For the Love of Tess: A review of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

After wearing and wasting her palpitating heart with every engine of regret that lonely experience could devise, common sense had illuminated her. She felt that she would do well to be useful again – to taste anew sweet independence at any price. The past was the past; whatever it had been it was no more at hand. Whatever its consequences, time would close over them; they would all in a few years be as if they had never been, and she herself grassed down and forgotten. Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for a reading challenge I did a couple of years ago. It was the book I selected that ‘intimidates you’. But, who wants to read a book that intimidates them? I thought. Not me. It probably means that the book is very long and written in old fashioned language; it’s hard work, a slog, tedious, boring. I read to enjoy, not to tear my face off. So, this was the part of the reading challenge that I was least looking forward to. I was undecided at which ‘boring’ book to read, and kept going from title to title. I settled on Tess because I genuinely wanted to attempt it, unlike some of the others on my radar. It fulfilled my criteria of being very long and old fashioned: in short, a ‘classic’. I am not really a classics reader, but I suppose the more you read them the more accustomed you become to them, and in turn, the more enjoyment you get from them. Well, that’s something for me to think about.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the most woeful book I have ever read. It got to the point where I was dreading turning the page because I knew things were just going to get worse and worse for Tess. Life does not treat this girl well. Hardy’s heroine is dignified and self effacing, and above all she is innocent – although the world doesn’t treat her that way. Her life consists of a series of injustices, and consequently it does not end well for her. Reading it made me feel very tense. There is little delight to get from the story, and I felt every one of Tess’s disappointments and knocks. For example, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and outraged when Angel, the man Tess is in love with (and he with her), lets her down spectacularly. What a hypocritical knob. Yet, it gives me a little kick to know that the author knew this, and treats him accordingly.

However, based solely on this book, I am a fan of Thomas Hardy. Why? First of all, Tess is a fantastic character and, despite what happens to her, it is very clear that Hardy was fond of his creation. The point of the story is to show that Tess was sinned against from all directions. She does suffer great oppression and wrongdoing, and she is the victim not the perpetrator. Is this a feminist novel? It seems to me it is, and this has my vote. Secondly, Hardy is a Victorian realist – depicting familiar, everyday things, activities and people. His angle is a critical one, highlighting, in his writing, the injustices he sees in his society. He is indeed, a bit of a Victorian Ken Loach, and I am all for the Ken Loaches of this world. Thirdly, his prose is lush. It’s not only what he has to say, but how is says it. His prose is infused with his tenderness, his sympathies, his wise and gentle criticism, and his affection for nature and the countryside. He knits words together beautifully to create a gorgeous flow of sagacity. Hardy does not yell or sensationalise. He knows what he’s talking about, and his story is filled with knowledge, experience and compassion.

I certainly recommend Tess to those that want to dip their toe in the classics waters. It is one of the more accessible classics, a trait much appreciated by a non-classics reader. However, the subject matter ensures that misogyny and injustice are rife, with tragedy and sadness following our heroine at every step. It resonates strongly with the present day: if a woman is raped, she is not blameless. Prepare to be depressed. Prepare to be angered.