Sunday, 15 March 2009

20 - 'Tess of the D'Urbevilles' by Thomas Hardy

Tess, Tess, Tess; what a bloody mess.

An accurate description of my thoughts about Hardy's most tragic of heroines and the book itself (but not in a bad way). Confused? Let's start again.

Reading this book is like watching a film about a famous person who died at an early age; you revel in their charm and success and think and hope and pray that events will conspire to turn out for the best every time, but, of course, they never do. Poor old Tess is doomed to make the same mistakes, whether they be of her own making or not, for all eternity, as much as the reader wants things to turn out for the best. For a twenty-first century reader, the tragedy is arguably greater as Tess does not really commit any great sin by our standards, and the punishment which comes her way thus seems disproportionate to the 'crime'. That is, of course, until the fatal denouement...

A book which came to mind while reading this one was George Eliot's tale of country folk and a fallen woman, 'Adam Bede'. Both novels tell of the tragedy of a country girl courted (in slightly differing circumstances) by a man from a higher social class, and both heroines suffer for being caught up in affairs outside their social sphere (and both, in different ways, eventually pay the ultimate price for their sins). As well as Hetty Sorrel's being a far more willing participant in events than Tess, the main point of contrast, however, between the two tales is that Eliot's centre of focus is the honest yeoman, Adam, who wishes to marry Hetty himself. Hardy's focus on the woman in the middle, 'seduced' (read raped) by one gentleman and abandoned by the other is bolder by far; much too bold, in fact, for Victorian audiences.

I first read this book in a different edition about a decade ago and vaguely remembered something about a mock marriage which was the cause for Angel Clare's treatment of Tess. So when I read the edition I'd picked up at 'Borders', I was slightly surprised (to say the least) to find that this part of the plot had been replaced by what was, for the times, a pretty obvious reference to rape. This was actually the version Hardy chose to publish in 1891 and was the plot he had not been allowed to release when the novel was being serialised in various publications (as was the norm in the Victorian era). The highly annotated version I bought included various emmendments, alternative versions of the story and references to several different editions of the text; 'Tess' is less a book than a shared myth, seemingly told (or at least published!) in a different form each time it is released.

Hardy famously eventually got sick of the moral sniping his works received, abandoning the novel fomat after 'Jude the Obscure' was similarly cut by timorous editors and slaughtered by zealous moralists, something that current authors should be grateful they do not have to go through (although some see shocking the public as a badge of honour and would be happy to be attacked in the same way!). This constant criticism of Hardy's 'pure woman' is hard to grasp as Tess is blameless for D'Urbeville's conduct; by today's standards, Angel, who leaves his new wife and condemns her to a life of hardship and her subsequent submission to her rapist's advances, seems as worthless a man as Alec and deserves everything he gets.

Like Eliot, Hardy portrays the country folk of England in the eighteenth century as they really were. The traditions of the past centuries still survive, but the intrusion of modernity and urban life, the inheritance of the industrial revolution, has started to take its toll on country life. The author is succesful in his attempt to make the pastoral dwellers individual and human, and the cycles of the country year, so alien to the modern, city-dwelling reader, appear as real as our own tax years and football seasons. However, the whole book is overshadowed by the fore-knowledge of the tragedy to come. Just like Romeo and Juliet, we know, from a shared cultural knowledge, that Tess is doomed; this sense of fatalism makes reading this book, as vibrant and well written as it, a difficult task. It's a far cry from some of his earlier works, such as the (comparatively) cheery 'Far from the Madding Crowd', and I finished the book with a heavy heart and a sense of regret for a woman wronged.

Poor, poor Tess. Gone, but definitely not forgotten.