What took me so long to read this? It's one of the first books I ever bought, I've been meaning to read it for as long, and it's taken me about fifteen years despite the fact that the little I've read of Hardy I have enjoyed. But yes, I have finally read it: my first book for Allie's Victorian Celebration. So thank you, Allie!
Hardy was born in 1840, and finished his first novel in 1867 however he was unable to find a publisher. His friend George Meredith (writer of The Egoist, which I plan on reading in the coming weeks) thankfully encouraged him to persevere. Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented was first published in 1891, towards the end of Queen Victoria's reign.
A. N. Wilson, in The Victorians (on my currently-reading pile) describes Hardy as "the most spiritually engaged of all great Victorian writers" and favourably compares them with Carlyle, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn in this passage which I rather enjoyed:
Thomas Hardy (1840 - 1928) is one of those great writers - Carlyle was one, in the late twentieth century Solzhenitsyn was another - who do not merely produce great artworks, but who seem to embody in their life-pilgrimage deep truths about the nature of their own times. None were 'typical' - whatever that may mean - as Scot, Russian, or Englishman. All were in fact outsiders. But in their lives and writings they were instinctively tuned to what was going on in their society. Dostoyevsky, half-crazy as he was, had this quality where Tolstoy for example, though obsessed by the state of Russia and the world, did not. I'm talking here less of the writers' views per se - though these are clearly affected by the phenomenon - and more the sense of inevitability about what they wrote and what they were. Whereas lesser writers imitate, pose, strike attitudes, these unfailingly truthful men have something in them of Luther's Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders [Here I stand, I cannot help]. Carlyle and Dostoyevsky with their dispondent fury saw through the lie of the nineteenth century Liberalism: Solzhenitsyn saw through the much bigger and much uglier lie of Soviet communism. Hardy, in his oblique, gentle, provincial English way had a bigger target in his ever-bright blue countryman's eyes. "I have been looking for God for 50 years, and I think if he had existed I should have discovered him."It does not matter that many of Hardy's novels have creaking plots, any more than it matters that he can write on occasion with immense clumsiness - tears are "an access of eye-moisture"; early morning or suspense do not chill a man, they "cause a sensation of chilliness to pervade his frame". there is a greatness of scheme, a truthfulness about Hardy which makes his faults seem trivial.
Wilson goes on to write that in Hardy "we encounter human beings against whom all the odds are stacked", and of course, this is true of poor Tess. Hardy jumps right in, describing a chance encounter between Tess's father John and a parson, and a conversation that shapes Tess's whole life. From the opening page, her destiny is mapped:
On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blackmore or Blackmoor. The pair of legs that carried him were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which inclined him somewhat to ther left of a straight line. He occasionally gave a smart nod, as if in confirmation of some opinion, though he was not thinking fo anything in particular. An empty egg-basket was slun upon his arm, the nap of his hat was ruffled, a patch being quite worn away at the brim where his thumb came in taking it off. Presently, he was met by an elderly parson astride a gray mare, who, as he rode, hummed a wandering tune.'Good night t'ee,' said the man with the basket.'Good night, Sir John,' said the parson.The pedestrian, after another pace or two, halted, and turned round.'Now, sir, begging your pardon; we met last market-day on this road about this time and I zaid "Good night" and you made the reply "Good night, Sir John," as now.''I did,' said the parson.'And once before that - near a month ago.''I may have.''Then what might your meaning be in calling me "Sir John" these different times, when I be plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler?'The parson rode a step or two nearer.'It was only my whim,' he said; and after a moment's hesitation: 'It was on account of a discovery I made some time ago, whilst I was hunting up pedigrees for the new county history. I am Parson Tringham, the antiquary, of Stagfoot Lane. Don't you really know, Durbeyfield, that you are the lineal representative of ancient and knightly family of the d'Urbervilles, who derive their descent from Sir Pagan d'Urberville, that renowned knight who came from Normandy with William the Conqueror as appears by Battle Abbey Roll?'
Like other Hardy novels, there's a lot of "If onlys" because destiny is so inescapable, especially in the Victorian era. Their strict codes of morality were stifling, and Hardy criticised them relentlessly: even the subtitle of Tess: "A Pure Woman" was a dig, designed, apparently, to raise the middle classes eyebrows. And it did more than that, because Tess faced many criticisms. She was the victim of both destiny and moral hypocrisy, the double standard that women faced then that makes us wince today (or at least, it ought to). It's a brilliant novel, I thought at one point it was beginning to turn like Pushkin's Onegin, however it did not and that was a tragedy. I won't spoil the book for those who haven't read it, because this is one of those books that must be read by all. I did, it has to be said, choose this by chance: I made a pile of the books I mentioned in my June post and Tess was at the top, but I'm glad it was the first one I read for the Victorian Celebration: I think it was the perfect book to start with.
It's a wonderful novel, and it's an essential historical document as well. Tess is tragic, and it's worse because it might have been (probably was for many) true. It makes me angry: putting it down having finished it and asking why for the millionth time.