2007 TBR Challenge #2
When the Durbeyfields are left facing worse than their usual financial hardship after the death of their only horse, eldest daughter Tess is sent to ‘claim kin’ with the wealthy D’Urbervilles, the family of which her father is a distant descendant. But these D’Urbervilles are impostors, and Alec D’Urberville leaves Tess’s reputation in ruins. After the brief life of her illegitimate child she leaves her home, determined never to marry and burden a husband with her shame. But at Talbothays Dairy her love for the minister’s son Angel Clare overcomes that resolve. When she tells him her secret, he cannot manage to forgive her, and his abandonment of her precipitates her tragic ending.
The phrase that sprang to mind when thinking of Tess was one that I must once have read somewhere: ‘buffeted by the winds of fate’. She wanders around the countryside reacting to events and the actions of others, and when she finally does do something she only hastens the end of the tragedy. There were many points where things could have been changed by something not happening, or by her doing something, but few where her fate could have been averted by an event or by her lack of action. I think her passivity and her helplessness in the face of society and its double standards was Hardy’s intent, especially as he gave her a habit of dozing off at key points in the narrative. While I admired Hardy’s skill in creating the sense of inevitability, but her continual inaction began to wear on my nerves.
The other difficulties I had with the book originated with the two men in her life. When Tess discovered Alec’s conversion into an itinerant preacher, I nearly burst out laughing at Hardy’s plunge into soap-opera absurdity, until it became clear that it was only a passing phase. And Angel’s theological disagreements with his father and brothers still has me baffled, and in spite of the footnotes I’m not clear on the differences between the High, Low and Broad Churches. Between them they demonstrate the dichotomy that classifies women as saints or whores, and Hardy clearly shows that neither view works. Angel believes her to be truly the pure woman of the book’s ironic subtitle and cannot handle the discovery that his goddess has feet of clay. Tess’s relationship with Alec is based on force and coercion, and all the while he blames her or tempting him, and for his inability to stop thinking of her. Between them they bring about her downfall.
This was not a cheerful read, but it was moving and thought-provoking and a reading experience not to be missed.