I love spending time in Wessex. The textured cadences of Thomas Hardy's style, the lush English valleys with their hedgerows and cattle, the harvesters and weekend revelers at their provincial celebrations, the farmhands awaking "at the marginal minute of the dark when the grove is still mute," the earthy banter of village bit-players, opinions exchanged tipsily at unofficial pubs and road-stands in country dialect: all of this I find oddly comforting. The quality of the prose is lovingly well-matched to the landscape and people it describes, and the textural background of the whole makes up a chewy, hearty literary feast, like fresh bread and slow-cooked stew, for which I get the occasional undeniable craving.
Which can be something of a conundrum, because sad freakin' things happen in Wessex. And a reader can't really hang out there just to gossip in the pub with Joan Durbyfield and Joseph Poorgrass, getting contentedly tipsy in the knowledge that nothing too catastrophic happened today, and nothing overly noteworthy is likely to happen tomorrow. No, in order to get one's fix of the general atmosphere, it's necessary to follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Hardy's star-crossed protagonists and their equally ill-fated lovers, to observe the "anxieties, disappointments, shocks, catastrophes, and passing strange destinies" that afflict his Bathshebas, Judes, and Tesses. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the protagonists of Wessex too - but making the choice to grapple with their tragedies is an emotional commitment. With Tess, in particular, I spent most of the time when I wasn't drinking in Hardy's prose or basking in the English pastoral, thinking about the odd, transitional sexual attitudes embodied in this tale of young Tess Durbyfield's youthful seduction (or rape?) and subsequent catastrophic ruin.
In his sexual politics, Hardy occupies an interesting place between the Victorian and modern periods. He himself is a bit like Tess's suitor and eventual husband Angel Clare: forward-thinking, yet thrown back on his assumptions. Hardy bemoans the backwardness and artificiality of the social conventions that decree Tess is "ruined" after a single, ignorant sexual encounter in her extreme youth. He deliberately accentuates the sexual double-standard between men and women, by giving Angel the exact same secret as Tess has (a short-lived sexual relationship, much-regretted later in life), disclosed in exactly the same way, which is nonetheless easily forgiven whereas her own transgression is unpardonable. Hardy rues the circumstance that Angel,
with all his attempted independence of judgement...a sample product of the last five-and-twenty years, was yet the slave to custom and conventionality when surprised into his early teachings. No prophet had told him, and he was not prophet enough to tell himself, that essentially this young wife of his was as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman...
Irving Howe argued that Hardy was unusual among nineteenth-century English novelists in that he "liked women," and I think one does get the sense that he likes and sympathizes with Tess. But at the same time, many of the qualities he seems to prize in her are ones that contribute to the same Victorian sexual double-standard that he seems to despise. Hardy blames "civilization" for the unreasonable standard to which Tess is held, yet he seems to approve her own refusal to stand up for herself, to be "prophet enough" to defend her self-worth before the man she loves (although she will do it before the man she hates). Possessed of a strong enough character to take responsibility for the family finances as a half-grown girl, to repulse the advances of a rich young man she doesn't love, and to start her life over in another village after she is raped/seduced, all her self-possession deserts her upon being castigated by Angel Clare. She professes herself his "wretched slave," who will abide by whatever fate he decides for her. In fact, Tess values her own life so little that she volunteers to kill herself for Angel's convenience. What's more, the novel, as I read it, seems to validate this kind of "love" as an element of what makes women womanly: the other dairy maids, all of whom loved Angel Clare, descend to similar levels of self-harm when he departs with Tess (one attempts suicide, one takes to drink, and one descends into depression). This is quite a double-edged sword: Hardy is able to "like women," but only if an intrinsic part of womanhood is a deep self-hatred, or willingness to immolate one's selfhood for the convenience of a lover. One is reminded of white folks who loudly proclaim that they "love black people! They're so musical!"
Tess is a classic example of a woman who is victimized by the patriarchal structure of her society, yet continues to buy into and perpetuate that system. Even within the structure of the novel, the more reasonable characters can hardly blame Tess for her rape or seduction by Alec D'Urberville. Yet she blames herself, and thinks herself damned and dirtied, forever cut off from future happiness or wifehood. What's more, Hardy seems to validate Tess's own attitude as the "serious" or praiseworthy one. He certainly gives more weight to her outlook than to that of her mother: even though Joan's words to Tess (reassuring her that what happened to her is not her fault, and that Angel has no claim to hear it until Tess decides to tell him) are some of the warmest and most nurturing in the entire novel, Mrs. Durbyfield is presented as an uncultured opportunist, encouraging her daughter to manipulate men.
I can imagine a rubric under which these seeming conflicts could be seen as consistent: Hardy rues the sexual double-standard, not because it's morally wrong, but because it's "not in Nature," as he repeatedly remarks throughout the book. By contrast, the qualities that underly his admiration of Tess - her self-sacrificing impulses, her all-consuming love, her passionate nature (which can nonetheless be repressed for the benefit of her lover), her affinity for emotions over logic, her capacity for performing crushing labor for hours on end with no complaint - are ones that Hardy views as "in Nature" with regards to womankind. I think Hardy sees himself as prizing the state of nature over the artificial social convention; Tess's tragedy comes from the disjunction between the naturalness of her character, and the entrenched nature of society's artificial expectations. Many of Hardy's assumptions about what makes a "natural" woman, of course, are ones with which I, as a modern woman, heartily disagree, and which expose his own Victorian socialization. The dissonance between Hardy's sexual politics and my own were fore-grounded by the plot, and made for frustrating, if thought-provoking, reading at times.
After all that, I don't mean to sound like I wasn't sucked in and buffeted along by the story itself, invested in Tess and Angel (and, to a surprising extent, Joan) and emotionally affected by the fatalistic tragedy that is Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I certainly was, and I'll be returning to this countryside again and again. Tess, more than certain others of Hardy's novels, made me think as well as feel. And despite the frustrations, that might make it my favorite Wessex tale yet.
(Tess of the D'Urbervilles was my first book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1890's.)