Not such a bad girl

I recently had a sudden fancy for reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I've read remarkably little Hardy having taken a dislike to his novels (though I always enjoyed his poetry) as a teenager. A more recent reading of Far from the madding crowd changed my mind - one of my first ever Bookhound reviews, albeit a very short one.

When you've been book reviewing for a while, you often find yourself doing a mini-review, sometimes before you've even started the book. And sometimes you can discover, quite disconcertingly, that what you think you know is not at all true. This was the case with Tess. When I was thinking about reading it, I thought that Tess would fit rather nicely into my "Bad girls" strand, fitting rather nicely with her sisters Manon Lescaut, Moll Flanders, and Zola's Nana. After all Hardy had problems with the "moral majority" when Tess was first published. The novel was first published in a censored version, its challenge to Victorian sexual mores being too much for the publisher.

The novel centres around a young woman, Tess Durbeyfield, the daughter of farm-workers, born into rural poverty with a shiftless father, and a helpless but optimistic mother; Tess is largely responsible for the welfare of her family. Her father has a conversation with a local antiquarian and discovers that he is a descendant of former landed gentry, he aspires to a wealthy marriage for his daughter, Tess, but ends up introducing her to the caddish Alec D'Urberville; who "date-rapes" her.

There appear to be a lot of argument among academics as to whether Tess was raped or compliant, but I think that the way Hardy writes it, it's completely unambiguous - she was raped. Some years later, Tess meets up with Angel Clare, the son of a clergyman who is training to be a farmer, the couple fall in love and marry. On their wedding night, Angel reveals that he has had an affair, and Tess, relieved, having feared that he would think less of her for having lost her virginity, tells him her own history. He is aghast, and refuses to have anything more to do with her. The couple separate, although Tess desperately hopes that they will be reunited. Clare eventually relents, but Tess has now met up with her nemesis, Alec....
Poster for an early film (1913) of Tess of the D'Urbervilles
I came to the book thinking I was going to be reading about a "bad girl". Interesting that, eh? Over 100 years after the book was first published, its reputation still precedes it. In fact Tess is nothing of the sort, she is ruined by the double standards of Victorian society, standards that are still with us today to a certain extent.

It is interesting the way in which Hardy portrays these standards. Her own village knows what has happened, but are generally sympathetic; but at this stage Tess heaps guilt upon herself; while Angel's attitude towards her is partly down to male/female double standards, but is also partially determined by the class difference.

Yes, this book is about morality and justice; about how some moral codes are unfair, unreasonable or just plain wrong; it's also about how justice is not always about what is right. But far more than this, Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one heck of a book. The language is beautiful. There's no mistaking here Hardy's background as a poet. The Wessex landscape is bound intricately into the narrative providing a backdrop, almost like a Greek chorus, commenting on the events that are in front of it.

Tess herself is a character wondrously wrought. She strides out of the page, trying to get on in life, a good woman trapped by the situation she finds herself in. She is vibrantly realistic, completely lovable, and a woman not just of her time but an Everywoman.

I loved this novel, I thought Tess was a wonderful character. The men are not so well portrayed (Alec is definitely a moustache twirling Victorian villain), but then, that's perhaps not unexpected. Tess is such an elemental character that she draws the whole force of the novel, and the author's energies to her. Can it be wondered at that the novel should draw to its climax at Stonehenge, that most elemental of settings. A fabulous read, and a great introduction to Hardy, if you're not already entranced by his work.


Popular Posts