Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Manuscript of the first page of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles is Thomas Hardy's twelfth published novel and was first serialised in The Graphic in 1891 before being published in book form in 1892. It was, at that point, one of his most shocking novels: Hardy, it seems, had been on a slow march from the comic story of his first publication 'How I Built Myself a House' (1865), his sensationalist first published novel Desperate Remedies (1871), to what will be a crescendo of tragedy and bitterness in Jude the Obscure (1895). Already he was feeling the burn of the critics and Tess divided the Victorian reading public for its portrayal and condemnation of sexual hypocrisy and a certain sympathy Hardy shows with the rural working classes. 

The subtitle of Tess of the D'Urbervilles is A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented; given the content of the book that alone would be enough to rile the more traditional and conservative audience. It is divided into seven parts or "phases":

  • Phase the First: The Maiden 
  • Phase the Second: Maiden No More 
  • Phase the Third: The Rally 
  • Phase the Fourth: The Consequence
  • Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays 
  • Phase the Sixth: The Convert 
  • Phase the Seventh: Fulfilment 

It starts with young Tess Durbeyfield, sixteen years old and living with her parents John and Joan Durbeyfield in Hardy's Wessex, the Dorset area. In the opening pages John is told by a parson that he may be of noble decent, and his surname Durbeyfield is a corruption of the old Norman name D'Urberville. John immediately has ideas of grandeur and Tess is sent to the family home of the D'Urbervilles to claim kinship, unaware that they are not kin at all. Here she meets Alec D'Urberville and comes to work for them (feeling very much obliged; she was earlier involved in an accident that killed her family's horse). By the end of Phase the First Alec has, at the very best, seduced Tess, at worse raped her: this part of the novel is very ambiguous. Hardy writes,
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d'Urberville's mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter. 
As Tess's own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: "It was to be." There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine's personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother's door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm. 
1893 edition.
Whatever the case (and I did interpret it as rape - the language, the reaction of Tess after the episode, and the fact that it feels more in keeping with the tone of the novel made me decide on that interpretation) Tess finds herself pregnant however her baby dies soon after the birth. After a long period of suffering she gradually moves forward and she begins work in a dairy farm. There she meets Angel Clare once more (she initially met him before her doomed trip to the D'Urberville house) and eventually the two marry, however she is unable to contain what she feels is the shame of her past.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is one of my favourite novels and I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet so I'll stop here. I will say it is one of Thomas Hardy's finest novels, harsh and cruel, almost a polemic against the double standards of the time. Tess is, as other Hardy female characters before her, like a victim of the Greek gods and goddesses. She is, as Hardy wrote, "a soul bound to some Ixionian wheel": accidents in Hardy's Tess are the powers of Fate at work, her ending already written from the first page when the parson told her father of his possible noble blood. Forgiveness and understanding were needed but were never shown and Tess really is a victim of circumstance. And the drama is further played out in the audience: Hardy's novel divided readers and publishers as I said and Mowbray Morris, the editor of Macmillan's Magazine rejected it as having "immoral situations" and being a novel of "rather too much succulence". The character Tess Durbeyfield and the novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles show Victorian hypocrisy at its worst.

After a bad run with Thomas Hardy it was good to read Tess again and I'm looking forward to reading more of his works. Next month I'll be reading another collection of short stories, A Group of Noble Dames: his second after Wessex Tales, which were published in the same year as Tess.


  1. I love this too, but it's hard to talk about without revealing the main points. It's the main points that provoke such strong feelings and reactions in me!

    1. I know! I struggled with this post for that very reason but I didn't want to give out spoilers - I felt it would be worse to ruin the book for someone :)

  2. I really want to read this one (along with thousands of other books!) It's on my list. :)

    1. It's certainly one I'll re-read again. Might give it a year or so though :) Such a great book!

  3. I love this book. It's the first Hardy novel I ever read...and I think it's my favorite. Tess just tugs at my heartstrings; she definitely deserved better than she got.

    1. I think it might have been my second Hardy - Jude was my first. It's been so long since I read Jude (think it was about 2004), but I can't help but feel this is my favourite Hardy novel. She's one of his greatest characters, if not the greatest. Poor Tess...

    2. Hey, Jude the Obscure was my second Hardy novel! :) Kind of funny.

    3. :) Can't wait to re-read it, hope it's as good as I remember!

  4. This is a great review -- thoughtful without being too revealing. I read Tess a couple of years ago but I still remember the impression it made on me. But I have yet to try any other Hardy!

    1. Far from the Madding Crowd, in my humble opinion, should be your next Hardy :)


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