A few weeks back I was with some friends in the park and after a time our meandering discussion turned to books. Before long, Thomas Hardy was mentioned, whereupon I meekly mentioned that I had never read one of his novels. A certain amount of huffing, puffing, face pulling and general indignation ensued, and I was encouraged to dig out Tess of the d’Urbervilles post haste. So, after finishing the slightly disappointing All Families are Psychotic, I did indeed dig out the old copy of Tess which has been sitting quietly on my bookshelves for several years.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

In fact, the full title given on the inside title page is as follows: Tess of the d’Urbervilles / A Pure Woman / Faithfully Presented By Thomas Hardy. Having now read this novel, I am struggling somewhat to know what to write about it. It certainly has some very well drawn characters in Angel Clare, Alec d’Urberville and, of course, in Tess herself (having read this, how could anyone ever forget poor Tess?). Hardy’s Wessex setting is also well developed and entirely believable and there are several dramatic and highly memorable scenes. All in all, this is a classic tale, very well constructed and well worth reading.

However, it is also the most desperately sad tale I have ever come across. The sense of unmovable fate and impending tragedy is woven throughout the tale, which makes it positively painful to read at times. I found myself totally drawn in to Tess’s plight, hoping against hope that she would be rescued, vindicated, saved, yet knowing all along that her path was set. Here is an excerpt taken from the end of the first phase, after Tess’s undoing at the hands of the cruel Alec d’Urberville:

…why so often the course appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. […] But though to visit the sins of the father upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: ‘It was to be.’ There lay the pity of it.

As you can see, I have awarded this novel a rating of “Very Good” and I would recommend it, however I don’t think I’ll be rushing back for more Hardy until I have read some happier tales.