2008 TV mini-series Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess of the D’Urbervilles book review

There’s something about the start of a new year that makes me want to look back – in this case, quite a ways back, to England during what was known as the Long Depression of the 1870s. A financial crisis linked to a dramatic fall in grain prices triggered two decades of stagnation that resulted in “bankruptcies, escalating unemployment, a halt in public works, and a major trade slump that lasted until 1897”. British society, especially in rural areas, was transformed almost overnight. Men and women who had lived and worked their little plots of land for generations were displaced, forced into nomads who traveled from farm to farm, getting work where they could. As Thomas Hardy puts it in his penultimate novel, “The landlord does not know by sight, if even by name, half the men who preserve his acres from the curse of Eden. They come and go yearly, like birds of passage, nobody thinks whence or whither”.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is set in the fictional Wessex County, an area of rural southwest England comprising Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Munro’s Jubilee, Wessex stands in for a part of the world where the author grew up. He knew it well, and he loved it. More than anything else he ever wrote, Tess is a portrayal of the new, unsettling mobility of the agricultural class and the unfairness disguised as modernism that governs its members.

The story begins with the shiftless, impoverished peddler, John Durbeyfield, meeting up with the local parson on his way home from a day at the market. The parson, as a bit of a joke, refers to him as “Sir John”, and then explains that Durbeyfield is in fact descended from the D’Urbervilles, an ancient noble family whose members once held positions of importance in this part of the world. The line has gone extinct, the parson says; their stately homes were sold and abandoned long ago, their fortunes have melted away, and their bodies now lie forgotten in the cold stone vaults of various churches scattered throughout the county.

This astounding news puts Durbeyfield into a kind of ecstasy. As he puts it, “There’s not a man in the country o’ South-Wessex that’s got grander and nobler skillentons in his family than I.”

In the meantime, John’s beautiful eldest daughter, Tess, is taking part in the annual May Dance rituals on the edge of the village. Three young men of a “superior” class, in the middle of a walking tour, stop to watch. These are the Clare brothers, sons of a respectable provincial minister; one of them, Angel, stays to ask some of the girls to dance. Angel is the only son who has not followed his father into the Church. A self-proclaimed secularist and freethinker, he has decided to set himself up as a farmer. It is only after Angel has danced with several girls, and is preparing to leave, that he notices Tess, and wishes he’d seen her earlier.

An unforeseen accident brings Tess into contact with the so-called “real” D’Urbervilles, a wealthy family who’ve adopted the ancient name to give themselves a pedigree. Alec D’Urberville, the handsome, amoral scion of the family, lives with his mother on a large estate in the village of Tantridge. Believing them to be kin, Tess reluctantly agrees to approach them and ask for assistance after the family’s only horse is killed. Alec, greatly attracted to Tess, offers her work tending the chickens, an offer she accepts against her better judgment.

As we might expect, Alec, being an out-and-out villain, wastes no time in seducing this innocent country girl. Tess finally rejects him and returns home, ashamed and pregnant. She gives birth to a son who dies in infancy, after which she leaves home to work at a dairy some distance away. There she becomes friends with three other milkmaids, Izz, Rhetty, and Marian, and meets Angel Clare, the gentleman from the May Day dance, who is working at the dairy in order to learn as much as he can about agriculture.

All the girls are in love with Angel, but he falls in love with Tess. When he proposes marriage she refuses to consider it. In her mind, as in the mind of all virtuous Victorians, Tess is damaged goods. If she agrees to marry him without telling him about Alec and the baby, she will be deceiving him. If, however, she confesses her past she has no doubt he will hate her.

Not knowing anything of her previous experiences, Angel looks upon Tess as a pure, unsullied daughter of nature. His parents, he knows, will be disappointed if he marries a farm girl, but he believes they’ll change their minds when they meet her. Who, after all, couldn’t love Tess? But Tess is more complicated than he knows: she’s been educated, to a point, she is deeply sensitive, and she has a broader view of the world than her parents. In many ways she symbolizes the changing nature of agricultural society in the late 19th century: machines are replacing workers, and rural inhabitants, deprived of their traditional employment, are fleeing to the cities in search of work. An angry god has stacked the cards – the poor cannot compete against the forces of change any more than Tess, whose deep moral sense works against her, can escape her tragic destiny.

Finally persuaded that Angel loves her enough to forgive her anything, Tess agrees to marry him. The night of their wedding, Angel confesses that he had an affair with an older woman in London. Tess is thrilled to hear it as it means he can’t possibly be angry with her for a similar moral lapse. She tells him about Alec and the baby; to her dismay he is horrified: this cannot possibly be the woman he loves, the woman he saw as the archetype of purity and goodness. He begs her to take it back, to say it was a lie, but she steadfastly holds to the truth. The freethinking Angel is revealed as a Victorian prig. Unable to forgive her, he gives her some money and boards a ship for Brazil, promising to send for her if he can ever bring himself to love her again.

Things go from bad to worse. Half of the money Angel gives Tess is given to her parents to rebuild their roof, and she is too proud to approach his parents for more. Unable to find work as a dairymaid, she joins her friend Marian at a starve-acre farm called Flintcombe-Ash. Hardy’s depiction of the unrelenting, back-breaking work involved here is painted from life – we know he witnessed men and women involved in the most difficult jobs agriculture had to offer. He may have performed them himself. His description of the new-fangled threshing machine, accompanied by its smoking black engine, is nothing short of hellish. The machine’s insatiable appetite is a dystopian vision of the future.

There is no happy ending in Tess of the D’Urbervilles; there can’t be – the characters are doomed. Angel forgives Tess too late – she finally stands up for herself and in so doing condemns herself to death. Hardy, ever the realist, understands that Tess must be punished, and so he allows “justice” to take its course. Tess blames herself for her fate; Hardy, along with the reader, never does.

* The quote in the first paragraph is taken from W. B Sutch, The long depression, 1865–1895 (1957).

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