Thomas Hardy translator
August 31, 2022 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Attention English majors: I am reading Return of the Native, which is mostly going well. But I have a question about a story.

One of the "locals" tells a story that I wasn't quite able to grasp:

“Ah, well: he was looking for the earth some months afore he went. At that time women used to run for smocks and gown-pieces at Greenhill Fair, and my wife that is now, being a long-legged slittering maid, hardly husband-high, went with the rest of the maidens, for ’a was a good runner afore she got so heavy. When she came home I said—­we were then just beginning to walk together—­'What have ye got, my honey?’ ‘I’ve won—­well, I’ve won—­a gown-piece,’ says she, her colours coming up in a moment. ’Tis a smock for a crown, I thought; and so it turned out. Ay, when I think what she’ll say to me now without a mossel of red in her face, it do seem strange that ’a wouldn’t say such a little thing then... However, then she went on, and that’s what made me bring up the story. ’Well, whatever clothes I’ve won, white or figured, for eyes to see or for eyes not to see’ (’a could do a pretty stroke of modesty in those days), ’I’d sooner have lost it than have seen what I have. Poor Mr. Yeobright was took bad directly he reached the fair ground, and was forced to go home again.’ That was the last time he ever went out of the parish.”

What is a "smock for a crown"? It seems pretty risque for the time, since the wife was embarrassed, so I assume it is something to do with underwear? But why were they comfortable competing publicly for something they can't mention?

I hope someone actually knows. I did some light googling but all I got was elasticized prairie dresses and British monarchy gossip: not what I am looking for. Halp! (Also there may be more questions as I am very early in the book.)
posted by theredpen to Writing & Language (19 answers total)
A crown was worth five shillings, so without thinking about this too hard, I'd wonder if he was basically keeping a complaint to himself about the costs of entering the contest.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:34 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

A smock could refer to an undergarment in those days (what we would call a chemise today). The 'for a crown' has me puzzled, though.

(The two characters were only just beginning to court, so it's extremely unlikely he would have been paying for this in any way.)
posted by praemunire at 8:37 AM on August 31, 2022

Or she bought it for a crown, but claimed that she'd won it. She blushed because she was lying.
posted by bricoleur at 8:38 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

A smock was kind of like a big oversized shirt worn to protect the clothes while you were working; but there were also "dress smocks" that you wore to special occasions, like weddings and funerals. In Hardy's day there was a big cultural push in rural England that was about reviving to some dimly-recalled "old-fashioned" and "traditional" kinds of things like Morris Dancing out of some kind of nostalgia; smocks became popular as a sort of throwback "this is what they wore in the old days" kind of thing. There's a whole exhibit I found here on a site about English rural life.

I agree with the theory that the "for a crown" bit refers to the cost as opposed to something that describes how it was worn.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:43 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My guess, based on a close reading of the text, is that "a smock for a crown" means "a smock as a prize [for winning the race]." I just read the entire OED entry for "crown" and came away without an alternative explanation, so I think it's just a poetic figure of speech.
posted by toastedcheese at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

FWIW he's not paying for it, I'd probably still read it as a man criticizing a woman about how she spent her money--holding it back, at the time, but in view of how he feels about things she's willing to say later, basically wondering to himself why he had held the criticism back.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:47 AM on August 31, 2022

hmmm, I agree with toastedcheese: here crown is a synonym for "prize". The blush is because she is claiming to have won a fancy gown-piece but has actually won a [lesser valued] smock. To follow up on the money hypothesis, a [male] agricultural laborer was getting 3 crowns = 15 shillings a week in 1900. A little later old age pensions came in at 5 shillings a week for over-70s in 1908.
posted by BobTheScientist at 9:00 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think it was an undergarment referred to as a smock and "for a crown" means, "I'd bet a crown it's a smock." It seems clear from ’Well, whatever clothes I’ve won, white or figured, for eyes to see or for eyes not to see’ that she's talking about something that is for eyes not to see.
posted by Redstart at 9:01 AM on August 31, 2022 [21 favorites]

so I think it's just a poetic figure of speech.

It's a weird figure of speech to be sure, but I think you're onto something.
posted by praemunire at 9:08 AM on August 31, 2022

Hmm, Redstart's interpretation makes sense to me as well. I could read it either way.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:10 AM on August 31, 2022

Oh, I'd bet a crown on Redstart's answer, and I'd critique my own for not reading the 'mossel of red' line in a way that relates to the embarrassment issue.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:11 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

They've just started courting, so she doesn't want to talk about underthings in front of him. So she lies and says that she won dress fabric instead of a a smock, which she'd wear under her dress (like a modern slip). He sees that she's blushing and thinks "Oh, I bet she's just being shy." And he's right!
posted by kingdead at 9:14 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Redstart's interpretation is also mine.
posted by redfoxtail at 9:16 AM on August 31, 2022

Redstart, correct. I study historic textiles and I love Hardy. The man is betting a crown to himself about cloth to sew up an intimate garment which can't be named out loud.
posted by evenolderthanshelooks at 9:34 AM on August 31, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'll add that, yes, a smock was a sturdy and gorgeously stitched overgarment for outdoor labor, but also smock was a word for a lady's long full underdress, almost transparent, in fine white cotton or linen. Her prize was a length of such cloth to sew a long smock. Three yards, maybe four, about 30" wide.
posted by evenolderthanshelooks at 9:45 AM on August 31, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yes, he's guessing (to himself) that she's telling a white lie. It's not that it's a totally taboo topic (since as you say the prize was won at the fair) but that he's the guy she has a crush on so she's embarrassed! But note also that she gets a bit flirty in the second half of the story: her line "for eyes to see or not to see" is glossed by the narrator as her doing "a pretty stroke of modesty", implying she's moved from being actually shy to purposefully coy. It's a really nice little character moment!
posted by radiogreentea at 9:53 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

I agree that "'tis a smock for a crown" is the equivalent of "bet a dollar it's a smock." (Or, well, more than a dollar given the relative value of a crown, but that type of utterance.)
posted by babelfish at 10:03 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I see I came to the right people. Thank you all so much! I am very relieved.
posted by theredpen at 10:32 AM on August 31, 2022 [2 favorites]

For a while there was a saying "I’d take her in her smock" meaning "I’d marry her for herself alone without a dowry". The mental distance from courting to underthings is short.

(Possibly someone quotes this in a Wimsey novel? )
posted by clew at 11:15 AM on August 31, 2022 [1 favorite]

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