Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully presented by Thomas Hardy
Published 1891 (serialized in The Graphic); 1892 (book form)
Read: Sept 2016; May 2017
This book shows up as # 26 on the Big Read, a survey conducted by the BBC in 2003 to identify the nation’s 200 best loved novels of all times. It has certainly captured a place in my heart as a best loved novel. I’ve read it twice and anticipate I will again sometime in the future. Why this reaction?
Caution—spoiler alert—I will reveal aspects of the plot you may not wish to learn here but which do help me describe my loving view of this book.
Tess is an absolutely marvelous character. She survives one blow after another with unrelenting courage and grace. She is sent by her family to seek favor from rich Mrs d’Urberville, whom her lazy father learns is a distant relative. Her mother dresses her up for the journey in a way to attract the attention of Alec, Mrs. d’Urberville’s son. Attracted he is to Tess. She fend off his unwanted attention for several months but he seduces/rapes Tess with no offer of marriage. She returns to her village after making clear to him she does not care for him, was blinded by him and realizes how wicked he is. She bears his child and baptizes him herself just before he dies as an infant. Tess chooses to leave the family to start anew at a dairy farm some distance from her home. She meets Clare, a son of a rector and who is learning the dairy trade, and comes to love him deeply but chastely. She puts off marriage proposals from him repeatedly because of her past but eventually gives into his pleas to be his wife. Her new husband rejects her ferociously during dinner on the night of their wedding because she tells him of the situation with Alec –just after he admits he is not a virgin himself. Rejected by Clare, who takes off for Brazil, and again all alone, she takes a series of farm positions to support herself and eventually returns home to take care directly of her family when she learns her mother is ill and her father abruptly dies instead. She repeatedly rejects Alec over the course of the novel as she encounters him, telling him she does not love him and loves another. She eventually decides Clare will never return to her and gives into to Alec’s offer to take care of her and her family only when her mother and siblings are literally out on the street with no means to acquire a roof over their head. Of course Clare finally comes to his senses, too late, and finds Tess, unfortunately living as Alec’s mistress. Tess’s one act of vengeance against Alec provides Tess and Clare a few weeks of bliss until she is captured by authorities to stand trial for her crime and we all lose Tess.
We so want Tess to find happiness so due her. I anticipate I’m not alone in reading the novel for the second time hoping this during the second read even though I know it won’t happen. I also anticipate I’ll read the book again with this same hope.
But is this just another romantic novel? Why such devotion to it from myself and others? I suggest there are a number of reasons
First, Hardy clearly loves Tess. Hardy describes her as a Pure Woman which is a very apt description. She stays Pure of heart throughout. She rises above the models her parents provide her and continually seeks to live purely with limited wants for herself. She seeks to repair damage to her family’s income by going to the cousins d’Urberville, after an accident that happens while she is trying to literally feed the family (while her parents lay home in bed with hang-overs) results in loss of their horse, a key component of her father’s meager haggling trade. She doesn’t take the path suggested by her mother to trick Alec into marriage nor to keep quiet about her past to Clare. She repeatedly reject’s Alec’s pursuit of her, even after he learns she bore his son, because she does not love him and believes him a bad person. She remains true to Clare and never asks for anything from her parents or his parent despite her increasingly desperate position as she is eking out a living as a farm hand versus using Clare’s money he gives her when he leaves. She in fact sends a sizable fraction of Clare’s money to her family to pay for a new roof for their rented house. She continuously did the right thing. Only when she has exhausted all efforts to find shelter for her mother and siblings and she has lost all hope of seeing Clare again does she acquiesce to Alec’s pursuit. Her only act of vengeance is to clear the barrier to Clare—the fact that her “husband” Alec remains living.
Second, Hardy reveals the impact of then current standards on women. Although Clare isn’t Pure, his wife must be. It’s not clear whether Tess’s impure relations with Alec continued after the initial seduction or not. Members of my book club were divided in their interpretations of Hardy’s ambiguous narration on this point. Was Clare’s rejection of Tess purely because of a single rape resulting in a born son or was it because she remained “married” to Alec—she indicates she remained “dazed” by him for a little while (three weeks passed between the seduction of which we’re made aware and her departure from the farm)– so she could never marry another? Regardless, it was clear that their marriage could not be consummated nor continued and they were both doomed to never marry again after taking their own vows. Clare even toys with the idea of taking one of the other milk maids, from the dairy at which he met Tess, as a mistress for his farm in Brazil. He rejects the notion when the girl indicates it would be impossible for her own great love of Clare to surpass the love Tess felt for him.
Third, Hardy paints us a picture of rural England at the time. The dairy farm at which Tess and Clare meet is idyllic – beautiful pastures, milk maids finding their assigned cows in the pasture to milk them, lovely starry nights and misty mornings during which Tess and Clare find each other. The situation is far less glamourous at the rougher farm Tess eventually stays for the contracted period when hired by the farm owner so she could afford shelter during the winter. Tess’s hard work at this dreadful place includes feeding a dangerous threshing machine which demands to be fed through the night so that it can move on to the next farm as quickly as possible. Hardy gives the impression both that manual farm work was difficult and provided a fairly desperate living for those bound to a farmer from season to season, and as well an impression that automation was going to disrupt the idyllic pastoral life of the English countryside. This theme remains relevant today. We view food production as a noble vocation and mourn the loss of the family farm while the reality of unreliable and small income from farms combined with the hard physical labor of farming, unattractive to US citizens, has led to an increasing fraction of farm labor being conducted by immigrants from Latin America. (And the cows are no longer grazing in the fields with milk-maids coming to them or bringing them in for their milking , but rather standing in barn stalls round the clock.)
So through the tragic story of a Pure Woman who we love as much as Hardy does, Hardy provides us a picture of England at the beginning of much change brought by the industrial revolution impacting both how livings are made and how lives are led. We see that life wasn’t simple and easy then and realize that it probably never was nor will be. However, it’s possible to live a Pure life amidst this difficulty and remain above the fray.