“Dame the Second: Barbara of the House of Grebe”

As you all know, I'm getting my PhD in English literature. And sometimes I come across a fact or a text that makes me raise my eyebrow, and I instantly come here and repeat it to you. So with that in mind, are you all ready for another insane Thomas Hardy short story from his collection A Group of Noble Dames? We've already read one of them; this one is reaaaaal good.

This story is called "Dame the Second: Barbara of the House of Grebe".

Once there was this guy named Lord Uplandtowers (yeah, that rolls right off the tongue, Hardy). Lord Uplandtowers has really only one trait: grim determination, which is apparently super hereditary. "Determination was hereditary in the bearers of the escutcheon; sometimes for good, sometimes for evil" (248).

So Lord Uplandtowers meets the beautiful daughter, Barbara, of a wealthy squire and the reader immediately goes, "Oh no! Run, Barbara! Quickly, before he sinks his determination claws into you! Don't let him determine". But it's too late, because he's already over at her house, determining.

He goes, "Yeah, I want that. I want her to love me." But then she runs off with her boyfriend (as girls tend to do in these stories), a poor (of course he's poor) but drop-dead gorgeous (of course he's drop-dead gorgeous) man named Willowes. They get married and her parents are distraught, but decide to give her up for lost  because, hey, she's already married and there's nothing they can do about it. Lord Uplandtowers is foiled and goes back to his mansion to sulk for several years.

So Barbara and Willowes live in marital bliss, probably shagging in every room–which isn't difficult, because they're poor now and probably only have a one-room shack. But then after 6 weeks the magic wears off and Barbara goes, "You know what? Living without obscene wealth sucks. Let's go back to my parents and see if they'll forgive us."

Her parents do. Then they say, "Look, your husband is a good guy, so let's give him a Pretty Woman makeover. We'll send his ass to Italy with a tutor for a year, and when he comes back, he will be cultured and have all his etiquette lessons down and he will be a worthy husband." And this is where I got excited, because I thought there would be a montage. There is no montage. He goes to Italy and Barbara languishes around her parents' house for a while.

After he's gone for a couple of months, she starts to realize that she was really only attracted to his face, and since he's not around, she's having some serious buyer's remorse. She writes to him and asks him to send her a miniature portrait "that she might look at it all day and every day, and never for a moment forget his features" (256). Wow. Nothing stalker-ish about that request.

He goes to an artist for the portrait and the artist says, "My god! You are such a perfect specimen of manhood that I must not paint you–I must sculpt you!" So Willowes tells Barbara to wait a while longer and she'll get a marble bust of him, instead. And she thinks, "Okay, you are so missing my point." Then the artist convinces him that the bust is not enough to capture the majesty of his manly form–he must do a life-size statue! Of course this will take much, much longer. So Barbara waits for over the full year, and still doesn't have her husband and still doesn't have a portrait of him, and she's really regretting marrying him at this point.

Then she gets the news–there was a fire in a theatre in Italy, and Willowes was a dashing hero and rushed in four or five separate times to carry people out. On his last rescue attempt, a fiery beam falls directly on his face. He will probably survive, but he will be horribly disfigured for the rest of his life. She should go see him in Italy, in case he doesn't pull through, but she goes, "Umm, I'm not feeling so well myself *cough*" and stays in England.

He recovers, travels home, and shows up at her house wearing a mask. He asks if she can still love him, and she says, yes, absolutely. He tells her that he is going to take his mask off to see if her love can withstand his injuries. So she steels herself and thinks, "No matter what I see, I will be strong and show no horror." She basically talks herself up for 10 minutes, but when he takes the mask off it goes all right out the window. She instantly goes, "*shudder* *dry-heave*" and I'm like, "GET IT TOGETHER, WOMAN."

He says, "I thought your love could withstand this, but clearly you will never be okay with my injuries, so I'm going to Phantom of the Opera out of here into the dark night and never be seen again!" And I think, "Uh, you could give her a little time to get used to you. One shudder does not a marriage end, sir." But it's too late. He can't hear me, because he's already gone.

