to school for 4 years and comes back all hot and educated because this is Thomas Hardy writing, and learning = sexy, children (also, in this story, I guess learning = sexy children. Ew).

ANYWAY, Betty comes home and has kind of forgotten that she has a husband, because she hasn't seen Reynard in all this time. To welcome her home, her father decides to come to the big manor house for dinner and brings with him his young, hot friend Phelipson. He tells Betty to pretend to be in love with Phelipson in order to prove a point to her mother–namely, that Betty would have been happier if her father had chosen who she married. Because nothing says "Welcome home after a four-year absence!" quite like making someone a pawn in their emotional power struggles with another human being.

He completely forgets that his daughter is, you know, a person who actually forms her own opinions, so when she and Phelipson get the honest-to-god mega-hots for each other and start winking and playing footsie under the dinner table, all he can think about is, "Awww, my Betty is so obedient! Look at her slobbering over this incredibly good-looking youth for no other reason than because I told her to. Awww."

Meanwhile, Sue is like, "Dornell, you are a goddamned idiot. Now Betty has absolutely no chance of being happy with her husband." And Dornell is like, "Well . . . yeah, that's just proves my point!" And Sue is like, "You were willing to ruin your daughter's happiness to prove a point?" And Dornell goes, ". . . oh. Whoops."

So some time goes by and it's getting close to the day where Reynard can come and get jiggy with it, and Betty is getting more and more nervous because she doesn't even know this older man who she's already been married to for about five years. About a week before he shows up, she and her mother are riding in the carriage by some cottages and Betty says, "Stop the carriage, I need to go do something." She comes back after a little bit and Sue is like, "What did you do?"

And Betty says, "I know the girl who lives in that cottage has smallpox, so I went in a kissed her. LET'S SEE IF REYNARD WANTS TO COLLECT ME NOW, SUCKAS." Well, the direct quote is: "'Nancy Priddle is sick of the smallpox, and I . . . went in and kissed her, so that I might take it, and now I shall have it, and he won't be able to come near me!'"

And Sue says, "Oh, for the love of . . . fine. I'm locking you in your bedroom until we see if you've actually caught the smallpox, and also so you can't run away.'"

A week goes by, and no smallpox shows up and Betty goes, "DAMMIT." And her mother says, "Sucks to be you. Reynard is coming to get you tonight.'" This makes Betty panic, and she arranges to run away with Phelipson. He gets a horse and they pack some bags and ruuuuun like the wiiiiiiiind.

After riding for about an hour,  Betty says, "Hey, Phelipson, I don't feel that well. Let me get off and walk for a minute." He jumps down to see what's wrong with her, and POOF! she's got the smallpox, which is a major buzzkill for any horny teenage boy. Then Phelipson shows what a stellar guy he is–the first words out of his mouth are: '"And you've been holding on to me! . . . Won't you be a fright in a month or two, poor, poor Betty!'" (239).

So Betty says, "Oh. I guess you really don't love me then. I'll just be walking home now." And Phelipson goes, "Yeah, don't let the door hit your plague-infested ass on the way out", and he rides off.

Meanwhile, Sue is searching frantically for Betty, leaving Reynard at their family home, trying not to let him know that anything is wrong. So Betty walks in the front door and goes, "Oh, hey. You're my husband. This might be a bad time to mention it, but I just ran off with my boyfriend, but he dumped me because I have smallpox", which has got to be the worst "Honey, I'm home" message anyone has ever gotten. Reynard turns out to be kind of okay, and carries her up to bed, not caring that he might catch the smallpox himself. That wins Betty over, especially since she is rebounding in the way that only a teenage girl can rebound: with unnecessary fervor.

She recovers shortly thereafter and her face isn't disfigured, so it's a win-win for everybody, except for Daddy Dornell, who dies from another suitably dramatic stroke when he hears that his beloved Betty caught the 'pox. So Reynard thinks, "Okay, the opposing father is out of the way, the boyfriend is out of the way, the smallpox is out of the way, and hey, Betty even likes me now. LET'S GET IT ON, CHILD-BRIDE."

Until, nope, wait, out of NOWHERE, Betty's mother decides to make Reynard wait for another year, because it was her husband's dearest wish that Betty not be a victim of child-molestation, and since Dornell is dead, she should probably honor that wish. So no touching Betty until she is 19!

Reynard is like, "DAMMIT. Fine. I solemnly promise that I will not see Betty, except under your direct supervision, for a whole year."

So most of the year goes by, and summer rolls around. Betty and her mother are outside one day, and it's so beautiful outside that Betty takes her cloak off. Her mother notices for the first time that Betty is heavily pregnant and goes, "I'm sorry–WHAT?" And Betty has NO IDEA that she's pregnant or what that means or what caused it, but Reynard has, against his solemn oath, been visiting Betty and told her not to tell anyone because they're married and it's okay, and what her mother doesn't know won't hurt her, and OH MY GOD, this is seriously messed up.

And so Sue gets upset, saying "'All I have to say is, that you'd better get your husband to join you as soon as possible . . . To go on playing the maiden like this – I'm ashamed to see you!'" (245), and I'm really not sure why she is so upset (except because Reynard defied her), especially considering that her daughter has been married for 6 years and everyone knows they are married. Betty is like, "Okay, but golly gee, what did I do wrong?"

So then Reynard collects his wife, and becomes the Earl of Wessex from his mad popularity at court, and Betty becomes the Countess of Wessex, and they have a whole passel of children together. THE END.

The moral of the story is either: 1.) May-December romances are the best romances; 2.) Keep dating your girlfriend when she gets ugly, because there is always the chance she'll get hot again; 3.) Mothers are always right, even when their advice is super creepy; 4.) It's easiest to rebound with someone to whom you're already married; or 5.) Thomas Hardy is a creep.

EXCEPT, you guys, Thomas Hardy can't be a creep because THIS STORY IS SORT OF TRUE. It is based on Elizabeth (Betty) Horner, who married Stephen Fox, the first Earl of Ilchester, in 1736 at the age of 13. Only what Hardy didn't write in was that Fox (aka, Reynard) was the lover of Lord Hervey, but they were forced to give each other up when Fox/Reyarnd married Elizabeth/Betty. Dammit, Hardy, I want my gay-lovers-parted-forever subplot.

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