Thomas Sutcliffe: Why Tess needs a touch of 'BBC filth'

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The Independent Online

One group of people always tend to get forgotten when it comes to modern adaptations of classic novels – and that's the people the book was actually written for. True, any writer will hope for his or her work to find readers into the future. True, as well, that our solipsism in this matter – our tendency to think of our own preoccupations and prejudices as the best test of merit – is understandable. But in our preoccupation with fidelity to an original text – the question as to whether Austen's intentions, or Dickens's, have been honoured – it's all too easy for us to forget that they didn't really have intentions on us at all. Our sensibilities would most likely have been alien to them, notwithstanding the fact that often they engendered the change in sensibility themselves. We watch a Dickens adaptation, or a Hardy, as an audience already re-adjusted by Dickens and Hardy.

Usually we're pretty self-congratulatory about the distance we've travelled, which is likely to be mapped out as a journey from ignorance to knowledge, and from denial to candour. Lost In Austen may flirt with the idea that they had it better in the past – and extract some gentle comedy from what two centuries can do to our assumptions. But it's very unlikely to argue that they knew better in the past. And, by and large, most adaptations suggest that we are effectively continuous with the book's first audience – responding pretty much as they did, only in a slightly more grown-up way.

Occasionally, though, adaptations come up against passages left high and dry by the alteration of the attitudinal landscape. There's an example coming up in this week's episode of Tess of the D'Urbervilles; the scene in which Angel Clare happens upon the four milkmaids after their way to church has been blocked by a puddle and then carries them across one by one. It's played by the book in the BBC's version, with the girls' flustered anticipation and Clare's asides to Tess all in place.

But the series can't recover anything like the same flutter this scene would have set off in the book's readers. Hardy's novel suffered a lot of cuts and censorship in its first magazine publication, and this scene was a victim. The publisher insisted that a wheelbarrow should be written into the incident, to provide seemly distance between Clare's hands and his passengers. It should be a little shocking, in other words... the kind of provocation that would get the Daily Mail tutting about "BBC filth". Paradoxically, the only way to be faithful to the author here would be an adaptation that was flagrantly unfaithful to his book – and that would make all of us watching a little more Victorian.

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