I was interested to read this book again after reading it many years ago as I enjoyed it then but it left me feeling quite down, and I wondered if I’d feel the same way reading it now I am older. It is the story of Tess, a beautiful girl from a poor family, who is assaulted by a rich man and then has to live with the stigma that this brings.

I enjoyed Hardy’s style; it is quite poetic with beautiful descriptions and expressions, especially when detailing the feelings of Angel Clare and Tess when they fall in love and I thought this part of the book very romantic. I find it difficult to picture Tess in my mind, as Hardy describes her as outstandingly beautiful and someone who catches every man’s eye and almost bewitches them with her beauty and yet she is unaware of this effect that she has.

I found it heartbreaking to read the assault on Tess by Alec and found it interesting to consider that apparently when the book was first released readers were divided as to whether she had finally submitted to Alec or whether she had been raped – the first time I read this book I had no doubt in my mind that she had been raped and my re-reading of the novel left me with the same opinion. I find it hard to understand how all the blame of the assault and its consequences was solely put onto Tess, when in more modern times she would have been sympathised with and seen as the victim – Tess says that she knows she can never marry another man and so her whole life has been blighted by this assault, and yet she didn’t even understand what was happening at the time or what Alec had in mind. As a reader, I found I was getting more and more angry on Tess’ behalf and feeling so very sorry for her, and yet I was trying to remind myself that this lack of equality was how things were in those times.

I found I was almost as indignant at Angel’s treatment of Tess as I was at Alec’s treatment of her and feel that both men treated her almost equally as badly though in different ways. Angel says he realises that Tess has been more sinned against than a sinner herself when she tells him her past, and yet he can’t think of her as his wife or love her and is punishing her for something that wasn’t her fault and says he can forgive her but it is the thought of their children suffering if Tess’ past becomes known that makes him leave her. He states that if Alec was dead then he himself may feel differently, but as Alec is alive then this is the man who is truly Tess’ husband and not Angel himself. He admits to Tess that he himself has done the same and has been with other women and yet he isn’t punished for this even though he chose to behave this way, but Tess has to be punished though she didn’t choose what happened to her. Angel’s actions made me so angry; that he obviously believes that Tess has to pay her whole life for something that wasn’t her doing. How can a man seemingly so thoughtful and romantic and caring be so cruel and heartless and unfeeling? I was reminded of how different things were in the time setting of this book by how Angel’s family’s main questions when he tells them he has met a woman he wants to marry were about whether she was chaste and pure and virtuous, so I can see how important this was in those times and how someone ‘unchaste’ like Tess would be frowned on, but I still struggle to comprehend how the fact that Tess was unwilling could carry no weight. However, considering that several times in the novel wives are referred to as ‘possessions’ reminds me of how unequally men and women were treated then.

I do think that women are represented in this novel in a far better light than men; they are far more loyal and honest and forgiving, as shown by Tess’ friends Izz and Marian who stay faithful to Tess and care for her even though they loved Angel too and hoped to be chosen by him. Their bond and friendship helps Tess deal with the hardships she faces, and this friendship isn’t just there for their happy time at the dairy but they continue supporting her through the hard time at the labouring farm later. By comparison, all the men in the book (Tess’ father, Alec, and Angel) seem to hinder her, judge her, and hurt her.

I find with this book that Hardy keeps building up the reader’s hopes that things will improve for Tess, and I allowed myself (even on my second reading of it) to feel this hope and then it is dashed when all goes wrong for her again. I do feel that Hardy could have been a bit more generous to Tess and let her ‘win’ just one thing, for example to have her escape at the end. Hardy seems to doom everything she attempts, and every time happiness seems to be within her grasp or she makes an effort to pick herself up and think positive and begin again after yet another setback he makes it fail. I realise it is ridiculous to be annoyed at an author for his choice of the life of his character (!), but I do think he is extremely ungenerous and harsh to Tess and that other authors would have allowed their heroines to have some little happiness!

The novel reminded me of a Dickens’ book in the way that everyone was related or connected and that strangers Tess meets turn out to be people she’s already met or who are linked to another of her acquaintance, but this seems more plausible in Hardy’s books than in Dickens’ as the country life in Hardy’s books is very insular and takes place over such a small area.

I find this a very moving book and one that provokes strong reactions in me, and Tess is perhaps one of the most memorable characters that I have read about and one of the saddest. I wouldn’t describe this as an enjoyable read as it is so desperately sad and unfair, but it is a beautiful book and one I feel is important to read.

Set in Hardy's Wessex, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is a moving novel of hypocrisy and double standards. Its challenging sub-title, A Pure Woman, infuriated critics when the book was first published in 1891, and it was condemned as immoral and pessimistic. It tells of Tess Durbeyfield, the daughter of a poor and dissipated villager, who learns that she may be descended from the ancient family d'Urberville. In her search for respectability her fortunes fluctuate wildly, and the story assumes the proportions of a Greek tragedy. It explores Tess's relationships with two very different men, her struggles against the social mores of the rural Victorian world which she inhabits and the hypocrisy of the age. In addressing the double standards of the time, Hardy's masterly evocation of a world which we have lost, provides one of the most compelling stories in the canon of English literature, whose appeal today defies the judgement of Hardy's contemporary critics.This would be a great book for all fans of classic fiction.This paperback book has 360 pages and measures: 19.6 x 12.6 x 2cm.
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