Day 844: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Cover for Tess of the D'UrbervillesBest Book of the Week!
I love Thomas Hardy’s rural novels set in southwest England, and one of the highlights of a trip to England years ago was visiting his cottage in Dorset. My favorite of his novels has long been Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I recently reread. I don’t mind admitting that in this reread, I was picturing scenes from Roman Polanski’s wonderful movie Tess, which follows the novel carefully and envisions it beautifully.

There is no doubt about it, Tess is a real tear-jerker, so if you prefer novels with happy endings, this is not the one for you. Still, in its own way, the novel ends hopefully.

The novel spans about five or six years, and we meet Tess as a naive young country girl attending a club dance. There she first sees a young man who will be important to her, Angel Clare, but he does not dance with her.

Hardy can be quite the fatalist, though, and Tess’ fate is sealed already, when her father John Durbeyfield meets a clergyman who dabbles in genealogy. Parson Tringham ironically addresses him as “Sir John” and tells him his family is the remains of the once-powerful D’Urbervilles. Her father immediately sets off to celebrate.

Tess’ foolish and feckless parents learn there is a rich old lady by the name of D’Urberville some counties away, so when Tess is partially responsible for the death of her father’s horse (because her father was too drunk to take the bees to town), they push her to go visit the old lady and claim kinship with her in hope of financial benefit. There she meets the charming wastrel Alec D’Urberville, who knows perfectly well they are not related, his family having bought the name and titles.

Tess gets a job from Mrs. D’Urberville as a poultry keeper, but Alec is always pursing her with his attentions. Tess finds these attentions unpleasant, but she is too naive to know what they mean or what she might fear.

Tess returns home with a past that is obvious to everyone and heartache ahead of her. Eventually, she gets another chance, as a dairymaid. There she meets Angel Clare, a gentleman studying to be a farmer, and finally falls deeply in love. But Angel is an idealist who has fantasized her into the embodiment of a pure child of nature. So, he is the last person to forgive her past.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a controversial book when it was published in 1891, because Hardy subtitled it “A Pure Woman.” This subtitle caused an uproar with the Victorians. Hardy’s message is strongly against the societal and religious laws that would condemn Tess.

Another aspect of the novel that I found more interesting this time through is that it depicts a rural way of life that is long gone. Although many of Hardy’s novels are rurally based, this one has more about the customs, work, and lifestyle as we follow Tess from one workplace to another than any of his novels except Far from the Madding Crowd. Tess’ father is a freeholder, a step up from a migrant farm worker, one whose family has leased the same land for generations. But when John Durbeyfield dies, the lease is up, and his widow and family are abruptly evicted so that the landlord can make room for someone who works for him. Such activities, Hardy makes clear, are the root cause of people migrating from the country to towns and cities, not that they were unsatisfied with country life.

Years after reading this novel last, I still became thoroughly engrossed in the story. It is a powerful one, poetically written, with gorgeous descriptions of the countryside and vivid imagery. I just love this novel.

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24 thoughts on “Day 844: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

  1. katknit February 3, 2016 / 3:20 pm

    One of my all time favorites as well. Great review!

  2. Lizzi February 3, 2016 / 3:33 pm

    I’ve never read this, and have heard both good and bad things about. You make it sound fascinating so maybe I will give it a go!

    • whatmeread February 3, 2016 / 3:35 pm

      I’m not sure what the bad things would be.

  3. Helen February 3, 2016 / 3:37 pm

    I love this book – it’s my favourite Thomas Hardy novel too (although I still have a few of his books left to read). I must reread it myself one day.

    • whatmeread February 3, 2016 / 3:42 pm

      I probably have a few more to read, although I’ve read all of the more common ones. I’ve been promising myself a reread of Far from the Madding Crowd ever since the new movie came out. Good, but not as good as the Julie Christie version.

  4. Carolyn O February 3, 2016 / 5:01 pm

    Your review makes me want to give Hardy another try. About 10 years ago I decided to read all his novels–but made the grave error of starting with Jude the Obscure, which depressed me so thoroughly that I couldn’t continue.

    • whatmeread February 4, 2016 / 7:23 am

      Oh, gosh, although it’s a favorite, it still is his most depressing novel. You might want to start with something even less likely to be depressing. Here’s one with tragedy but a happy ending: Far From the Madding Crowd.

  5. Naomi February 3, 2016 / 7:29 pm

    I loved this book. I read it in first year University, and I remember feeling guilty about reading it instead of working on math or chemistry (even though it was for my English course). It just didn’t feel like work. 🙂

    • whatmeread February 4, 2016 / 7:24 am

      Yes, I love it, too, and also the movie.

