Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Dear Tess...

Illustration from The Graphic in 1891 (Image source)

So, I recently read Tess of the D'Urbervilles for the first time ever and I may or may not be a little bit obsessed with it now... If you've not read it, I would highly, highly recommend it. It is one of Thomas Hardy's most famous works and was originally published in serial form in The Graphic magazine in 1891. I don't know if I could have handled reading it in serial form, having to wait between each edition of the magazine, as I absolutely devoured it.

1892 edition cover (Image source)

It's a perfect Victorian melodramatic tragedy. And although poor, sweet Tess suffers blow after blow and is let down by various men, and in some ways is hopelessly meek, I also found it unexpectedly empowering as she ploughed on despite the odds against her. It's all just beautifully written and terribly, terribly Romantic too. Call me sentimental, but I also just loved the romance at the core of it all, even as things go horribly wrong and the young, foolish lovers really make awful decisions and screw things up for each other and for themselves. That's more like life, isn't it? The ending too, is strangely happy, despite the fact it's actually hopelessly depressing...

Frontispiece from 1920s edition (Image source)

If you've not read it, and you don't know the story of it, I hope this has suitably intrigued you. Even though, as I said, it's perfectly Victorian and the central story revolves around the principles of a culture which has thoroughly changed in many respects in the Western world, it still feels remarkably relevant and fresh. Well, let's face it, although women are no longer explicitly judged on their purity or otherwise, and double standards aren't quite so severe as they were a century ago, we can certainly still feel affinity with a girl being tossed around and torn apart by men and her own self-judgement. 

Recent edition cover (Image source)

But, yes, ever so slightly obsessed. It's probably a bit much to read it again immediately, especially when I have so many other things on my reading list... although I have been sneaking back to certain bits and lingering over them again. A friend mentioned that he watched the 1970s version many years ago and I did try to look it up out of curiosity, to see how it was rendered. I wasn't able to find it online but I came across the BBC serialised version made in 2008 and, although I haven't watched the whole thing yet, I have browsed through. (Can you browse through a TV show? Well, you apparently can online.) It's quite good - very picturesque and Gemma Arterton is a fox. (I'm allowed to say that - Tess is supposed to be easy on the eyes...)

Gemma Arterton in the 2008 BBC version (Image source)

Still I can't get it out of my brain though, and so I've been conjuring up plans to go on a pilgrimage to Wessex. Hardy based his novels in a semi-fictional south-west of England, named after the ancient Saxon kingdom of Wessex and covering the counties around Dorset and Wiltshire and such. He made up names for the various places in his stories but they are apparently based around real towns and cities. So I'm now planning out a trip, to hopefully take place in Spring - I'm thinking about May Day, as the time of year the novel begins... Definitely on my list of locations is Bindon Abbey, apparently the inspiration for one of the most striking scenes of the novel... though apparently these days the ruins are in the grounds of a health spa, which won't be quite the same as the image in my head, conjured up by Hardy.

Bindon Abbey in Tess' time (Image source)

Have you read, or seen, Tess of the D'Urbervilles? What are your thoughts? Did you like Tess or find her insipid? Did it make you rage against men or just sigh at the world and human complexity and ill-judgement? And have you read any other Hardy? Is it worth me trying another or will it be another case of the time I was enthralled by Oliver Twist, assumed I would like all Dickens, but then wanted to bash my head against the desk as I forced my way through the trite and awful David Copperfield...? Do share!


  1. Most definitely, yes. I was probably, oh, I want to say in the range of twelve when I read this book first. I found it by way of Jane Austen's writings (as in, I started to devour them, then went looking for somewhat similar tales in the same general vein from other 19th and early 20th century writers). Far from the Maddening Crowd will always be my favourite of Hardy's work, but Tess (who yes, at times one is prone to find at least a touch insipid) is a close second.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Twelve! Well, well. I wonder if I would have understood it if I'd read it at twelve... It'd be like when I watch Dirty Dancing now and I suddenly understand what's going on with Penny getting 'knocked up' and the abortion and everything. But back on topic, I will be sure to add Far from the Madding Crowd to my read list, following your thoughts. Thanks!

  2. Hmm, I have never read it assuming the text to be written in that slow, dark Victorian way ... but now feel I should give it a go, especially as I live in the heart of Wessex! There is a Hardy statue in the centre of Dorchester if you feel the need to bow at the feet of the great man!

    1. Ah, yes, I can see and sympathise with your fear there. I never used to be able to abide Victorian novels at all, but am more able to digest them now, though I still struggle with some. It has some beautiful passages in it but doesn't feel overly dull and descriptive, as some Victorian novels are prone to. You should definitely check it out for the Wessex vibe, if nothing else. And thanks for the tip on the statue!

  3. I was a Hardy novel ADDICT in high school after catching an A&E cable production of "Tess"...the last quarter (both in the book and the tv miniseries) absolutely gutted me. And yet still, I came back for more and read most of Hardy's catalog, taking depressive lump after depressive lump in stride! (Far From the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure being favorites) While his stories 9 times out of 10 end in heartbreak, what GORGEOUS heartbreak. One of the greatest writers of his generation! And I think Tess may be his best. So bravo for this post! I am right there with you with every sentiment!!

    1. Glad to hear such enthusiastic agreement, and I definitely have to go dive into some more Hardy after this (though perhaps breaking it up so as not to have too much depressive lumpiness all at once). You're absolutely right, it is gorgeous heartbreak, and that's what's wonderful about it. As they say, better to have loved passionately and overwhelmingly, and to have lost in a hideous, heart-rending absolute way, then never to have loved or indeed felt anything at all.