Victorian Age, that supposedly dark age of medieval thought, is known for its strict morals and orthodoxy and perhaps a few would associate it with Dickens too. It was those double standard morals that shaped every bit of society from the clothing to the stories in the magazines to the way women and men should behave and carry on relations.

Tess of D’Urbervilles is very much a product of its time. But wait, there’s a twist. And you would have to wait a bit longer to know that or perhaps when you read the book, eh?

Moving on, the novel by Thomas Hardy is singular in that it features a woman protagonist: Tess as the heroine. And like all heroines she too faces her own set of trials and tribulations in love and money matters among other things. And typical of Hardy, the novel is set in the country side-a place he never tires singing praises of as the sylvan beauty as against the raging industrialisation that was changing the British landscape.

The novel begins with Tess’ father finding out from Parson Tringham that he in fact belongs to an old lineage, an ancient line of family who were once rich and owned boundless land. This sets him on the path to use this info to his advantage and therefore sets out his eldest daughter, Tess, to be engaged to work with a rich relative (who are actually upstarts who have merely borrowed the last name!) close by. It is there she meets the brash son of the old lady she has to work for, Alec D’Urberville. And his constant pursuit of her despite Tess’s dislike for him, changes Tess’ life for the worse until she decides to take matter into her own hands and find another occupation in Mr. Crick’s dairy instead of sitting idle crying over her fate. Over there her life unfolds without much ado as she likes it and she falls in love with one of the dairy hands, Angel Clare, who had interestingly even seen her before at a countryside May dance and danced in that very group too. What then happens is a series of romantic trysts along with a bit of tragedy and the book ends on a bittersweet note that will linger for sometime.

So that seems plain enough right? Girl loves the boy and they have ups and downs and somehow then its smooth sailing? So where’s the twist?

But no Tess of D’Urbervilles is more complicated than that. Hardy has nuanced the story well so that it does not read like just another moral story about love, relations and women. It is layered story which at every turn of the page forces you to think beyond the status quo, beyond the rigid morals and social norms and archetypes especially that of the fallen woman and woman as a temptress. He thought way ahead of his time! For one, Tess is not the typical damsel in distress who believes her world has ended if no man loves her or rejects her. She picks up the pieces and gets on with her life and tries to order her life with her own choices. She is the agency for her own life and that is something commendable to see in a Victorian Era book (Indian soaps should learn something from Hardy!). The ending jars with the whole plot and may have been put perhaps to please the moralistic Victorian readers of the time. Who knows?

Hardy himself does fall prey to certain set ways of depicting the woman such as Tess as a divine ethereal being, the portrayal of her physique to emphasise her beauty and put her in the stock character of the temptress, thus exempting the man from any blame.

Yet, the novel is peppered with several gems like his beautiful descriptions of the setting-Blackmoor Vale and others that are too exhaustive to list here. But one I cannot help listing is Tess utterance when she is leaving Alec and her work to go back home in the 2nd part of the novel: ” If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.” It is a succinct take on the much abused “no” of a woman to her so called admirer, pursuer who expects that he alone can somehow convert that no into a yes. It is clearly stating that a no means a no and if i did love you I would let you know it. Are the Bollywood filmmakers listening??

For the review of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, another marvelous and beautifully written novel, click here.

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