  6. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel February 3, 2016 / 8:05 pm

    Great review. I loved Hardy’s Far from the madding crowd and this was a book I picked up tinking it is similar to it when I was younger (even before high school). I did not quite like it then and left it mid way. I should pick it up now and see

    • whatmeread February 4, 2016 / 7:25 am

      It’s more depressing, for sure, but it is really good.

  7. Cecilia February 4, 2016 / 7:59 am

    I really enjoyed Jude the Obscure! But Tess is the book I am embarrassed not to have read yet (it’s been on my TR list for literally 2 decades….). Now I feel inspired by your review to get to it this year.

  8. Sarrah J. Woods March 9, 2016 / 9:17 am

    I just finished reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles for the first time and, of course, loved it. I came back to find your recent post on it that I’d seen while I was reading the book. I didn’t know the subtitle and the context of how it was received at the time it was published–how interesting!

    I have also read and loved Far from the Madding Crowd but not any other Hardy books yet. I own copies of The Return of the Native and the Mayor of Castorbridge, so I will probably select those next. Based on the comments above, I think I’ll save Jude the Obscure for last!

    Is it just me, or is there something about these great nineteenth-century novels that is unmatched in most more recent novels? I think they have a grandeur of unapologetic, un-self-conscious storytelling. There’s no modernist obsession with style and originality, just pure focus on character, plot, and setting. I’d rather read Hardy, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Mary Shelly, and their other contemporaries than almost all twentieth and twenty-first century novelists (with the one big exception of great children’s and YA literature, which I feel also stays true to pure storytelling). Does anyone else feel this way?

    • whatmeread March 9, 2016 / 9:21 am

      I think I felt the way you did when I was younger, but later on began to appreciate unusual styles and approaches to literature. That being said, just lately, I have been reading a lot more older novels, from the early 20th century and the 19th, primarily. I have been trying to read more contemporary fiction that fits into the literary fiction genre as opposed to strictly popular fiction.

      • Sarrah J. Woods March 9, 2016 / 9:39 am

        I would rather have a plain good story than attempts at stylistic cleverness. I could do without Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, for the most part (though I did like The Great Gatsby), though when it comes to early twentieth century writers I do like Virginia Woolf and ADORE Edith Wharton (her stories are more traditional, though). Of contemporary “literary” novelists I’ve read, I have rarely felt as gripped by their stories as I do by those Greats of mainly the nineteenth century. Just speaking generally, I mean; there are exceptions. But you don’t feel the same way?

      • whatmeread March 9, 2016 / 10:01 am

        I fell away from reading some literary novels for years because of that feeling, but I think that the newer literary novelists have gotten over that hump, so to speak, that for me started with the realists and modernists, who were trying to depict life as it really is. Your examples of Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald are not contemporary. Now they’re about 100 years old. (I know that’s a legacy from who we study in college, because I had the same problem for years.) Try some postmodernists and see if you feel the same way. Yes, the writers you mention are addressing plot in a more straightforward way, but that’s because the notions of plot have expanded since then. There is also my theory that as we get older, we read for different things in books. When we are younger, we read for the story and things like creepiness (if we like scary stories). As we get older, we appreciate character more. We notice things about characters that we didn’t notice when we were younger. I bet that if you go back to some of these books in your 40’s, say, you’ll see different things in them than you did now. Just as an example, when I was in high school I read Gone with the Wind for the first time, and I was so obsessed with my hatred of Scarlet O’Hara that I didn’t enjoy it at all. I reread that book about 15 years ago and my reaction was, what a great historical novel it is. (At no time did I appreciate the Scarlet/Rhett romance that some people seem to get so carried away about.) I’m not knocking any of the writers you mentioned (except maybe Hemingway) and I love some of them, but they all bring different things to the party.

      • Sarrah J. Woods March 9, 2016 / 10:44 am

        I think you are probably right about contemporary novelists having generally gotten over that particular hump of the realists and modernists in the early to mid-twentieth century who seemed to me to sacrifice character and story for style. I include Faulkner et al in that set–not as “contemporary” novelists, of course. (I think you may have misunderstood me somewhere.) I just can’t think of any excuse at all for something like The Sound and the Fury. Have you read it? It’s barely understandable. I can’t imagine liking it when I’m older, but I’m willing to stay open to that possibility.

        I think with contemporary novelists, it’s just somehow more hit and miss as to why they generally don’t grip me as deeply as novels from the nineteenth century, such as Hardy’s. Maybe the nineteenth century was just the golden age of the novel. There have been some contemporary novels that have definitely gripped me heart and soul, but not as many as with 19th century novels. However, maybe this means I just need to read more of contemporary ones.

