BOOK REVIEW / Monster eats the Muse: 'Tess' - Emma Tennant: HarperCollins, 14.99 pounds

LIKE SO many of Emma Tennant's novels, Tess is a revisionist fantasy. In Faustine, she refashioned Goethe's tale around a middle-aged woman making a pact with the devil to stave off old age. She has also taken on the archetypal figures of Jekyll and Hyde, whom she recast as two women trapped at opposite ends of the class hierarchy, while The Adventures of Robina unleashed Fanny Hill on Sixties London. This feminist interest in viewing cultural pillars from an oblique angle and unearthing the lost tales of women that were once deemed too trivial to preserve preoccupies many women writers - Elaine Feinstein, Angela Carter, Michele Roberts - and it requires irreverence and flamboyance, rather than po-faced outrage, to carry it off.

In Tess, Tennant offers us an interpretation of Hardy's novel that places the real women in the author's life at its centre. His obsession with a milkmaid, Augusta Way, who became the model for his tragic heroine, and her daughter, Gertrude Bugler, who played Tess in his stage adaptation of the book, is, she suggests, symptomatic of the author's revulsion for real women and his fantasies of destroying them. 'When Thomas Hardy falls in love,' an omniscient voice tells us, 'he falls in love with his own creation. His is the male, controlling imagination that devours women in its lair. Monster eats the Muse.'

But that's only half the story. Seventy years later, in the late Sixties, little has changed. The spirit of the doomed Tess lives on. Liza Lu, plain-faced sister of another dark, beautiful Tess, relates a story to two little girls, Ella and Baby Tess, her sister's grandchild. The young girls are blank pages onto which a different set of possiblities might be inscribed. Liza Lu's tale speaks of a murder, of rape, revenge, betrayal, and takes in the ancient history of Dorset as a metaphor for women's loss of power. Tess and Liza Lu grow up in the Fifties, with dreams of washing machines and clean-cut hubbies kissing them goodbye on the porch. Their father, one of the last Victorians, is remote and preocccupied, their mother suffers bouts of madness and tells her daughters preposterous stories that the girls later realise are really 'the origins of the lies they had for so long been told'. Only by recovering those origins, says Liza Lu, can women break the cycle that has enslaved them for so long.

Tess is an ambitious novel, its fragmented structure reflecting the scattered imagination of its narrator and the vision of past and present she wants to convey. But it reads didactically, Liza Lu sounding like an incantatory sybil preaching from the pulpit, her sermon littered with modernday, feminist tropes: madness as a form of seeing, the prophetess 'driven mad by the constrictions of her life'; the young, beautiful woman as victim of predatory men; Goddess-worship overpowered by a phallocentric culture. But the process of feminist cultural archeology that begun in the Seventies has made these into cliches, divested of force. Revelations like these do not refresh or surprise, but cater neatly to a certain formulaic politics.

As does Tennant's fixation on the Sixties (revisited in The Adventures of Robina and Faustine as well as here) and the Pill as the origins of modern women's sexual oppression. 'This freedom, this sudden 'choice',' Lisa Lu opines about the Pill, 'only succeeded in removing any possible moral reasons for men to take the consequences of their actions.' The grain of truth in this becomes lost in a dune of polemic.

By far the strongest section, and parts of it are brilliant, is that which focuses on Hardy and his Muse. Here, Tennant does more than rework an existing story. Instead, she fuses fact, metaphor and speculation into an imaginative whole that could have been the core of an exceptional work of fiction. As Hardy's obsession with the young actress Gertrude grows, the different strands of narrative slide together. Gertrude, playing Tess in the script written for her, becomes indistinguishable from the modern Tess; Liza Lu merges with Gertrude's younger sister as she watches the film of the novel, and falls in love with Angel Clare's celluloid incarnation. The effect is dazzling, like looking into a kaleidoscope. Like reading a great novel.

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game