The penultimate read for Classically Challenged has been Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and I can safely say it is the one out of all of the books that I have had the biggest rollercoaster reading wise. I have liked a lot of the books, strongly disliked one and loved another, yet Hardy and Tess have taken me from one extreme to the other. I am not sure I have ever loved a book so much and then so utterly loathed it, as I have this one. If I hadn’t been reading it for Classically Challenged I would have given up without question, instead I resolutely struggled on. It really has been a frustrating, yet eye opening, reading experiment really.
** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1891 (2008 edition), fiction, 420 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
For those of you who have yet to read it ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ tells the story of a young woman, the eldest of her siblings, who lives in the impoverished parts of Wessex. Her family, the Durbyfields, constantly seem to be living on the breadline until one day a Parson passing Tess’ father, John, tells him that he believes he is related to the noble family of ‘D’Urbervilles’, the name having been corrupted and changed a little over the years (made me think of Savage and Savidge). This John believes is their salvation. Upon discovering that they have a family of D’Urbervilles living nearby he sends Tess to meet them and to claim their fortune, in doing so he puts Tess in the path of Alec D’Urberville little knowing that Alec will become the very undoing of his daughter and may not change their futures for the better but for the worse.
Of course there is much more that goes on. Early in the novel, while still living her simple if hard life in the countryside, Tess meets Angel Clare at the May Dance in the village, she is instantly attracted to him and falls for him yet he doesn’t dance with her, even if he admires her from a far. Without spoiling anything too much I will say they do meet again and it creates further twists and turns as when they meet Tess is not the girl that she once was, despite all appearances.
“Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist. It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess today, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.”
Before I tell you what I loathed about the book I will start with what I loved about it, as that is how I felt when I was reading the first third of the book. I loved the character of Tess, initially, I liked her unknowledgeable yet slightly holier than thou (though heartfelt and only with good intentions) outlook on life. As the book went on I loved how it became darker little by little, the whole book has a foreboding nature to it and often when you think things couldn’t get worse for our protagonist they invariably do, and a brooding atmosphere takes over the pages. Just my sort of thing. I also loved Alec (I am sure people will be screaming in rage at their screens at that) as he is a complete, and though this may be strong its true, bastard and yet a beguilingly devilish one that as a reader I found him horrifying yet slightly comic and fascinating.
“Tess wished to abridge her visit as much as possible; but the young man was pressing, and she consented to accompany him. 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.”
I also, initially, really liked Hardy’s prose. No pun intended but I thought that this was going to be really hard work. I was expecting endless descriptions of the surrounding villages and fields (there were a few at the start but not many, boy does that change) yet whilst there were a few descriptive passages it was all done with a pace to it. I also, and I think the above section I have quoted shows you some of this, found his writing raw and rather (and this might sound odd) earthily sexy. There is an almost animalistic quality to it, well in the first few parts, that really gives it an edge and drive. You might all think I am mad but that’s what I thought. Anyway, I genuinely flew through the first hundred or so pages… And then it all went wrong.
The problems I had, without giving any spoilers away, were these. I stopped believing in Tess after a while, or maybe my sympathies left, as whilst initially she is naive and then she shows great courage, with a really bad lot, she soon becomes rather ineffectual. Maybe that is Hardy’s point, women had no real role in society at the time and certainly no stature, plus if life keeps throwing hard times in your direction you might not crack but just go with whatever is simplest, yet that to me wasn’t the Tess I had met. Secondly I hated, yes hated, Angel Clare who really is supposed to be the hero of the whole book. He’s a complete patronising, self serving, ineffectual and slightly pompous hypocrite of the highest order. Give me Alec D’Urberville any day of the week, ok he is a slightly slimy self serving tool himself but at least you know what you are getting. (Have any jaws hit the floor there or are you with me?)
The final three nails in the coffin, for me at least, were that in the middle of the book all the endless descriptions of the countryside and farming that I had expected from the off suddenly actually happened. Almost at the same time all the misery that I was expecting, for Hardy hasn’t a reputation for being the jolliest – not that books should be all smiles, also hit and I found the middle up to about six chapters from the end really hard work. As I said had it not been for the challenge I would have given up, it had all the elements that killed ‘Anna Karenina’ for me. Then came the end, which of course I won’t spoil, which to be honest I simply didn’t buy despite the fact it caught my attention again, it just seemed so out of kilter.
Yet despite all this I can’t say that I hated ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ nor can I say I am sorry that I read it. I did really love the first one hundred pages and could see what all the fuss was about; alas for me it just didn’t stay like that the whole way though I am glad I gave it a whirl. I had show that whilst reading is very much about the enjoyment for me it can also be about being challenged, reading some things that you don’t like and putting it all down to experience. Will I read another Hardy, probably not, but this wasn’t a wasted effort by any means.
What are your thoughts on ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’? Have you read it and loved it or read it and loathed it? What did you think about Angel vs. Alec and Tess’ progression? Have you put off reading it and if so why? It is interesting I mentioned to Gran my dislike for this, and Trollope, and she said ‘Simon, do you think you like good books and proper literature?’ do we have to love classics (and I still can’t stop thinking about ‘The House of Mirth’ which I read last month and finally watched the film of last night, so I know I like some) in order to love literature? I don’t think they necessarily correlate, do you? Now then, deep breath, it’s time for ‘Middlemarch’ next…