Books: A book that changed me - Joanna Briscoe on Thomas Hardy's 'Tess of the d'Urbevilles'

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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? The summer before A levels, as a bedroom- bound hybrid of unpleasant swot and raging romantic, I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and it was inevitably love. It saved me from my Dartmoor schoolgirl's fate of death by muddy field. After years of despising the countryside with a conviction verging on mania, I fell suddenly and euphorically in love with all things pastoral, and took to drifting for miles across the meadows as a tragic milkmaid, keeping one eye out for an Angel Clare.

Why did it strike you so much? Tess is truly panoramic, yet highly wrought with the intensity of private emotion, so I was carried along by its sweep and enthralled by its vast horizons, while identifying with every throb of hope and loss. It's a perfect novel on the grand Victorian scale, in which Hardy is so clearly in love with his protagonist, that the reader is drawn into unavoidable shared passion. My superlative English teacher, Tony Dixon, was obviously equally bewitched, which only enhanced the whole experience. Such tragedy and physical beauty, the descriptive brilliance of the prose, captivated my adolescent soul and confirmed my wish to be a writer, to be nothing but a writer, unless, of course, I could become a doomed and trembling milkmaid.

It informed those years. We all wished to be Tess. We tied tea towels on our heads as milkmaid scarves over Laura Ashley dresses; we could recite the names of Tess's cows, looked drifty in white nighties and generally turned into soulful pests of an oversensitive and narcissistic variety.

Have you re-read it? I've read it eight or nine times; the same copy scrawled with notes from school friends. I still re-read sections: Tess in the Talbothays garden, Tess walking in the pre-dawn fields with Angel Clare. I read the whole novel every couple of years.

Do you recommend it? It's full of creaking pedantry, and will never quite speak to the adult soul as it does to the female adolescent's, but I still believe it's a masterpiece. It's with me to this day; it's under my skin. I'd rate it above all other Hardy, and I continue to recommend it.

Joanna Briscoe's latest novel 'Skin', is out in paperback (Phoenix pounds 6.99).

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