Hardy and Valentine's Day

Tracy Hayes

Love Divination: Bathsheba, prompted by Libby, uses a bible and Key to foresee the name of her future husband

Valentine's Day has its origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia which was held in mid-February. The festival celebrated the coming of Spring and featured fertility rites, and the pairing off of women with men via a lottery system. At the end of the fifth century Pope Gelasius I replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day, and from the 14th century it came to be celebrated as a day of romance. Formal messages, or Valentines, appeared in the 1500s, and by the late 1700s commercially printed cards were available. During the 19th century Valentine's Day became an industry, with lavish hand crafted lace decorations, lengthy poems and lofty sentiments. But the Victorians also created an anti-Valentine, or what became known as a 'Vinegar Valentines', which contained an insulting poem and illustration, though some were simply playful or sarcastic and were sold as comedy cards. Often sent to shrews, drunks, bachelors, old maids, dandies, flirts and penny-pinchers, the Suffragettes became particular targets for vitriolic messages after one banner proudly proclaimed 'No Vote No Kiss'.

The Dorsetshire folklorist John Symonds Udal a notable influence on Hardy wrote that on Valentine's Day 'maids suspend in the kitchen a nosegay of early flowers tied up with a true-lover's knot of blue ribbon' to express devotion to a lover. Akin to this he mentions the belief that 'it is unlucky if a male is not the first visitor to the house' on the day, and records a peculiar custom previously collected in William Hone's Every-Day Book:

Three single young men went out together before daylight on St. Valentine's Day, with a clapnet to catch an old owl and two sparrows in a neighbouring barn. If they were successful and could bring the birds to the inn without injury before the females of the house had risen they were rewarded by the hostess with three pots of purl in honour of St. Valentine, and enjoyed the privilege of demanding at any house in the neighbourhood a similar boon. This was done, it is said, as an emblem that the owl, being the bird of wisdom, could influence the feathered race to enter the net of love as mates on that day, whereon both single lads and maidens should be reminded that happiness could alone be secured by an early union.

Purl is an old English drink otherwise known as Wormwood Ale, and is traditionally made by infusing ale with the tops of the wormwood plant, though by Hardy's time wormwood had been substituted with gin, sugar and ginger.

The most famous instance of a Valentine appearing in Hardy's works is of course the chapter 'Sortes Sanctorum' in Far From the Madding Crowd, and those that immediately follow it. Bathsheba Everdene is piqued that the gentleman farmer William Boldwood is the only man in Weatherbury who simply does not notice her, let alone admire her; in fact she refers to him as 'a species of Daniel' one who does not follow wishes or decrees. So in an 'idle and unreflecting' act Bathsheba sends the oblivious Boldwood an anonymous Valentine containing the verse: 'A rose is red/ The violet blue/ Carnation's sweet/ And so are you', and seals the envelope with the words Marry Me in red. ' Capital! she exclaimed, throwing down the letter frolicsomely: 'Twould upset the solemnity of a parson and clerk too.' It does far more than upset Boldwood's solemnity, 'His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once'. The gentleman in fact is driven to the edge of sanity by a monomania centred upon Bathsheba becoming his wife. Yet for her part it was simply the childish game of an idle minute, a jest.

Though Hardy tends towards the darker side of love in his poetry also, such as 'The Love-Letters' and 'The Letter's Triumph', beside these we can juxtapose 'Lover to Mistress' and passages from 'Great Things':

Beckon to me to come
With handkerchief or hand,
Or finger mere or thumb;
Let forecasts be but rough,
Parents more bleak than bland,
'Twill be enough,
Maid mine,
'Twill be enough!

Two fields, a wood, a tree,
Nothing now more malign
Lies between you and me;
But were they bysm, or bluff,
Or snarling sea, one sign
Would be enough,
Maid mine,
Would be enough!


Love is, yea, a great thing,
A great thing to me,
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
A great thing to me!

Will these be always great things,
Great things to me?...
Let it befall that One will call,
'Soul, I have need of thee:'
What then? Joy-januts, impassioned flings,
Love, and its ecstasy,
Will always have been great things,
Great things to me!

Happy Valentine's Day!

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