All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles By Nicholas Lezard
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The Independent Culture
Plot: John Durbeyfield, a feckless yokel, and his wife send their daughter Tess to "claim kin'' with the rich but bogus Stoke-d'Ubervilles. Alec S-D, a cad, gets Tess pregnant (Chapter Two is called "Maiden No More''), the baby dies, Tess becomes a milkmaid, and she and Angel Clare, a parson's son, fall in love. Tess agonises over telling him about her past, eventually writing a note and slipping it under his door on the eve of the wedding. He never sees it, so she tells him afterwards. Angel Clare doesn't take it well and flees to Brazil. Tess mangles wurzels and picks turnips for a living, pursued, once more, by her seducer Alec, now a preacher but still a cad at heart. She eventually gives in to him, until Clare, sadder and wiser, turns up, at which point she kills Alec. Clare and Tess run off and have a pleasant few days together before they're arrested at Stonehenge, and Tess is hanged.

What it's all about: Convention, natural religion vs Christianity, hypocrisy, mangle-wurzels and milch cows. Tess, a pure, radiant spirit, also suffers from what Hardy calls "the ache of modernism".

What they thought of it then: Created a storm. Most people loved it but the usual Gummers and Whitehouses objected to the indecency of the situation, the symbolically steamy, lush descriptions, and the implicit criticism of Christian morality. One sentence caused big trouble: " 'Justice' was done, and the President of the Immortals... had finished his sport with Tess."

What we think of it now: "All that crap about natural purity! He [Angel] hasn't got the nerve to admit that Tess is interesting to him because of her experience, not in spite of it. If he'd been honest he would have given Tess to Alec on every page." (The verdict of a character in Howard Jacobson's novel, Peeping Tom.)

What would happen now: Alec would have been had up for sexual harassment before he'd have had a chance. Tess would have sold her story to the tabloids (MY NIGHT OF SHAME WITH SAUCY TOFF) and ended up in a semi on the outskirts of Melchester. Alec would have gone into politics (his description suggests Michael Portillo with a moustache). The President of the Immortals would have been subject to an enquiry.

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