For Valentine’s Day I read the romantic and tragic late 19th century novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy.
I was unfamiliar with the subtitle, which utterly changed my perception of the novel. The full title? Tess of the d’Ubervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.
The book deals with the sexual mores of the Victorian period, arguably the most stringent of the modern age. The ideal Victorian woman was absolutely removed from any form of or reference to sexuality. The reticence to refer to sexuality went so far as to cloister women during their pregnancies, and calling the legs of furniture “limbs” to avoid reference a scandalous body part.
Tess is a poor country girl who discovers that her family is decendant from an ancient noble family. This discovery is her undoing. Her drunkard father and lackadaisical mother send her to wealthy “relatives” to find relief from their poverty-stricken state, which throws Tess into the way of Alec d’Uberville, an unscrupulous and licentious character. Tess looses her innocence to Alec, not through any fault of her own, but through rape.
Today women are viewed as innocent victims of rape. Not so in Hardy’s day. A woman who had lost her virginity by rape was just as besmirched as if she were the town whore. Hardy’s subtitle carries a note of irony, as he proposes that it isn’t a woman’s virginity that makes her pure, but the way she carries herself, the way she thinks, and the way she behaves in public.
Like most women who have suffered sexual abuse, Tess repeatedly blames herself, an attitude encouraged by the social standards of the Victorian era that insist on virginity as the only type of purity. She regards herself as impure, by the laws of nature married to her attacker, and undeserving of happiness, forgiveness, or love.
The result of Tess’s rape is a sickly infant who dies. The illegitimate child is unbaptized at the time of his death, resulting in an unconsecrated burial. Tess’s discussion with the parish priest is perhaps one of the most touching in all literature, as she begs to know if God will overlook her child’s illegitimate state, or his unbaptized soul, and allow the little babe into heaven. The priest tries to comfort her, but she knows he is lying.
With the growing unfriendliness of wagging tongues, Tess retreats to a job at a dairy where her misfortunes are unknown. She works hard, avoids social contact with men, and lives quietly and humbly. Then she falls in love with Angel Clare.
Romantic, handsome, talented, Angel Clare is the son of a minister, nonreligious, and learning to be a gentleman farmer. Tess avoids her feelings for Angel as long as she can, but eventually is persuaded to marry him. Acting on the ill-given advice of her mother, Tess does not tell Angel about her sexual abuse or her dead child, although she and Angel agree to confess to each other their most severe sins after they are married.
After the wedding, Angel confesses to Tess his sin of an affair with an older woman. Tess forgives him heartily, believing he will forgive her in turn. But when she tells him of her history, he utterly forsakes her. She is not the “pure” woman her actions and words presented to him, and he claims to have been deceived.
This desertion, through various paths, throws Tess back into the power of Alec d’Uberville. Although she avoids him, Alec blackmails her back into his power. He provides for her family, presents her as his wife, and gives her the life of a well-to-do lady. Angel returns to claim her, only to discover her living with d’Uberville.
In desperation, Tess murders Alec and runs off with Angel. They are given a few blissful days together before the police arrest her, and Tess is sentenced to death for murder.
A pure woman faithfully represented.
Hardy is dealing with exceedingly difficult issues at a time in history where the very mention of pregnancy, childbirth, sex, or rape was violently eschewed in polite circles. He also mocks women who are physically pure and yet daily tempt young men with words, looks or actions.
This novel is thickly layered and difficult to label simply as a treatise on purity. It is a book about religion and morality – sincere belief, the facade of belief, the frailty of religious fervor, the uselessness of religion or morality when it doesn’t effect your daily actions. Hardy also noses around issues recalling Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables or Dickens’ Bleak House – family history and family honor. At first read, I’ve hardly scratched the surface of everything Hardy wishes to say.
This book certainly goes on the list of books to be read again, and will keep swirling about in my brain for a while, as I examine my own beliefs about feminine purity and what exactly that means.