Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

My Mrs. Tim fandom does not preclude my reareading the gloomy Tess of the D'urbervilles. I am now on my fourth copy of Tess because I have given away three: two to charity sales and one to a friend who recommended it to her daughters, only to be informed they only read Harry Potter and Gossip Girls.

It is autumn; the first freeze has occurred; we ate the last of our green tomatoes (hard as rocks) in an onion sauce which usually softens them nicely. One cannot read Tess in the summer. Now the garden is gone; our freezer is full of bags of beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Often I turn to gloomy books this time of year.

Tess, though far from my favorite Hardy, shows Hardy at the height of his powers. His solemn style is effortlessly elegant, his descriptions of nature (the heath particularly) create or reflect moods, his outlook, though pessimistic, is leavened by occasional flashes of humor, and the structures architecturally symmetrical, resembling figures of speech, which fly, loop, rearrange themselves, and then fall to fate, and reflect Hardy’s training as an architect and classical reader.

Hardy sets up Tess's story as follows: A beautiful, intelligent girl, Tess is educated to be a schoolmistress, but the death of a horse when she falls asleep in a cart on the way to market stymies her ambition. (The death of the horse is needlessly graphic: pierced by a mail cart in the dark and buried by the family. Tess only drove the horse because her father was too drunk.) Believing she is responsible for her family's poverty, Tess goes to work on a farm for a branch of the D’urbervilles, to which her family apparently belonged at one time. (Durbeyfield is a corruption of D'urberville.)

Mrs. D'urberville is blind; Alec, the moustache-twirling son, seduces Tess. Pregnant, Tess goes home.

Hardy can be heavy-handed (particularly in his last two novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure, which shocked his readers).

Iinsecure about his working-class roots, he sometimes burdens his prose with odd references to Thomas Malthus, Praxitelean creation, and "Thermidorean." His dialect, however, is perfect: one of the best features of his books.

Pregnancy out of wedlock ("getting into trouble") was unacceptable even twenty years ago. In the 2000s we hardly bat an eye at it. (Sarah Palin's teenager is pregnant.) But the question was problematic to a Victorian audience: unmarried women with children were routinely ostracized or declassed. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her didactic novel, Ruth, a predecessor of Tess, defended such women. Hardy treats the same problem of the ostracization of unmarried pregnant women. Although sympathetic fellow writers, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Edmund Gosse, and Walter Besant, considered Tess a masterpiece, Tess was trashed in the Saturday Review and The Spectator as “immoral.” (One critic concocted the witticism, “Tessamism.”) Hardy, always too sensitive to reviews, was prevented from confrontng the reviewers when friends told him it was undignified; finally he was buoyed by the realization that condemnations of Tess's “sensuality” and "immorality" boosted sales.Yet in the preface to the fifth edition Hardy could not resist the opportunity to rebut reviewers (which goes on for two pages).

Hardy stopped writing novels after Tess and Jude the Obscure. A pity.


Ellen said...

I remember the lush descriptions of milking and diary farms and the landscape best of all, especially Stonehenge at the close. I also loved the poetry of _The Return of the Native_. And what names. You mention James. Hardy was as exotic (to my hears), with his Eustacia Vye.

He's not as good a thinker as poet. hated hated Angel Clare on the first readings. He is as responsible for Tess's destruction as Alex. Or none of them are as it's Hardy who constructs the story. He can be crude.

I love how in J.L.Carr the characters discuss _Tess_ and castigate Clare.


Mad Housewife said...

Yes, the milking scenes are memorable. He can make the farm life, even the breakfasts and milking, poetic.

Poetry was Hardy's forte, but it's too sad that he gave up novel-writing.

One of these days I'll have to reread J. L. Carr.