‘She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman’; in his richly pastoral novel of moral enigmas and great personal strife, Hardy tells the story of a woman wronged by the Victorian patriarchal world he writes in.
Set in the late 1800s in the rural paradise of Wessex, the novel follows the life of Tess Durbeyfield: ‘A Pure Woman’. Born into the hardships of rural life she is a natural country beauty; good, pure and ever-faithful to her humble family. Yet this simple existence is thrown into confusion from the very first page.
Her father, stumbling home drunk on a balmy summer’s evening, is informed by the local parson that he is not, in fact, just a mere labourer of little repute: he is a gentlemen. Last in the line of the once-noble D’Urberville family, descendant of a knight of William the Conqueror, the family use their new-found genteel heritage to their advantage. Tess is sent to a supposed relation of theirs now living in a nearby village, in the hope of gaining familial recognition and much needed funds for their growing young family. But Alec D’Urberville is not the gentlemen they were hoping for.
Dashing, charming, but ultimately predatory, he constantly harasses the innocent young Tess as she works for his mother on the vast estate they own; and when one night he snatches her away to the dark recesses of the neighbouring forest, he cruelly and irrevocably changes her life forever.
Innocence, social honour and maidenhood lost, this treacherous deed cements Tess’ position as the tragic Victorian heroine. Unable to remain near the fields of her idyllic childhood now her naïvety has been ripped from her, she finds work at a dairy – Talbothays – in another part of the valley. It is here she meets the – at first aptly named – Angel Clare, a distinguished gentlemen learning the trades of farming before he sets out to own a prosperous one of his own. Reclusive, shy and continually cursing her own luscious natural beauty, Tess at first resists his gentle advances. But the allure of love – this time from a kind, reputable man – overwhelms her, and in the heady paradise of the summer fields she vows to begin a new, blameless existence.
Yet throughout their much-envied courtship Tess’ past burns within her relentlessly, posing a great moral question: can she sacrifice her happiness for the truth?
Poignant, moving and hugely shocking to its contemporary readers, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ is a truly heartrending tale of the difficulties and struggles of life as a Victorian woman. Lending a voice to the often overlooked rural maiden, Hardy succeeds in presenting a work hugely – and justly – critical of the cruelties and hypocrisies of the patriarchy. Revolutionary also for its portrayals of religion (often favouring the simplistic rural pagan views rather than the oppressive, self-righteous Evangelicalism of the period), it is a unique work of social protest, though still ultimately an upholder of indomitable male power.
Despite obviously being a older novel, and therefore not as action-packed as a modern one might be, the plot does move along fairly quickly, with short chapters encased in 7 longer ‘phases’ to accelerate the events fairly successfully. Hardy’s descriptive passages are, of course, second to none in their depiction of the simultaneously idyllic and hostile countryside, often attaining a divine quality in their descriptions of his beloved heroine Tess.
I would recommend this as a foray into later Victorian fiction (it was published in 1883) and Hardy’s novels, though it is at times a little boring and requires some degree of perseverance. Ultimately it reminds us that there has always been – and may well always be unless the protest continues – a ridiculous set of social and moral rules that allow only misery and baseless cruelty.
Read this as a reminder that the hardships of vulnerable women – and indeed, men – must always be fought for.