Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

A rose by any other name…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Durbeyfield is told by a local antiquarian that he is the last of the ancient family of D’Urberville, sadly decayed, Durbeyfield immediately puts on airs, much to the amusement of his fellow villagers. For John is balanced precariously on the line that divides subsistence from poverty and his all too frequent drunkenness ensures he will soon fall. But it is his daughter Tess who makes the mistake that will finally edge the family into destitution, so, from a sense of guilt, she reluctantly agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she should visit the D’Urbervilles, a rich family in a neighbouring town, and claim kinship. There she will meet the son of the family, Alec D’Urberville, and make another mistake that will affect the rest of her life…

On original publication, the book was subtitled A Pure Woman, signalling Hardy’s defence of his heroine against a society that judged the morality of a woman by her chastity. Did Tess succumb willingly to the seductive Alec, or was she raped? The question is left unanswered in the book, perhaps because society wouldn’t have differentiated – an unmarried girl who was no longer virginal had lost her worth, however it happened. Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!

….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.

Written in 1891, the sexual theme of the book and the moral questions it poses seem daring for the time, and result in a rather odd combination of a feminist demand for women to be judged equally to their male counterparts, with a heroine described in such sexualised terms that it’s hard to see her as anything other than the embodiment of sex itself. Hardy condemns men for seeing women purely as sexual beings, while seeming to do the same himself. Tess’s lips, eyes, arms, figure, skin are all lusciously described, again and again, so that we are never allowed to think for one moment that any of the men she encounters are attracted to her mind. And yet Hardy shows he is aware of the effect on women of being viewed in this way when he has Tess wrap herself in bulky clothes to disguise her figure and cover her face with a shawl so that men will leave her alone.

Tess’s class plays as much of a role in her story as her gender. Hardy uses the device of her distant distinguished ancestry to show the deep hypocrisy at the heart of the British class system. First, we learn Alec is not really a D’Urberville – his family have bought the name and family crest to disguise their sordid background in trade. Then later, Angel feels that Tess’s claim to the D’Urberville name will somehow make acceptable what he sees, even in his passion, as an unsuitable alliance with a girl way beneath him on the social scale. Tess alone cares nothing for her ancestry – she is who she is and hopes to be loved for that alone. Poor Tess!

Nastassja Kinski as Tess in Roman Polanski’s 1979 film.

Hardy also shows the changes that are taking place in the agrarian society with increased mechanisation leading to fewer jobs and replacing the rural idyll (did it ever really exist?) with more brutal, distinctly unnatural methods of farming. Hardy’s depiction of rural life is wonderful in both its beauty and its brutality, in the wholesomeness of a life in tune with natural rhythms and the increasing soullessness of farming maximised for profit. First we see Tess as one of a group of happy milkmaids, forming deep natural connections with the cows they milk day by day, the cows giving more milk to the touch of the maid they prefer, and the maids singing the songs they know will lull the cows into placidity and greater yields. This is contrasted with a brilliant depiction of Tess – a child of nature if ever there was one – in a later job, battling with the giant threshing machine, racing to feed its insatiable maw, and being shaken to the point of illness by its vibrations as it belches its smoke over the field, giving true meaning to the phrase hell on earth.

….“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
….“Yes.”
….“All like ours?”
….“I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
….“Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
….“A blighted one.”

Although the book focuses almost exclusively on Tess, in many ways she’s a passive heroine, with that passivity forced on her by a society which gives women of her class only two options in life – motherhood or physical labouring – each attended by the constant fear of poverty and homelessness. For Tess, her beauty and the little bit of education she has gained at the new National School (run by the church for children of the poor) seem to give her a third option – to attract a man of a higher class and economic status. But that would depend on her finding a man who could see past her class, past her beauty, past her error, to the purity of her natural essence. Poor Tess.

Book 35 of 90

A wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world. I enjoyed it even more on this long overdue re-read and am now fired up to re-read more of his books as soon as I can.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. It includes an excellent introduction by Penny Boumelha, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, which of course casts considerably more insight on the themes of the novel than I’ve touched on here.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie… (PG Rated 😉)

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….The magnate turned the frame around, revealing the image of a radiant blonde with green eyes who could have passed for a European actress. Though the pale, bottomless pools of her eyes and the glint of mischief behind them caught his attention first, Treviño’s gaze quickly wandered to the waves of hair that framed the perfect oval of her face like a crown. Her nose was perfectly sculpted, and it was hard not to want to stare for a long while at the remarkable curves of her full, sensual lips. This girl was born to eat the world alive. Like anyone seeing Cristina for the first time, Treviño was floored.
….“She’s sixteen,” said her father.
….“About to be seventeen,” her mother corrected.

