Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

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?)

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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…

16 Comments

Filed under Classically Challenged, Oxford University Press, Review, Thomas Hardy

16 responses to “Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

  1. The overly long mid-section is a common symptom of Victorian novels that were originally published in serialised form in magazines/papers. The writer had to keep writing until the editor told him to end the story. This, apparently, also explains the book’s rather abrupt on-rush of dramatic events all jammed together at the very end.

    I have a similar so-so relationship with TotD, I think. I like Tess’ purity and innocence and the way the book exposes the exploitative, unquestioned actions of rich men (Alec); also liked the tension between the lack of control Tess has over the direction of her life, and the way she simultaneously struggles to remain pure and uphold her moral ideologies.

    But, like you, I was frustrated by the mid-novel lack of narrative momentum. Also, the seemingly unrelenting barrage of cruel events that Hardy throws at Tess seems, to me, more in service to whatever overarching social point Hardy is trying to make than to the needs and characterisations of the actual story.

    Read ‘Jude the Obscure’, it’s much better.

  2. Thomas Hardy and *whispers* Jane Austen are two authors that leave me entirely cold despite many attempts. I read Tess because of film with Nastassia Kinski which came out when I was a teenager and I persevered with it but have been unable to finish anything else by him. So I sympathise.

  3. I have a rocky relationship with Hardy’s work. I had to study Tess of D for A-levels and at the time I thought it was a load of crap. He’s not my cup of tea.

    And I see you have picked up on the gross strawberry picking section .. we had to read that out in class while the head of English made little fawning noises over the ‘beauty’ of the prose. *retch* We all knew she had a character crush on Alec.

  4. Simon, Simon, Simon….I fear Gran may be right. But don’t worry about it.

    It’s been qutie a long time since I read Tess, but I do remember not being able to put the book down. I read the whole thing in two very intense days.

    I’m sure you’re right though, about parts of it being much better than others. That’s always been my overall view of Hardy’s novels, certainly of Jude. I think Mayor of Castorbridge is his best, by the way.

    Middlemarch is also a much better book. But you’ll need to set aside a full week, at least, to read it.

  5. Sweet Fanny Adams

    I agree with your review of Tess. I’ve always had a problem with Hardy’s women and I am not sure it’s wholly to do with the times. My favourite books of his are The Mayor of Casterbridge (brilliantly portrayed by Alan Bates in the screen version) and Jude the Obscure.

  6. As a relief from any Thomas Hardy read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons!

  7. I studied Tess to death at A Level and reading your thoughts brought it all back to me for the first time in a decade. I remember how my class were split down the middle between those who hated Angel Clare and those who loved him. I’m firmly on the hate side. What a self-righteous, shallow and self-deluding prig he is. Give me Alec’s self awareness any day. Both their actions are despicable, but at least he knows what he is.

    I know what you mean about the shock of the ending, but I think Hardy earns the catharsis of it and if there can’t be a happy ending for poor Tess, at least she goes out with a bang (ahem).

    Jude the Obscure has already had a couple of recommendations, and it is the best Hardy I think, but I find it horrible traumatic. The tragedy of Tess is nothing in comparison! My personal favourite Hardy, purely from an enjoyment point of view, is Far From the Madding Crowd. Just the name Gabriel Oak makes me come over all funny.

  8. I haven’t read it, but I plan to. You are not the only one who has a love/hate relationship with this book–I’ve seen lots of other readers say the same thing.

  9. Laura Caldwell

    “A roller-coaster ride” perfectly describes my relationship with this book too. The beginning was ok, enough to keep me going. The middle was bad, with me almost screaming “Just tell him! Who cares what his reaction is? If he leaves you before the wedding, we readers are spared the grief.” Then after he left I was hooked and finished the rest in 2 days. I listened to the audiobook while following in the book. Hearing a wonderful voice read those long descriptions made them much more enjoyable-I would have skimmed them otherwise, and missed such beautiful language. At least one of my children had to study this book in school and hated it. I can understand-I would have hated it in my mid-teens too. This was my least favorite of the classics (yes, I liked The Warden), but also one of the two that I will not soon forget (along with The House of Mirth).

  10. Hi Simon I’ve never read it nor any other book by Hardy so I cannot offer an opinion, but I liked your response! Whether “the classics” (and this appears still to mean a list drawn up by Leavis if I understand these things; as a physicist almost certainly I don’t) should be read is a very interesting question. I think some should be attempted, but I am gald I’ve grown up and out of the need to read to the bitter end books I felt no empathy with nor got any enjoyment out of. Now as to Middlemarch, I read that in the last two years and I found it both approachable and enjoyable and without a dead middle so I certainly think you have a good chance of a very positive experience with it.

  11. I have to admit to absolutely loving Thomas Hardy, I am currently, along with some friends doing a Hardy reading challenge – we are reading (in my case re-reading) all TH’s works of fiction, novels and short stories in order of publication – one very 2 months. We started in July 2011 and will finish in April 2014. Tess will therefore be one of our later reads. It is so long since I first read it – but I remember it as being my least favourite of Hardy’s novels. however I am sort of looking forward to it this time – as now I am so much older I think I will see it differently – maybe. Our next Hardy read (for March and April ) is The Woodlanders and I am looking forward to it. The thing about Tess is that whether you love it or loathe it (and many people do loathe it) it is unforgettable – and anything that provokes such reactions in people has to be brilliant – doesn’t it?

  12. sharkell

    I don’t think I have the energy at the moment for Tess, given your reaction and all of the above comments. I think I’ll save it for another time. I think reading is predominantly about enjoyment and learning. I can’t see any value in reading a book where your are not either enjoying it or learning about something that you are interested in. There are just not enough hours in the week!

  13. When I read Tess as a teen, I loved it, so I recommended it to my teen daughter, and we read it together last summer. Her reaction was “meh,” and honestly, my adult reaction was similar to hers. I found Angel Clare despicable, and Alec must more likable and honest, and I had very little patience with Tess. Here’s my blogpost on it: http://sadiebellereads.blogspot.com/2012/08/is-tess-masochistic-neurotic-am-i.html

  14. Pingback: Marry Me – Dan Rhodes | Savidge Reads

  15. I’m with you on considering Angel a totally objectionable guy. What a prig. If you found your sympathies put to the test by dear Tess then Jude would certainly tip you over.

  16. I had to read Tess of the d’Urbevilles at secondary school, but by that time my impressions of the novel had forever been coloured by the Natassja Kinski film which I had watched on tv when I was about 10 (my mother must have thought it was suitable viewing as it was a ‘classic’, but, of course, it was terribly traumatic).

    I haven’t read any other Hardy novels apart from The Woodlanders (didn’t like and didn’t finish) and Jude the Obscure (would probably be my favourite novel if it wasn’t quite so disturbing and bleak).

    I really like Hardy’s shorter poems (The Darkling Thrush, in particular) but can’t get into his epic dramas (e.g. The Dynasts).

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