        One particular issue that I do know is a problem for me, though, is the tendency I perceive in contemporary novelists to always include some gritty or sensational topic such as incest, rape, abuse, drugs, etc. For example, I loved Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, but when I got to the part where the secret was revealed, I felt kind of like rolling my eyes and saying “of COURSE it has to include incest.” I sort of feel like today’s authors are afraid their stories won’t be gripping enough without including something sensational like that. But, maybe that’s just me. What do you think?

      • whatmeread March 9, 2016 / 11:05 am

        Well, there I differ from you. I haven’t read The Sound and the Fury since college, but when I did, I thought it was a revelation.
        I knew you weren’t meaning that those authors were contemporary, but they were the ones you listed. When I was in college, we got just about that far in studying “modern literature,” (that is, we didn’t do anything more contemporary) and I thought that might be why you cited them.
        On A Thousand Acres, you might try looking at it a different way. Smiley’s goal was to rewrite King Lear from the point of view of the evil daughters. In Shakespeare, they are truly evil, but Smiley had to think of a reason why the daughters might behave the way they did. It is true that many contemporary novelists seem to purposefully take up a topical subject (and some probably because it IS topical), but I don’t think that Smiley was thinking that way.
        What I hear you saying is that you prefer straightforward plotting to novels that emphasis other qualities. Maybe you will feel like that all your life, or maybe not. I felt like that for a long time, but lately, I have been really pleased by some of the clever approaches to literature I have read that address plotting more playfully. Have you read, for example, Life After Life? (It has a little domestic violence but it is not stressed.) Or how about A Visit from the Goon Squad, although that is about the rock industry, so you’re not going to avoid drugs in that one.
        Maybe for a while, though, if you want to read more contemporary fiction is for you to look for ones with plotting that is more like you like. I don’t know if you read historical fiction, but an excellent example of a book you might love is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

      • Sarrah J. Woods March 9, 2016 / 11:55 am

        I LOVED The Signature of All Things! I guess you are right: I prefer straightforward plotting and straightforward writing in general. I don’t want to feel like the writer is trying to be clever or to hide things from me; that feeling distracts me from what should be the unbroken “dream” of reading a good story, according to John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and according to my opinion as well. 🙂 But, I am glad to know that you appreciate many less straightforward novels such as The Sound and the Fury. That helps me feel less baffled by their existence on bookshelves, and it may help lead me try them again someday.

        I do understand that Smiley was trying to put a deeper story on the basic plot of King Lear. And I also think she did it very well. I guess I just feel like I see those dark/sensational topics come up almost every time I read contemporary literature, but maybe I am just overly sensitive. I know of course that those dark topics are part of life and therefore absolutely should be written about, but I do not enjoy reading about them. I feel like I’m going to fall apart when I read things like that sometimes. I also don’t enjoy gritty realism–for example, The Goldfinch and The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. Both had very engaging characters, which I liked a lot, but I didn’t enjoy the grittiness of the realism. Just not my cup of tea. I’d much rather read about having a cup of tea, actually!

        So I may hold off on Life After Life until I’m older if it contains domestic abuse–maybe time and experience will dull my sensitivity somewhat and make me better able to appreciate literature that deals with dark topics.

        In the meantime, I will take your advice and look for contemporary fiction that is maybe “tamer” and more straightforward, like The Signature of All Things, in the style of the classic authors I mentioned that I love (Wharton, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Eliot, Hardy, etc.). I know there are plenty out there; I’ve just got to find them and then read them! Thanks for helping me better define what kind of literature I love.

      • whatmeread March 9, 2016 / 12:02 pm

        I think your sense that some contemporary writers might be capitalizing on the sensational story lines might be right. On the other hand, those may be the subjects that others find interesting. Life After Life, as you may already know, is about a woman who keeps reliving her life, differently each time. During one of her lives she has an abusive husband, but as I said, it’s not a big part of the story. This is NOT a straightforward plotting however. I just thought it might be one of those books with a different approach that you may enjoy. I loved it.

      • Sarrah J. Woods March 9, 2016 / 12:22 pm

        Oh, well if it’s just a small part that might be all right. And that unique plot does sound intriguing. It’s not that I don’t like non-straightforward PLOTS, I think (upon further reflection), but non-straightforward WRITING, that is, when the author is obviously trying to sound clever or write in a severely unique style–again, Fitzgerald and Faulkner are shining examples of this problem. I just want the author to get out of the way and tell the damn story. But when the author doesn’t seem to have an ego complex, then by all means, I love fun, creative twists on storytelling. For example, we have talked before about the book Where’d You Go, Bernadette? which used letters, documents, etc. as the medium. Anyway, I will definitely let you know if/when I read Life After Life.

      • whatmeread March 9, 2016 / 12:23 pm

        Yes, Bernadette was a fun one.

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