Book Of A Lifetime: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, By Thomas Hardy
Friday 12 August 2011
It's more than 30 years since I read 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' by Thomas Hardy. Re-reading it now, what stayed? Tess herself, mainly. She sweats, she blushes, she bleeds. All that red and white. The white dress she wore in the May Dance, she singled out by a red ribbon; the blood from the horse, Prince, pooling on the ground and spattering her dress after she has accidentally killed it on her way to take the beehives to market; the strawberry – British Queen variety - that Alec d'Urberville foists on her with that telling line: "in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in".
I remember a sultry summer classroom in Boston Spa Comprehensive, Yorkshire, and our excitable English teacher, Mr Foggin, telling us that. Tess's "fatal dreaminess" was to blame for her ills. I remember too the lively - no, savage - way we teenagers discussed the subtitle, "A Pure Woman", and the sexual hypocrisy of Hardy's times. How far did Tess collude in her own fate? Was she raped, or seduced? "Stirred to confused surrender," Hardy wrote: a classic date-rape then, surely?
We girls insisted that a virgin might appear to surrender out of terror, or in order to save herself further violence. "I didn't understand your meaning until it was too late," Tess tells Alec. He replies, "That's what every woman says", somehow echoing the 1970s feminist debate: "when a woman says no, she means no". Then there was our outrage at Angel Clare for rejecting Tess after she confesses to him, when after all, he'd had an affair himself. How clever of Mr Foggin to encourage us in one of the few things we actually wanted to do in school in our 17th year: argue.
The hardships of Tess, the unfairness of her life as a girl, were all real to me, and I don't remember any particular discussions about Hardy's technique or how he achieved this brilliant heart-beating-on-the-page-creature. The nature bits, we skipped. Nor do I remember what I notice now: how funny Hardy can be, and how much he relishes the vernacular, all those lovely phrases like "Don't that make your bosom plim?" When I read Margaret Atwood's 'Surfacing' in my early twenties, the themes collided – not to be a victim was paramount and I drew away from Tess, angry with her passivity and sure she'd had a choice, that she could have acted, after all.
It might have annoyed Hardy and literary scholars that readers had such a literal response to Tess, but after 25 years of teaching creative writing, I can only note how rare a gift it is: to create a character that readers care vehemently about and who lives beyond the page. EM Forster called Defoe's 'Moll Flanders' "a masterpiece of characterisation"; that's true of Tess too. Three characters ignited my imagination as a girl: Moll Flanders, Emma Bovary and Tess Durbeyfield. They entered with the stealth of a dream, but have stayed there indelibly, like blood.
Jill Dawson's new novel is 'Lucky Bunny' (Sceptre)
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 PlayStation and Xbox hacked by Lizard Squad
- 2 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 3 British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
- 4 Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
- 5 The Queen’s speech 2014: Recap and Twitter reaction to Game of Thrones reference
EastEnders Christmas special, review: Brilliant Danny Dyer glues you to your seat
Felicity Jones on being Stephen Hawking's wife in The Theory of Everything: 'I didn't want her to be a saint'
Game of Thrones season five: First preview clip shows a beardy Tyrion, a moody Cersei and a distressed Arya
Doctor Who series 9: Jenna Coleman staying on for whole season as Clara Oswald
The Interview finally gets US release after Sony hack and terror threats – but reviews of North Korea satire are mixed
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever
Alex Salmond has 'broken his word to the Scottish people' says Scottish Lib Dem leader