Tess of the d’Urbervilles – An Introduction

An opening page from an original 1891 print of the full novel (Public Domain)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions about sexual assault, rape and infant mortality.

I am still finding trouble processing my thoughts on Tess, but let me begin with a brief summary of the plot of the book the full title of which was once “Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” which…we’ll likely discuss at some point.

A comely young country girl’s father discovers their family are actually of an ancient lineage and gets a bit giddy about it. Meanwhile, given that the girl herself is their most valuable possession they decide to pimp her out to their near-related, though actually unrelated, relatives, the Stoke-d’Urbervilles. Basically some newly wealthy people who bought the rights to an old name. Because she killed a horse by accidentally stabbing it with a postman, Tess agrees to be pimped out, feeling responsible.

She meets with her ‘cousin’ Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, who looks like a creep, acts like a creep and is a creep. Eventually she is invited, no doubt through some sly move, to work with Old Lady Stoke-d’Urberville teaching birds to sing and hugging chickens.

Then Thomas Hardy spends two paragraphs not quite telling you if she was coercively seduced or actually raped but I think it’s safe to say she was raped.

Tess, naturally, has a problem with this, but an even bigger problem is to come in the unexpected pregnancy that results in her becoming a young, single mother. There is a touching scene where she is working hard in the field, stops for lunch to breastfeed the young ‘un, and then gets cracking back with the work and you’re almost thinking this is going to be some sort of pastoralist exploration of a new idea of womanhood, especially when she turns all John the Baptist for fear her baby will die unbaptized because, oh yeah, her baby dies.

End of Part 1 as far as I am concerned.

I want to save all the Wessexian and actually ‘Tess’ relevant images for the full reviews so have some beautiful countryside for now. (Credit: Derek Voller CC-BY-2.0)

Part 2 is Tess moving to a Dairy farm where she meets up with a bunch of other young women and the enigmatic gentleman Angel Clare who’s too unholy to be a priest so he wants to be a farmer.

Frankly this was the section of the book that least engaged me, being as it is the segment that bears all the hallmarks of a ‘Romance’ novel. Tess and Angel make eyes at each other but neither makes the first move, they share glances in the cowshed, he gives her a wink as she suggestively tugs on the teat of a cow, that sort of thing.

At this point I was disappointed because it seemed like it had turned from this pastoralist clashing of pagan and Christian ideas, something very of-the-romantic-era but not necessarily of the romance, to something that was about two people seemingly destined to be with one another and all that lovey-dovey stuff.

Except, of course, we all know Tess’ dark secret, that she was raped and impregnated before and therefore, by the morals and standards of the time is a tainted harlot and technically somebody else’s wife already.

The entire tension for this lengthy shit-or-get-off-the-pot section is built around this notion of two people who just have zero communication with one another, presented as a truly romantic tale and to me it just came across badly.

They inevitably get married, and they decided the best way to spend the first night of their honeymoon is to each confesses their sins to the other. The Godly Mr. Angel Clare apparently having spent 48 hours in a bender in some bawdy cathouse happily banging some chick, whilst we know what happened to Tess.

Of course, as was the style of the time, this makes Tess a totally unlovable slut in the eyes of Angel and he decides that as a result of her being so broken and damaged he must fuck off to Brazil.

Tess then has to work her arse off for pride, because it’s Tess and she won’t simply go and appeal to her husband’s parents for fear/shame/guilt and instead works at a Turnip farm where it turns out she meets up with Alec Stoke-d’Urberville again, and apparently he has somewhat of a penchant for the girl he raped and knocked up and so starts pursuing her.

Eventually Tess’ father dies, he was the last in the hereditary line of leaseholders on their house and so they have to fuck off but that doesn’t go quite so well.

Here I would argue is the end of part 2 – the Romance section and, frankly until the end it’s just dull and a bunch of stupid people being stupid. It is a shame because it features some of the most beautifully written segments, it is just ruined by the formerly, seemingly deified, Tess turning into nothing but a simpering lapdog for a complete wanker.

Essentially – I can find little of fault in the themes, and indeed in most of the writing unrelated to characters. The inconsistency of the characters, especially of Tess herself, is the most jarring thing.

Most of Part 2 is spent on a dairy tugging on these milkers – (Credit: John Haynes / Dairy heifers / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Then we move on to Part 3 which is frankly Gothic.

It is about a year later.

Tess, to support her family, has moved to some fancy-pants townhouse with Alec who has convinced her that her lawful husband is never coming home. Tess, apparently somewhere between being raped and wanting to provide for her family decides it best to shack up with him.

But then Angel does come home, an emaciated skeleton because it turns out Brazil is a lie, it’s actually a jungle infested with disease, struggle and strife and he’d much rather have a broken wife than a broken life – It only took him nearly dying of fever, alone, in a foreign land to realise this because, apparently, for all his learnedness is talked up he has the intelligence of a howler monkey on heroin.

