Saturday, 10 August 2013

Clytemnestra Hangs in Dorset

I went to Dorchester on the trail of Thomas Hardy, whose novels often set ancient Greek myths amongst the Victorian rural underclass. In Tess Durbeyfield, or Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), Hardy created his unforgettable peasant girl, abused by a lascivious aristocrat and hypocritically rejected by a husband who claims to be progressive.

Gemma Atherton as BBC Tess (2008)
When faced with the inevitable feminist critics of Hardy, I point out the heartbreaking scene where the unmarried Tess, suffering from post-natal depression as well as acute poverty, tries to feed her dying baby while slaving all day long behind the reaping machine.

Nastassja Kinski in Polanski's 1980 movie
Tess eventually stabs the abusive father of her deceased child, and the blood seeps through the ceiling to the room below. 

When she is hanged for the crime, Hardy tells us ‘"Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Tess.’ The title of Zeus actually comes from the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, but the Aeschylean figure who bloodily kills her abusive co-parent is Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra.

Elizabeth Browne's public hanging
Hardy’s unforgettable  working-class Clytemnestra was also inspired by Elizabeth Martha Browne, a servant and the last woman to be publicly hanged in the county of Dorset in 1856. She killed her drunken husband (as Clytemnestra is said to have killed Agamemnon) with an axe. Browne’s husband, also a servant, had beaten her with a horse-whip after a fight which started when she found him in bed with his Cassandra.

The Dorset County Chronicle reported that Browne described how she retaliated when her husband bent to tie his shoelaces: ‘much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck, I seized a hatchet…and struck him several violent blows on the head…’.

No wonder the young Hardy heard a parallel with Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra. After killing Agamemnon, she reports, ‘I struck him twice.  He screamed twice and his limbs went limp. Once he had collapsed I gave him a third and final blow…  I don’t think his death was undeserved…   he started it, has paid for it and has died violently.’

The Young Hardy
At the age of sixteen, Hardy went along with hundreds of local people to witness Browne’s execution. He was apprentice to the local builder-architect and studying the ancient Greek tragedians with the help of his educated friend, Horace Moule. Hardy stood just beneath the scaffold as Browne struggled at the end of the noose. He later recalled how vivid an impression her death had made on his memory: ‘what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.’

In Dorchester I struck up a conversation with a local man because his dog and ours communicated. When I asked why he had chosen his T-shirt, he said, mysteriously, ‘women have been having a hard time lately and people are too narrow-minded.’ I wish I had asked him whether it was living in Hardy country that had engendered in him his own distinctive gesture of solidarity.

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