Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
By Thomas Hardy
When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.
This is another January selection for the 2016 Classics Challenge. Because two is better than one?
Poor Tess. Poor… poor Tess.
If you want to read a happy, feel good tale about an English farm girl in a love triangle during the Victorian era, this is not the best pick for you. I suppose you could probably machete it into a semi-uplifting though horrible husk of itself by chopping out some of the beginning, large chunks of the second half, and most of the final two chapters. While I’m sure that has actually been done, somewhere on the internet, a happy Tess of the D’Urbervilles would not be a good Tess of the D’Urbervilles. For this book to adequately present its message it has to be tragic.
Hardy’s heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, is a girl who seems to be doing well for herself at the start. She’s scoring high marks in the looks department, she’s had a good education, and her father has just found out that their family is distantly descended from the very D’Urberville nobles that had owned the lands all around them hundreds of years before.
Of course, everything goes wrong, with that discovery becoming the first in a fallen line of devastating dominoes. Though a hard worker and learned in many ways, Tess is naive to many aspects of the greater world, especially the world that her “noble blood” introduces her to. The result of this is a tragedy, a seduction that follows her for the rest of her life. The situation is even worse when you consider the nature of Tess’s consent in the affair- Hardy is does not explicitly define it as rape, but Tess is clearly reluctant towards her would-be suitor, and rejects him several times before her life turns upside down.
Even more damning is that her premarital liaisons ruin her as a woman, but when the men around her are able to admit to similar indiscretions it is brushed off and easily forgiven. The double standard is so striking and overwhelming that distances of years and miles are never enough to let the young heroine escape from her shame. Bad luck and ill fortune haunt her always.
I found this book to be an easier read than expected, and because I went into it knowing it was no fairy tale I did not fall prey to some of the book-hurling disappointments that I have seen in other reviews. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The late 19th century agricultural setting is a fully realized and beautifully crafted benefit; nearly a character in its own right. And the scenes of Tess at her happiest are gorgeously romantic, though that creates all the more stark a contrast with her decline. This is a book that has much to say about its heroine and its time; a criticism as well a cautionary tale, and a tragedy without a doubt.
Summary from Goodreads