Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (1891)

Subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” or sometimes “A Pure Woman” or sometimes just “Tess,” this was first serialized towards the end of the nineteenth century and caused quite a ruckus as the female protagonist was a “fallen woman” who was also a “good” woman, both of which were quite exclusive to each other at the time. (What? An unmarried woman who gets pregnant and is a good person? Shame on that thought…) In fact, the subject matter was so controversial that it was difficult to get this story published at first. (Those hypocritical Victorians.)

I enjoyed this book, but thought it was rather wordy and sometimes never-ending. However, as mentioned in a previous post, the Victorians were not known for brevity and Hardy fits that format. Still, the plot fits together well, and although there were few surprises, the book was a good read with some great descriptions of the countryside. (Cue my reading of The Country Diaries recently.)

Hardy was known as a realist (a la George Eliot) and focused on the decline of rural life and the increase and negative impact of the Industrial Age and all that came with that. He was also a big poet, but I have only known him as an author of novels.

We were given some of Hardy’s novels to read during school, but I have to be honest and admit that I can’t remember anything about them apart from the rural influence and setting. We were given “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge” and perhaps “Tess,” although my memory gives out a bit there. I must have paid attention to the classes as I passed the exams during those years, but that information is buried very far back in my brain now! So, basically, this was as though I was discovering Hardy for the first time really.

I did read a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds which was based on Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd,” but the link was lost on me at that time. I wouldn’t mind re-reading that Simmonds book (“Tamara Drewe”) again once I have read “Far…” so perhaps I would be able to get the imagery a bit better. (Simmonds is very good, btw, if you’re not familiar with her. She was a long-time cartoonist for the Guardian newspaper in England.)

Hardy was a country boy through and through, born in Dorset (big agricultural area) and with working class parents, his father a stonemason/builder and his mother true to the Victorian female archetype but well-read. Hardy was encouraged in his studies but had to leave school at 16 for an apprenticeship as an architect. However, he went on to attend King’s College, Cambridge, to study architecture further and won scholarly awards for his studies.

However, researchers write that Hardy remained a country boy and did not feel comfortable in London (where he was working as an architect). In 1870, he met his future wife, Emma, and it was she who played the most influence on his writing. Although they ended up estranged (but no idea why), when she died in 1912, Hardy never really got over that and continued to be focused on her, even though he remarried a second wife who was 39 years younger than him. (Sounds like a recipe for failure to me.) I do feel for Wife #2 though as Hardy continued to dedicate his poetry to his dead spouse. Even in his death, Hardy wanted to be with his first wife, and it was only through compromise that his friends and family worked out where to bury him: his heart ended up being buried with Emma the first wife while the remainder of his ashes was sent to be buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. (Very crappy to do this to his second wife, I think, and must have made for ill will from her to him. At least it would have to me.)

Good read overall, although must admit that it was a bit tough-going at times.  Plus, the plot really fits in well with the other gender-role based novels that I have been exploring this summer – Wharton et al.  Nice to add some more fuel to that fire.

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