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.

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