Even if you have never read Tess of the d’Urbervilles before, (which I had) upon taking this novel down from the shelf – you just know it’s going to be emotional. I first started reading Hardy when I was about eighteen, and devoured each of the novels and many of the short stories over the next two or three years. I can’t remember exactly when I read “Tess” but for a long time it remained the one I thought I liked the least. It was also the one; I thought at one time, I would be loath to re-read. Embarking upon the Hardy reading challenge a couple of years ago I realised that not only would I have to face “Tess” again, but that I was actually rather looking forward to it. I have found once or twice before, that re-reading novels I first read in my late teens or early twenties and been underwhelmed by to be enormously rewarding. When I was younger I think I needed a happy ending from my reading – and so the tragedy of “Tess” rather traumatised me.
“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”
I’m not going to embark on a lengthy re-hashing of the story of “Tess” – most people must know the bare outline at least. Set in Hardy’s beloved Wessex – it tells the story of an innocent country girl who is corrupted and brought down by the debauchery of the aristocratic Alec d’Urberville and the hypocrisy of a society that treats men and women so differently. One of the many tragedies of this story is that if Tess’s family had not sought to better their prospects by claiming kin to the ancient d’Urberville family – which they had been told they were descended from – none of Tess’s sufferings would ever have occurred. One of the abiding images for me from the opening chapters of this wonderful novel is of Tess dancing in the fields near her home with the other young girls, in the May-day dance. Dressed in white, and taking part in an ancient tradition Tess appears as the epitome of a young, innocent traditional country girl. As Angel Clare, Tess’s future great love, passes by the dancing girls after briefly joining in the dance – although not dancing with Tess – the reader who knows what is to come, wants to call him back.
“So each had a private little sun for her soul to bask in; some dream, some affection, some hobby, or at least some remote and distant hope….”
Tess leaves her family home and meets with disaster in the form of Alec d’Urberville, who vilely preys upon Tess’s beauty and innocence leaving her pregnant and disgraced. Tess feels herself to be guilty and this supposed guilt is in many ways her undoing. A couple of years later and Tess has tried to put the past behind her, going to work at Talbothays dairies as a dairymaid where – briefly she is content. Talbothays dairies are a haven of traditional industry and friendship. It is here that Tess meets Angel Clare – who though he doesn’t know her, she remembers well from the time of the May-day dance. Believing herself to be not good enough for Angel, the son of a clergyman, training to be a gentleman farmer, Tess fights her feelings for Angel. Angel is persistent and naturally the two fall in love. The happiness of the couple is doomed by the shadow of Alec d’Urberville – and the horrific hypocrisy of the times which allow for a man to have a past, but not a woman. Angel is not without sin himself – surely his name is another of Hardy’s wonderful ironies. Angel is not a bad man, but it his stubborn blind pride that is Tess’s final undoing.
“Her affection for him was now the breath and life of Tess’s being; it enveloped her as a photosphere, irradiated her into forgetfulness of her past sorrows, keeping back the gloomy spectres that would persist in their attempts to touch her—doubt, fear, moodiness, care, shame. She knew that they were waiting like wolves just outside the circumscribing light, but she had long spells of power to keep them in hungry subjection there.”
In Tess of the d’Urberville’s Hardy explores many of those themes which are familiar to readers of his novels, society, the disparity between men and women, marriage and the traditions of a way of life that was already on the wane. Hardy’s descriptions of the Wessex landscapes and its rural traditions are, as ever, glorious, his characters unforgettable. Reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles is as I said emotional – enchantment, sadness, anger and a few tears – I experienced them all more than a few times. I am so glad I reacquainted myself with ‘Tess.’ My favourite Hardy’s I think will always be Under the Greenwood tree, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Trumpet Major – but I no longer wince when I think of ‘Tess’ – it might be a tragedy – but it is utterly beautiful and a wonderfully compelling read – happy endings? Pah! Who needs ‘em?