Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Contains spoilers

After what felt like the longest wait ever, I finally arrived back home for Christmas yesterday afternoon. As I drove past the countryside I was reminded of my recent reading and in particular the last chapters of the novel I finished that morning: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I am lucky to have grown up along the Somerset/Dorset border and I currently live in Wiltshire, a mere stone’s throw away from Stonehenge, the setting for the final dramatic climax of Tess Durbeyfield’s life.

The first time I read Tess was in the summer between my second and third year of university; I was pretty certain I wanted to focus on female criminals in Victorian literature for my dissertation and my research led me to Hardy and ultimately to Tess. Having focused on and analysed Tess’ life in great detail during my third year, I put the novel aside and picked it up for the first time since back in November, again because I wanted to study/teach it.

Tess’ is a life of sheer hardship and sorrow. Encouraged by her parents to seek the help of an apparent wealthy ‘relative’ Tess soon becomes a ‘fallen’ woman and from that moment on she faces difficulty upon difficulty until her death at the end of the novel. It is fair to say that the catalyst and ultimately the route of all her troubles lies at the hands of Alec D’Urberville, the apparent wealthy ‘relative’. It is Alec’ persistent hunting of Tess and the ambiguous rape that leave Tess pregnant and alone; an event that haunts her and ruins her one chance at love and happiness in her marriage to Angel Clare.

I loved rereading Tess (especially seeing the notes I made the first time I read it) and I have so much I want to share about this novel, but I am going to narrow it down to a few things in particular. As I mentioned I am teaching this at the moment, focusing in particular on the difficulties Tess faces. There are many, but what I found amazing as I read the novel is how much I hated Alec D’Urberville; he truly is a vile character and I imagine the type of man who was not uncommon in the late 1800s. Having raped Tess in a dark and foggy woodland clearing, his shock and sheer audacity when she leaves seems very stereotypical of the time period and the patriarchal society Tess has the misfortune to live in.
“I didn’t understand your meaning until it was too late”
“that’s what every woman says.”‘

How easily Alec turns his actions onto the innocent victim, showing no remorse or guilt, as though it was his birthright to act as he pleased. This mysogonistic attitude is displayed later in the novel when Alec again blames his downfall from religion on Tess, showing how quick he is to pass the blame and ignore the consequences of his actions.

Unfortunately for Tess, Alec’s attitude is not out of character for men of the era, with Angel quick to cast Tess aside as soon as he learns of her past. The irony of this lies in how Tess willingly forgives Angel for a similar discretion, highlighting the clear double standards of the Victorian age. Before we started studying Tess we looked at the context of the period and my students were shocked by how few rights women had, how their husband essentially owned her the second he married her, taking all her belongings and beating her whenever he wished. It is unbelievable to think that this was happening a little over a century ago.

There is a part of me that feels as though I have been ploughing through Tess for months and whilst I have been reading it for a fair few weeks it has not felt like a burden. It truly is an enjoyable and engaging read and I love reading about the surrounding countryside, trying to pinpoint the real life counterparts of the villages and towns mentioned in the novel. Tess’ plight is heart wrenching and it is hard not to feel great sympathy for her as a character and how her life would have been different if she had been born into different circumstances or a decade or two later.

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I feel as though I have become slightly Tess obsessed as alongside my reading of the novel I have been watching an excellent BBC adaptation from 2008starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne. It is a fantastic version and every time Alec appears I want to boo at the screen, so I highly recommend it. I have also been dipping into The Connell’s Guide to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is another great aide to support a reading of Tess and has certainly made me think about things I hadn’t noticed myself.

Rereading Tess has sparked an urge to reread several books I studied at university and hopefully I will find the time for a few more rereads in 2014-I especially look forward to seeing more comments and quotations I highlighted during my original reading.

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