Book Of A Lifetime: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, By Thomas Hardy

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The Independent Culture

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)