“Years passed, and he did not return . . . she longed to build a church-aisle, or erect a monument, and devote herself to deeds of charity for the remainder of her days” (264), so that's good, at least. But then when everyone assumes that Willowes must be dead by this point, Lord Uplandtowers rekindles his determination and starts sniffing around again. Barbara, after being alone for so long, decides to marry him because she is merely a "sweet-pea" which "require[s] a twig of stouter fibre than its own to hang upon and bloom" (266), and THAT sentence is why I sometimes hate Victorian literature.

So she . . . uh . . . hangs on Lord Uplandtowers' stout twig (uggh) and blooms–aka, they get married and she is reasonably happy again. There is probably not a skeevier way you could have led into that, Hardy.

They're married for a bit, until Barbara gets conclusive evidence that her first husband had died years ago. So that's good. No bigamy is always a good thing. Then she finally gets a note from the Italian sculptor saying, "I've finally finished your husband's statute. You want it?" And she writes back that Willowes is dead, but sure.

So when she gets a giant crate in the mail, Lord Uplandtowers goes, "Honey, what's this?" And she says, "Oh, nothing, darling. Just a life-size statue of my first husband that I'm going to put in our house. You don't mind, do you?" And Uplandtowers goes, "Lady, that's my wedding ring on your finger. Where is Willowes? Oh, yeah. Dead. Of course I don't mind. I totally won. You can put that wherever you like in the house. To remind me constantly that I won."

So she cracks open the crate and Lord Uplandtowers sees what Willowes looked like for the first time and he goes, "Holy crap. He's gorgeous. I MIND. I REALLY REALLY MIND." So she says, "Okay, I won't keep it in our parlor. I'll tuck it away somewhere else where you never have to see it." So she puts it in her boudoir, because, yeah, that won't threaten her husband. She, meanwhile, is reminded of what her first husband looked like and is no longer satisfied with her current marriage.

This is where the story gets AWESOME.

Lord Uplandtowers notices that his wife starts getting out of bed at night. One night he follows her to her boudoir and sees her making out with the statue of her her dead husband. I mean, sloppy making out. Full-body contact making out. One step away from fornicating with the statue. He thinks to himself, "Oh. I see that I haven't actually won. Willowes still claims her heart."

Instead of being upset by this, a light bulb goes on. He, in his deeply creepy, douche-baggy way, smiles and thinks, "I've got a golden ticket . . . I've got a golden twinkle in my eye . . ." And what is that golden ticket, you might ask? That is the golden ticket of winning his wife's love through discovering her weakness and exploiting it in the most horrible way possible.

When she goes out of the house one day, he hires some workmen to come in and literally deface the statue: "What the fire had maimed in the original the chisel maimed in the copy" (271), turning the handsome Willowes statue into a post-fire Willowes statue. That night when she leaves their bed to go get a little sump'in sump'in with her inanimate object, she opens the doors and SCREAAAAAAAAAMS.

Lord Uplandtowers follows her, giggling, and forces her to keep looking at Willowes' hideousness until she admits that she loves Uplandtowers better. She instantly says, "I don't love him anymore, I love you!" And he says, "I don't believe you!" and makes her look at it some more. Just when she's clinging to the edges of sanity, he figures out the final way to "cure" her of her love for Willows:

He has the statue moved into their bedroom and put at the foot of their bed, where she will be forced to look at it while she's trying to sleep, when she wakes, and whenever they do the sex. He even puts little candles all around it and turns it into a shrine. It's all very, "Baby, why do you make me hurt you? I'm doing this for your benefit."

She finally has an epileptic fit, and upon waking from it, tells Lord Uplandtowers WITH COMPLETE SINCERITY that she loves him the best. Shhh, Barbara, that's just the Stockholm Syndrome talking. It'll be alright.

He has the statue taken away, and she loves him even more for doing that. “The upshot was that the cure became so permanent as to be itself a new disease. She clung to him so tightly that she would not willingly be out of his sight for a moment” (274). See? Spousal abuse DOES work! And then they got down to some serious baby-making: "she bore him no less than eleven children in the nine following years" (275).

*Hands up, walking away*

However, almost all of their kids die in infancy and "At length, completely worn out in mind and body, Lady Uplandtowers was taken abroad by her husband . . . But nothing availed to strengthen her, and she died in Florence" (275).


Moral of the story? "Mental abuse is sexy". Or "Don't learn. The more involved your education, the higher your chances of dying in a theatre fire in Italy." Actually, I think the real message of this story is "Rich douche-bags always prosper." Yup. That's the one.

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