Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles'

The Book: Tess of the d'Urbervilles

The Author: Thomas Hardy

How I Found It: Years ago, when I was but a junior in high school studying for the English Literature AP exam, I had this one down as a possible choice to read in preparation for the exam, in time for the miniseries to air on Masterpiece Theatre. I never did get there and instead read it this year. This was my first book read via Dailylit.

The Review: "O mother, my mother!" cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. "How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn't you warn me?"

There are some books you read only to wish you'd read them earlier. Me, I'm quite glad I read this one exactly when I did, at nearly 21, instead of at 17, as was the initial plan. I think I would have sworn off men for life.

One night in Marlott, an English village, the local parson tells Jack Durbeyfield something interesting--he is not just "plain Jack Durbeyfield, the haggler" as he believes, but the descendant of one of the greatest old families, the d'Urbervilles. Jack gets it in his head that this means something grand, and he and his wife hatch a plot to "claim kin" with a wealthy d'Urberville living not far from Marlott. Tess, the beautiful eldest Durbeyfield child, has far more sense than her parents and would prefer they not get wrapped up in such nonsense. Circumstances soon necessitate it when a horrific accident--partly Tess' fault--fells Prince, the family horse, leaving the Durbeyfields on the edge of poverty, and Tess finally agrees to go and claim kin.

This acquaints Tess with the charming, but conniving Alec d'Urberville, her alleged cousin, who is really anything but. Alec is perhaps a bit too interested in Tess, and takes advantage when he sees the chance. This event and its tragic outcome will define Tess for the rest of her life, haunting her subsequent associations with nearly everyone she meets--including, a few years later, Angel Clare, a kindly farmer and scholar who becomes smitten with Tess. Will Tess finally find happiness with Alec, or will she end up paying for a sin that was never her own?

Entirely unintentionally, this year has become the "Trai acquaints herself with the great female protagonists of literature" year. First Moll, now Tess. I wonder that some of the frankest portrayals of female sexuality I've ever read were written by men! It's funny, too, that Moll and Tess were two completely opposite sides of the coin--Moll truly owns her sexuality and is unashamed of her crimes, whereas Tess is ashamed of a "sin not of [her] own seeking" and tries to swear off all contact with men because of it. Reading both novels within a month or two of each other was certainly interesting.

This is one hell of a depressing story--tears were shed at the last few chapters--but an important one. I think Hardy pushed a lot of boundaries by writing such a sexually-charged story, and by pointing out the flaws inherent in the "system" of religion, morality, what have you. That doesn't mean it wasn't still frustrating to read at times, from a modern perspective--when Alec kept going on about Tess tempting him just by looking the way she did, I wanted to shake him and yell at him that it's his fault for being tempted, not hers for having the body she does--but it did mean I could engage with the text more fully and find its views fascinating. These flaws and contradictions are still happening today--in the same vein of the Alec example I mentioned above are the recent hypocritical tweets by a hockey player that many took issue with. The player first asked women to cover up so that they wouldn't tempt their male brethren... and then went on to tell men that they've got nobody but themselves to blame if they are tempted. Huh?

I felt the three main characters--Tess, Alec, and Angel--and their relationships were well-drawn and convincing. I felt for Tess and hoped she would be able to find some happiness, or at least some gainful employment, during her difficulties. Alec made my skin crawl, but I could see why Tess would, at first, find him charming--the strawberry scene is going to stay with me for quite a while; I adore the Vintage cover (above) for evoking that so simply. Angel made me love him and then made me hate him, but I rooted for him nonetheless because of how tenderly he treated Tess as he fell in love with her--a marked contrast from Alec. (I think this book might have earned the distinction of one of my favorite kisses in literature--as Tess and Angel work together to break up curds for cheese-making, Angel leans down and kisses the underside of Tess' arm, despite its being covered in curds. That's love, folks.)

It was one of those books that had me appreciating the side characters as much as the leads--there's the early image of Jack Durbeyfield drunkenly riding along and chanting about his family vault at Kingsbere, Joan Durbeyfield worriedly realizing she should have ascertained if Alec was a good man before sending Tess to him, Marian eventually turning to drinking but still managing to stay quite pleasant and supportive of Tess. (Continuing my happiness at positive depictions of women in love triangles, this book had a lovely one--all the dairymaids are in love with Angel and resent Tess for a short time, but quickly become her steadfast friends once they realize Tess does not wish to be their rival.) The plot the characters were involved in was slow at times, undoubtedly, but slow enough that it made me think and have the time to really consider where things were going and how I felt about that.

I decided to watch the 2008 BBC miniseries adaptation on the strength of good reviews and its being the most recent adaptation, and because David Nicholls (One Day) was the screenwriter. I expected to like it, as I do most BBC adaptations--what I didn't expect was to love it, and for it to become my all-time favorite BBC adaptation. It was beautifully shot and incredibly well-acted.

Certain things really chilled me--the final shot of Tess that ends Part One, where the viewer is finally given the truth of what Alec's violation has left her with; Tess huddled in the rain, desperate and kissing her wedding ring; the choice to have Tess and Alec framed by the bars of a tomb during one confrontation, symbolizing how Tess is trapped with no other option but to obey him. The soundtrack was sorrowful and insistent, almost like a warning, and the echoing strains of "The snow, it melts the soonest..." were haunting.

Gemma Arterton really impressed me--I'd only ever seen her as a Bond girl and a goddess in Clash of the Titans, so I wasn't expecting her to pull it off, but she had me at the indignation Tess displays in her opening scene: who among us hasn't scoffed and rolled our eyes at embarrassing relatives? She perfectly played Tess' indifference and numbness in her goodbye to Alec in Part One, and her anger and sorrow at Angel in Part Three. Hans Matheson captured Alec exactly, the charm and the slime. Eddie Redmayne, Angel, was a bit flat at times, but I really felt the connection between him and Gemma's Tess, and the kiss I mentioned before was just as I imagined it. (A special shoutout to the woman who played Marian; she was all I'd imagined and more.) All the emotional scenes were well-played--I cried at the speech I opened this post with, and at the end--and Nicholls' screenplay was outstanding.

This story has left quite an impact on me, and I look forward to exploring it further both in my research for a paper and as I view two other adaptations: Roman Polanski's Tess, and an earlier miniseries version starring Justine Waddell of Wives & Daughters fame. Most definitely recommended to anyone who'd like to read a classic or to anyone interested in portrayals of female sexuality in literature.

(I mentioned above that I read this via Dailylit; I highly recommend it! The site delivers small installments [the length of your average email] of public domain books into your inbox on a schedule of your choosing, and it worked quite splendidly for me.)

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