Book Reviews / Books / The Big Read

Review: Tess of the D’Urbevilles – Thomas Hardy

11.19.14

Tess of the D'Urbevilles

Thomas Hardy is one of several authors who appears more than once in the BBC Big Read poll – with both Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urberville’s featured in the Top 100. Published in 1891, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the oldest classics on the list of 100, and – taking the 26th spot – also one of the best-loved.

Tess was suggested to me by a number of people, most recently one of my best friends Kim, and her mum Lesley, both of whom I often go to for reading recommendations. Set in Hardy’s Wessex, Tess of the D’Urbevilles tells the tale of eponymous heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, a young and innocent girl who plunges headfirst into adulthood by giving birth to the illegitimate child of her cousin’s, shortly after having left home for the first time. Condemned by those around her, Hardy depicts her misfortune through beautifully written prose as her fate unravels before the reader’s eyes.

Two years after the birth – and death – of her child; aptly named Sorrow, Tess is working as a milkmaid when she encounters someone from her past. Angel Clare, youngest son of Reverend James Clare, is now an apprentice farmer at Talbothays Dairy. The two of them fall in love, much to the disappointment of his family, and thus Tess must decide whether to reveal her secret past to her new love.

A heart-breaking novel rife with hypocrisy and false virtue, its appropriate subtitle, ‘A Pure Woman’ courted as much controversy as the text itself. The tale is – at times – a depressing one, and it is evident why Hardy’s beloved novel is seen as a bleak portrait of the double standards women faced in the nineteenth century. An exploration of two very different relationships that interweave until the tale’s climatic end, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a beautiful, harrowing tale of what it is to love and to lose.

About Tess of the D’Urbervilles

When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.

About Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, OM, was an English author of the naturalist movement, although in several poems he displays elements of the previous romantic and enlightenment periods of literature, such as his fascination with the supernatural. He regarded himself primarily as a poet and composed novels mainly for financial gain. The bulk of his work, set mainly in the semi-fictional land of Wessex, delineates characters struggling against their passions and circumstances. Hardy’s poetry, first published in his 50s, has come to be as well regarded as his novels, especially after The Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The term cliffhanger is considered to have originated with Thomas Hardy’s serial novel A Pair of Blue Eyes in 1873. In the novel, Hardy chose to leave one of his protagonists, Knight, literally hanging off a cliff staring into the stony eyes of a trilobite embedded in the rock that has been dead for millions of years. This became the archetypal — and literal — cliff-hanger of Victorian prose.

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