Many when hearing I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles wished me good luck and said how brave I was. It was a book which a reading group I belong to decided to read as we’d worked our way through the list our local library at Northwood (@Hill_libraries) supplied us. One member of our group remembered the book fondly and was keen to re-read it. By the time our group got to meet to discuss the book, I’d only managed 100 pages (one of the drawbacks of being a publisher/editor/proofreader is that my author books have to take priority over pleasure reading). But I had already at that stage decided I would finish the book (I can only recall not ever finishing two books ever) – Tess had gripped me. So, I was a little suprised to discover how challenging many had found Tess. One reader had given up and resorted to the study notes rather than finish the book. I finished the book on Christmas Day 2016 as part of my tradition of reading a ‘non-work’ book every 25 December.
The discussion at our group explored why the book had been so difficult to read. Suggestions were that it was old English, the style of writing is completely different to modern novels which is what we mostly read and it was long. Unsurprisingly, for this group, the religious references and imagery didn’t feature in the discussion as the group are all of an age and background to understand the references. I wonder how difficult it will be for future generations in England to read Tess as fewer and fewer people are exposed to Biblical texts.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tess. Perhaps it was my love of cows and so much of the story revolves around milking cows. The imagery of the close relationships between man and the bovine and how individual they are, taking to specific dairyhands whilst objecting to others captured my imagination as did the image of Tess staring into the horizon, her head resting against the cow’s side.
But life was tough then, much tougher than many of us experience todday. What struck me most, was Hardy’s being ahead of his time. Throughout the book, we have Tess standing up for what she believed. At a time when women were meant to be subservient, we see her taking a stand despite knowing what the consequences might be. As far as she is able, she plays the game – knowing when to put on her feminine guiles and when to hide them. I see much of this still happening today. I myself go into ‘subservient woman’ mode often when I am working in parts of Africa – it allows me ‘in’ to what is still largely a patriarchal society despite overt visions of equality, and I’ve known Muslim students to use the hijab to assert the boundaries they feel others are overstepping.
The dark side of life dominates with Tess eventually succumbing to the pressures placed on her. Is this any different to today with political correctness and the media telling us how to think? And what about the pressures on men? Although the focus is on Tess, the men featured resonate with many today (and I’d suggest some role reversal too).
Despite being published in 1891, Tess is still very relevant to life today. Be brave, take a read.
And for those interested in a bit of background to Hardy, here it is courtesy of The Guardian.