I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles!
This is the second time I have read Tess (the first time being several years ago so I thought I best read it again so I could talk intelligently about it in my seminar) and I like it even more this time round. I would even go as far as to say it is my favourite novel from the Victorian period that I’ve read so far.
Hardy is the master of tragedies and the story of Tess is most definitely heart-wrenchingly tragic. Perhaps, I am morbid for thinking so but I think this is what makes it so good; the unending sorrow is kind of realistic and so emotive that it is refreshing to read. I’m usually a sucker for a happy-ending (I’ve probably said that before) but in this case a happy-ending would completely ruin the mastery of the novel.
The characters are so vivid and life-like that the novel could not fail to be compelling. The romance between Tess and Angel Clare (Angel: what a fantastic name!) is so touching in its naivety and how they idolise each other. The passage where Angel carries the milkmaids across the flooded lane is for me one of the most romantic moments I have ever read – literally swooning as I read it! (perhaps this is slightly helped by the BBC version of Tess in which Angel is played by the gorgeous Eddie Redmayne)
Hardy is also fabulous in his criticism of contemporary Victorian society. While his descriptions of the Wessex countryside seem idealised and almost fairy-tale like in some instances, his realist critique of societal morality is sharply cutting in its accuracy. Tess is the epitome of a ‘fallen woman’ yet she is most definitely portrayed as the victim (which she definitely is – you only have to read the creepy descriptions of Alec to know that he is, without a doubt, a bad guy) and this questions the excepted attitude of blame towards women who had “lost their virtue”. As I’ve said above, I love Angel and I can’t fully blame him for anything so I’m very biased, but the hypocrisy and inequality of traditional gender roles is very clearly exposed in Angel’s rejection of Tess after she has confessed her relationship with Alec. He admits to having had a pre-marital relationship with another woman before Tess, yet when she tells of her experience of something very similar, he cannot forgive her as she readily forgives him. She becomes somehow changed in his eyes, no longer ‘pure’ (what does that even mean?!) and this leads him to leave her and from then on it’s pretty much all downhill for both of them. Angel, you idiot!
I would thoroughly recommend reading Tess if you haven’t done so before. Victorian novels always seem like a bit of a challenge because of their length but this one is definitely worth the effort!