★ ★ ★ ★
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy | 1912, Wessex edition (Barnes & Noble Classics edition 2005) | Barnes & Noble Books | Paperback $7.95
When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.
Just in time for the Classic Club’s “Victorian Literature” theme for November!
Confession time: this book has been toted around in my bag and moved from end table to end table and desk drawer to desk drawer since… July or August? Shameful! But last month a patron at the library where I work stopped by the Reference Desk to ask about our Thomas Hardy offerings, and I mentioned that I had started on Tess — and she said she’d be back to ask what I thought of it, so I thought I’d better do my librarian duty and finish this book!
The season developed and matured. Another year’s installment of flowers, leaves, nightingales thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles. Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.
I’ve not read any other Thomas Hardy works before, so this book was an entirely new experience for me. More importantly, I was totally unfamiliar with the story. I know, I know — how does a confessed bookaholic (a librarian no less) make it to her late 20’s without knowing a single thing about this classic story?! In any case, once I chose to read it I decided to make a valiant effort to avoid spoilers. Miraculously, I managed to be surprised by the ending of this over-a-century-old book.
Even if I hadn’t known it from the start, I think I could easily tell that this was written in the Victorian time period — not just because of the technology level (horses’n’buggies, etc.) but because of the general style of the prose and dialogue. It reminded me in many ways of the tone or style of Gaskell’s North and South, though TBQH I enjoyed Tess much more than my previous try at Victorian lit.
I think I enjoyed Tess more than North and South primarily because it didn’t seem quite as preachy, even though it does clearly have some sort of moral lesson to impart to the reader. I also fell a little bit in love with Hardy’s poetic descriptions and… well, I don’t know if rumination is exactly the word I’m looking for, but that’s what comes to mind. I’ve even added some favorite quotes to this review, which I’ve never been tempted to bother with before. Clearly, I ought to try out some of Hardy’s poetry in the near future.
Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.
Yes, Tess was quite bleak — not just tragic, as expected, but outright depressing. It was comparatively feminist-humanist in a time when even Queen Victoria herself thought such ideas were folly, which is unavoidably part of the tragedy for my rather liberal modern self.
The poor girl is beset by 2 men who can’t seem to see her as an actual person. The first, seeing her as an object to be won or a plaything to be toyed with, ruins (well, “ruins”) her physically. The second sees her as some sort of idealized figure, a maiden on a pedestal to be worshiped for her natural purity (again, let me employ some sarcasm-quotes: “purity”) and to be made into a worthy wife. The worst of all this is that our titular character isn’t a weak shell of a woman, content to let the winds of fate make her life for her; alas, said winds of fate blow too hard for our fair protagonist to fight them. When she first rebuffs the first man and then disappoints the second, her life accelerates on a downward spiral from which she never recovers.
Tess had drifted into a frame of mind which accepted passively the consideration that if she should have to burn for what she had done, burn she must, and there was an end of it.
This story is about oppression, double standards, and the cruelty of pitting strict social rules against the realities of nature. Tess Durbeyfield is essentially a sacrifice to the small god of Victorian values and progress.
I must confess that I might not have made it through this book without the generous footnotes, endnotes, and comments. Some of the rural dialect was a bit confusing and I’m not particularly familiar with most of the artists, philosophers, and poets referred to throughout the book. All of the little “extras” in this edition were produced by David Galef.
I haven’t seen any film adaptations of the story yet, but I understand that the BBC/PBS made-for-television version is pretty good and faithful to the book.
- Masterpiece Theater version (PBS)
- Official website of scholar David Galef
- ‘Romantics and Victorians’ by the British Library, featuring Tess among other works
- ‘Dirtbag Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by The Toast
Publication information: Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005. Print.
Source: Galveston Bookshop
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