Angel goes off in pursuit of his wife, sure that she is going to be happy for his return only to find her beautifully radiant, wrapped in a gown of infidelity and she tells him to go away, when actually what she means is I love you, I hate myself, give me five I’m just going to kill my fake husband.

And she does, she stabs Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, something which, frankly Angel hinted at in part 2 and I thought would turn that Romance section very interesting but never happened, but she finally does it and then runs off to find her real husband.

They catch up, like tramps, by the side of the railroad tracks, and she’s all like “I stabbed the bastard!” and he’s like “Whaaaaaat” and she’s like “Is that alright?” and he’s like “Fuck it, yeah, whatever, it’s better than Brazil” and they decide to go on the run.

So first of all they stay in this spooky mansion for a few days where they actually get to pretend to be husband and wife for a bit, but then they have to leave the mansion because it doesn’t belong to them and squatters’ rights weren’t a thing back then.

So they fuck off to Stonehenge instead. Whilst here Tess accepts that she will likely be caught and executed so gives Angel full permission to fuck her youngest sister and, apparently the police of the time are the greatest in the land because despite the fact that hardly anyone has seen a shadow of this couple they get encircled by sixteen coppers, at Stonehenge which, even now, is pretty remote, and they’re like “Ya fucked” and Angel’s like “Just let her have a sleep” and apparently they do which is most realistic.

Then she is executed, and Angel and Tess’ youngest sister walk off hand-in-hand and heads bowed.

The end.

Built somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, by fuck-knows who, fuck-knows why – Stonehenge is one of Britains outstanding ancient monuments (Credit: Operarius CC-BY-3.0)

Now here’s the thing. I expected to be incredibly disappointed with an unhappy ending to this tale because, frankly, given what she had been through, Tess deserved better.

It is very apparent the moral lesson Hardy is trying to tell here, in fact he spells it out in Tess’ redemption in the eyes of Angel. What matters most? Act or intention? Tess was always a pure girl/woman put in positions where she was abused or had to act a certain way. She is as much a victim of nature as she is of society (and I will discuss this comparison further), and I think Hardy makes that point quite well. Albeit he never quite comes out in full-throated support of Tess in what she does, there is always this sense that there is something about her a little cursed, a little damned, a little broken.

But my biggest problem is that this is a relatively short book, seemingly divided into three quite separately themed short stories all of which could have been more interesting to pursue on their own. More than that the characters develop in ways where they seem almost to come from differing, alternate universes depending on which part you’re in.

All of these parts could have been made their own, full, novel and stood alone. All of them could have had very different themes and genres, with the same core exploration – this balance of nature’s beauty and cruelty contrasted with the same in society and how one changes either.

It makes some sense, the initial release of the story, like so many at the time, would have been serialised in magazines. It’s the reason for the constant cliff-hangers. But even then, this constant amping up, this changing-of-the-guard with regards to character, is really…I mean…It’s bad. It’s bad writing. Angel, well I think we’re supposed to believe he’s an inconsistent wanker – that’s his defect. But Tess is not, she is strong one minute, weak the next, she is smart one minute, stupid the next and some of the decisions she makes are clearly more for drama.

There’s an aspect of Thomas Hardy seemingly being unable to write a ‘woman’. Instead Tess is presented as a see-sawing androgyne – of no fixed-sex. One minute she’s a coy, feminine beauty turned to socially-acceptable putty in the hands of her beloved and the next she’s making a man bleed and behaving with the uncouth manner of a drunken docker. Her decisions are just as see-saw and it ultimately leads to frustration.

Tess is built up into a figure who almost transcends sex itself, a Goddess almost and then – she’s not even torn down, she doesn’t fall so much as just crumbles. I don’t know to what extent it was Hardy’s inability to write a female character and to what extent it was a delicate balance of keeping an already controversial story away from a total ban, but you feel it.

A perfectly normal UK Ostrich Farm – (Credit: Mick Garratt / Ostrich Farming, Ings Farm / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In many ways I can see how it could be considered ‘ahead of its time’. Tess is a fiercely independent character, brutally so at times. She also, though, has an odd tendency to go on and do what other people, especially men, expect of her because…reasons? Society? I don’t know? One minute she’s giving the glove slap and the next minute she’s submissive.

I can then also see where the criticism comes from.

Hardy created a character, a woman, who in the spirit of Humanitas is so elevated she somehow transcends her sex and gender and deifies herself and then the next minute she’s shacked up with the biggest scumbag because she’s too proud to ask her actual husband’s family for help?

There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense to me in terms of the character development and it harms what is a solid set of themes.

I will also say that whilst Hardy has a tremendous ability to use simple language with precision and elegance he does also fall into the 19th century trap of being overly wordy and a bit of a flowery-twat with his language.

This, though, is literally a style of its time and if you’re going to be reading literature from the 19th century you’d better get used to it.

Anyway, expect a bit more detailed analysis on what I consider the ‘Three Parts Tess’ trilogy. I just wanted to get my initial introduction out there.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - https://www.patreon.com/WeLackDiscipline Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) - https://ko-fi.com/welackdiscipline

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