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….“You feeling better?”
….“I’m all right.”
….“Sometimes just some little thing will do it. Like a change of water, something like that.”
….“Probably too much lunch.”
….“What’s that?”
….Somebody was out front, rattling the door. “Sounds like somebody trying to get in.”
….“Is the door locked, Frank?”
….“I must have locked it.”
….She looked at me, and got pale. She went to the swinging door, and peeped through. Then she went into the lunchroom, but in a minute she was back.
….“They went away.”
….“I don’t know why I locked it.”
….“I forgot to unlock it.”
….She started for the lunchroom again, but I stopped her. “Let’s – leave it locked.”
….“Nobody can get in if it’s locked. I got some cooking to do. I’ll wash up this plate.”
….I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. . . .
….“Bite me! Bite me!”
….I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

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….He conducted her about the lawns, and flower-beds, and conservatories; and thence to the fruit-garden and greenhouses, where he asked her if she liked strawberries.
….“Yes,” said Tess, “when they come.”
….“They are already here.” D’Urberville began gathering specimens of the fruit for her, handing them back to her as he stooped; and, presently, selecting a specially fine product of the “British Queen” variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
….“No – no!” she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. “I would rather take it in my own hand.”
….“Nonsense!” he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.
….They had spent some time wandering desultorily thus, Tess eating in a half-pleased, half-reluctant state whatever d’Urberville offered her. When she could consume no more of the strawberries he filled her little basket with them; and then the two passed round to the rose trees, whence he gathered blossoms and gave her to put in her bosom. She obeyed like one in a dream, and when she could affix no more he himself tucked a bud or two into her hat, and heaped her basket with others in the prodigality of his bounty.

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Those are the days and nights when he misses what’s implicit, the shared assumptions, all the things that don’t need to be said. . . Days and nights when he has to explain everything and listen to everything. One of the modest pleasures of making love to someone from your own country is that if at some point (in that zero hour that always follows the urgency, the enthusiasm, the give and take, the up and down) you don’t feel like talking, you can say or hear just a brief monosyllable, and that little word becomes heavy with associations, implied meanings, shared symbols, a common past, who knows what else? There’s nothing to explain or be explained. There’s no need to pour your heart out. Your hands can do the talking: they’re wordless, but they can be extremely eloquent. Boy, can they be eloquent. Monosyllables, as well, but only when they bring with them their whole train of associations, implications. Amazing how many languages can fit into a single one, Rolando Asuero says and tells himself, contemplating his own reflection. Then he repeats, gloomily: Shit, those bags!

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 167…

Episode 167…

Well, things went slightly better this week, perhaps due to me bricking up the letter box and shouting “She’s emigrated to Australia!” every time the postman knocked the door. So the TBR has fallen by 4 to 226! I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting off the treadmill soon…

Here are a few more that should drop off soon…

Classic Club Spin #18 Winner

Number 9 was called and so this is it! In its favour, it’s short and I loved the film. Against, I really didn’t get along with Cain’s writing in Mildred Pierce (review still to come). So it could go either way…

The Blurb says: An amoral young tramp.  A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband.  A problem that has only one grisly solution–a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve.

First published in 1934 and banned in Boston for its explosive mixture of violence and eroticism, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic of the roman noir. It established James M. Cain as a major novelist with an unsparing vision of America’s bleak underside, and was acknowledged by Albert Camus as the model for The Stranger.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Farrago via NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying revisiting a few of the Flaxborough Chronicles as Farrago have been releasing them for Kindle. This one has always been my favourite of the series so *spoiler alert* it will get a five-star review!

The Blurb says: As Miss Lucilla Teatime often remarks, there is no lack of entertainment in the delightful town of Flaxborough. What could be more wholesome than the Folklore Society’s quarterly “revels”, with dancing, a bonfire, and a quaffing bench? Well-upholstered matrons and town worthies enter most enthusiastically into the spirit. So it’s unfortunate when a younger woman, the freethinking Edna Hillyard, goes missing that night.

Then the manufacturer of “Lucillite” (gives your wash lightness, brightness and whiteness), filming a promotion locally, is dismayed to find a gruesome bull’s head ruining his key scene, while desecrations take place in the church, and the press begins reporting on Black Magic and a Town of Fear! Are DI Purbright and his team really battling against evil forces?

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Crime

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic via NetGalley. I’m not sure about this at all – it doesn’t sound my kind of thing. But somehow I have to get South and Central America on my Around the World map, and frankly books from there never seem to appeal to me! So I shall try to go in with an open mind and maybe this will be the one to win me over…

The Blurb says: From a writer whose work has been praised by Junot Díaz as “Latin American fiction at its pulpy phantasmagorical finest,” Don’t Send Flowers is a riveting novel centered on Carlos Treviño, a retired police detective in northern Mexico who has to go up against the corruption and widespread violence that caused him to leave the force, when he’s hired by a wealthy businessman to find his missing daughter.

A seventeen-year-old girl has disappeared after a fight with her boyfriend that was interrupted by armed men, leaving the boyfriend on life support and the girl an apparent kidnap victim. It’s a common occurrence in the region—prime narco territory—but the girl’s parents are rich and powerful, and determined to find their daughter at any cost. When they call upon Carlos Treviño, he tracks the missing heiress north to the town of La Eternidad, on the Gulf of Mexico not far from the U.S. border—all while constantly attempting to evade detection by La Eternidad’s chief of police, Commander Margarito Gonzalez, who is in the pockets of the cartels and has a score to settle with Treviño.

A gritty tale of murder and kidnapping, crooked cops and violent gang disputes, Don’t Send Flowers is an engrossing portrait of contemporary Mexico from one of its most original voices.

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Classic Fiction on Audio

For my Classics Club challenge. I loved Tess when I read it many years ago, and I also loved the 1979 Roman Polanski film. This audiobook is narrated by Peter Firth, who played Angel in that film, so I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says: Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d’Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.

Considered Hardy’s masterwork it presents a major departure from conventional Victorian fiction, causing controversy and mixed reviews on first publication due to it challenging Victorian sexual morals. The work was subtitled ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’ as Hardy felt that its heroine was a virtuous victim of a rigid Victorian moral code.

Hardy considered it his finest book and due to his enlightened and forward thinking, the story has captivated audiences since it was first released.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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