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Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy


Some writers draw little from their birthplace. For Thomas Hardy, however, the Dorset region of England (known in his novels as Wessex) where he was born, raised, and lived nearly all his life, was the vital wellspring and setting of most of his novels. Born in 1840, he spent his childhood in a fertile rural region, full of old folk superstitions, ballads, and fatalistic beliefs. At the same time, modern industrial life was creeping into Dorset and its old-style agrarianism (farming life) was fast fading. In many ways, Thomas Hardy lived between the old world and the new, trying to fashion a truce between the two in his fictional creations.

The Victorian Age in which Hardy lived was alive with contradictions and conflicts. While people were supposed to live in accordance with the Bible and its ethics, they all too often took the sacred words in a harsh, literal sense rather than with a spirit of mercy and compassion. At the same time many of these social and religious dogmas did more to keep the poor serving the new wealthy middle classes than to promote the good of humanity. We'll see how unjustly Tess is treated by a society that obeys the letter rather than the spirit of the law. We'll also see in Hardy's novel how money and power can cause people to compromise human dignity and liberty.

Like the fictional d'Urbervilles, Hardy's family had been prominent in the past, with a number of philanthropists, famous generals, and barons. But by the time Tommy, as his parents called him, was born, his family, like Tess', had lost its wealth, power, and prominence. Hardy's father, a mason and house-builder, was a craftsman. His mother's family members, once part of the landed gentry, were now poor servants.

From his mother, Hardy inherited a fascination for old, extinct families, a love of classical books, and a certain plainfolk fatalism in which "what will be, will be." His father was a boisterous man who loved playing the fiddle with Tommy at church affairs and local folk festivities, like the ones we'll see in Tess. Hardy's love for music is obvious in the melodic, ballad-like quality of his finest works. The story of Tess is very much like the oldtime ballads Hardy heard as a Dorset boy. These traditional songs abound with fair young maids murdering their seducers and star-crossed lovers lying dead- but still embracing- under greenwood trees.

The Hardys were avid churchgoers, and the Bible was probably Tommy's first reader. You'll notice when you read Tess that Hardy quotes the Bible extensively. Like Angel Clare, a major character in Tess, Hardy was originally bound for the clergy, but his family's economic needs, as well as his own religious doubts, caused him to become an architect instead. He loved Shakespeare and followed with interest all the newest evolutionary creeds, as well as the determinist philosophies of his times. You'll see all these influences in Tess.

Hardy was always a shy, reclusive individual who loved the solitary, nature-filled life of the Dorset countryside. He never felt at home in cities. He became seriously ill and depressed during both his extended stays in London. Even as a boy he was fascinated by the grotesque, which figures largely in the ancient forests and d'Urberville crypts of Tess. He observed two hangings in his childhood. He viewed one hanging avidly from the top of a hill with a telescope. This hanging is memorialized in Tess.

Roman and Druidic ruins were all around Hardy in Dorset, and their rough majesty and wild paganism sent his vivid imagination soaring, as we'll see in the Stonehenge sequence of Tess. Primitive edifices turn up throughout Tess, forcing us to see Hardy's characters within an historic and universal framework. Hardy took great pride in restoring old churches, in which 500 years of varying architectural styles might be present in one building. His work on such churches may have taught him how to combine and intermix several eras in his literary works. Throughout Tess, history ties everything together. The characters are forever floating back and forth between daily humdrum existence and noble pasts.

Hardy's job as an architect entailed meeting many colorful local folk who spoke the rich and rough Dorset dialect. Hardy uses this dialect in Tess to represent the common folk and lend a special, lyrical rhythm to the novel. Tess herself, like Thomas Hardy, spoke the dialect as well as the Standard English that was just beginning to be taught in the schools. Like Angel, Hardy was emotionally tied to rural England, but was too well educated to feel he completely belonged there.

Everyone, after reading Tess, has to wonder if there was a real-life model for its fascinating heroine. No one knows for sure, but there is some well-founded conjecture that Tess is based on Hardy's beautiful, mysterious cousin, Tryphenia Sparks. Hardy may have once been in love with Tryphenia, who died just months before Hardy began writing Tess. After her death, Hardy wrote impassioned poems to her on the theme that "absence makes the heart grow fonder." Angel Clare expresses similar sentiments in Tess.

In 1872 while Hardy was still wavering between careers in architecture and writing, he met and married Emma Gifford, a woman from a higher social class than his own. He'd recently published his first novel, after years of rejection, and would soon write his now-famous Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The Mayor of Casterbridge was published in 1886, followed by several less ambitious works. In 1891 he published Tess of the D'Urbervilles and, in 1895, his last novel, Jude the Obscure. After the notoriety of Jude and Tess, Hardy gave up trying to write novels to please a mass audience and returned to poetry, his first love.

Hardy's wife, Emma, died in 1912 and though he had made her life fairly miserable, he never stopped mourning her death. The Hardys suffered much as a married couple, and the problems of men and women living together as life partners are demonstrated in Tess. Emma and Thomas came from different social classes and backgrounds and had different expectations. Emma loved socializing and London, while Thomas was a country hermit. They never had any children and life at their home, Max Gate, seemed dreary to outsiders. After Emma's death, Thomas, now in his seventies, married his young secretary, Florence Dugdale, who cared for him until he died in 1928. He is buried at Westminster Abbey next to Charles Dickens, though his heart, by his own request, is buried next to his first wife's grave.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles was originally published as a serial in a magazine. In order to get past magazine censorship, Hardy was forced to cut some of the more sexually explicit passages. (These are all restored in current editions.) To mollify his magazine audience, Tess is made to think she has married Alec (a mock service is performed). That way, she doesn't know she's having sex out of wedlock. In the magazine version, Tess doesn't have a child by Alec, and she returns to live with him at Sandbourne.

When Hardy published the complete text of Tess in book form, critics were both impressed at its brilliance and horrified at its unconventional moral stance. How could a murderess ever be a pure woman, many asked.


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