Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)
Penguin, 1978

She’s “goodness made interesting”.

That’s what Irving Howe calls Tess, the main character in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Interesting is one way to put it.

Not all of his Victorian readers found it so however.

His religious skepticism and his overt criticism of “the English marriage laws…the gratuitous cause of at least half the misery of the community” (Hearst’s Magazine, 1912) raised more than eyebrows.  Hackles, public outcry: you name it.

Hardy dealt frankly with subjects (particularly sexuality) in ways that made the general public highly uncomfortable. And it was no picnic for his heroines either, especially Tess.

Many of his readers were less interested and more, er, horrified.

This was the first of Thomas Hardy’s novels that I’ve read, so although I knew they weren’t happy stories, the tragic elements still took me aback somewhat. It reminded me of a reading friend’s comment about reading A Fine Balance, that eventually she just wanted to laugh because the tragedies were heaped atop one another to such a degree.

If I had read this jotting in the author’s notebooks first, I’d’ve been less surprised:

“A Plot, or Tragedy, should arise from the gradual closing in of a situation that comes of ordinary human passions, prejudices, and ambitions, by reason of the characters taking no trouble to ward off the disastrous events produced by the said passions, prejudices, and ambitions.”

Oh, yes, closing in. That’s perfect. I’ve thought back to this passage — from Part II of Tess — countless times since I first read it.

“The narrow lane of stubble encompassing the field grew wider with each circuit, and the standing corn was reduced to a smaller area as the morning wore on. Rabbits, hares, snakes, rats, mice, retreated inwards as into a fastness, unaware of the ephemeral nature of their refuge, and of the doom that awaited them later in the day when, their covert shrinking to a more and more horrible narrowness, they were huddled together, friends and foes, till the last few yards of upright wheat fell also under the teeth of the unerring reaper, and they were every one put to death by the sticks and stones of the harvesters.”

Doom. Shrinking. Horrible. Put to Death. This image haunts me. Even when I had not read much further, it stood out for me. And still, though other tragedies of the tale have been heaped atop that image, it still haunts me. I think of it when I wake at 3 a.m.

This might also be because I’ve read this part of Tess three times. I started reading the novel earlier this year, in the summer (if not before) and read about 150 pages each time before stalling.

So I read “The Maiden” and “Maiden No More” three times. Yes, there’s some ugliness there. More than that passage, though the sense of entrapment remains the same in many other disturbing scenes too.

But once I got past that mark in the novel — and obviously I should have simply pressed onwards, because it did no good to have to read it three times — to “The Rally”, when Tess becomes a milkmaid, I was set.

Honestly, I loved the relationships that these women had with the cows. Hardy is know for his realism. He doesn’t hide the fact that rural dwellers work hard and his portrayal of Wexford life is not romanticized as it might have been in the hands of other authors (see that painful passage above, for instance), but the cows made the difference, for me, between leaving this unfinished and being able to cross it off this year’s Must-Reads list.

Her bovine friendships might well have been the highlight of Tess’ life too. Although she has found ways to cope with her disappointments. “…I do know our souls can be made to go outside our bodies when we are alive.”

There are moments of beauty in this sad story. And Tess herself is both a beautiful and fascinating heroine.

The following passage, which touches on one aspect of her appeal, is actually on the same facing pages that the horrifying image above appears. The novel definitely runs the gamut of emotions.

“It was a thousand pities, indeed; it was impossible for even an enemy to feel otherwise on looking at Tess as she sat there, with her flower-like mouth and large tender eyes, neither black nor blue nor gray not violet; rather all those shades together, and a hundred others, which could be seen if one looked into their irises — shade behind shade — tint beyond tint — around pupils that had no bottom; an almost standard woman, but for the slight incautiousness of character inherited from her race.”

And there is much to marvel at in the prose. It’s hard to believe that Hardy was writing in Victorian times, so modern does this novel feel in its exposing of injustices and inequities.

If you had asked me in September, I would have answered differently but this is one of those instances in which I’m very glad to have persisted with a difficult read.

From where I’m standing today, I would definitely like to read more of Thomas Hardy’s fiction (and, then, some biographical bits).  Please tell me about your favourites.

Have you been glad you persisted with a difficult read lately?

Companion Read:
Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
“Wives are unhappy sometimes; from no fault of their husbands — from their own.” says Tess.