56. ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy

I can’t deny how happy I am that this book is on the list, and I’ve an excuse to re-read it. I can’t remember if this was one of the books I had to read for my A-level English, or one I chose to read, but I do remember the first time I read it, aged 16. 

For some reason I really took to the book, and to Wessex and the poor misguided Tess. Whether it was how Hardy first introduced her as “a fine and handsome girl—not handsomer than some others, possibly—but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape. She wore a red ribbon in her hair, and was the only one of the white company who could boast of such a pronounced adornment” or that, no matter how she tried to either help others or help herself, she always seemed to do exactly what would bring her further trouble or heartache. 

I was, and still am, enthralled and totally captured by Hardy’s Wessex. He built a whole land and towns and communities around a feint similarity to actual towns and villages in and around Dorset and Devon. I find myself, even now, looking to the maps that adorned my Penguin Classic version, trying to find the route from fictional town to fictional heathland, seeing if it fits my own memories of the land (I lived in Dorset for 20+ years).

Hardy takes great care with the characters in all his books, with Tess, Angel, and Alec being no exception. Whatever you think of Hardy or this book, you also can’t ignore the background to all the stories – Wessex and, in this book, the heathland. If you want to know what is happening Hardy uses the heathland and weather to reflect the individual pain and suffering of Tess or Angel. Hardy shows so much detail of the heath and its embattled inhabitants, the hand-to-mouth existence and vulnerability to the harsh weather and even harsher heath.

Hardy does so enjoy, or appear to enjoy, the discomfort of the reader, almost teasing us with hints of foreboding and mischief, written so well into the narrative of the characters and how or when they meet. When Tess first meets Alec d’Urbervilles, he can’t help but put his heroine at fault of what despair is to come – “Tess’s sense of a certain ludicrousness in her errand was now so strong that, notwithstanding her awe of him, and her general discomfort at being here, her rosy lips curved towards a smile, much to the attraction of the swarthy Alexander.”

With Tess and Angel Clare taking the whole book to suffer apart and together, finally and tragically understanding themselves and their feelings, this is not a book I ever want to see televised or made into a film. Yes, I know the have been many adaptations, some good from what I’ve heard, but the characters live in my head, I do not want anyone to mess with those pictures. There are really very few books I feel this strongly about, the other being A Pair Of Blue Eyes and The Mayor of Casterbridge, both by Hardy (the latter also on this list!). 

Don’t mess with my Hardy!

Held my interest: 9/10
Captured my imagination: 10/10
Worth reading: 9/10
Overall: 9/10

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