When we left off, Tess was done struggling away at the turnip patch, had shacked up with Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, Angel was, as far as we know, still in Brazil and that’s where we left it.
Part 3 begins with the inevitable return of Angel Clare – now a much changed man. But lets stop and rewind it back.
Now we’re going back a fair way to before Tess worked at Flintcombe-Ash, the night that she and Angel argued about the fact that she wasn’t a virgin and he was a hypocrite. You see I mentioned that that evening Angel, in a dream-state and sleepwalking, picks up Tess and places her in a coffin.
I also mentioned this was where, for me, things started to get interesting again after the muddy doomed-love drudgery we have been reading for nearly 20 chapters.
There’s a reason for that. Excluding the dark eye liner, outrageously long coats and boots so heavy and dark they make British rainclouds look like sunshine, I am a goth. You see I’m not a goth in the fashion sense, but a goth as in a have a tendency towards the morbid, the suffering, the decadent. I would put myself more in Baudelairean camp than a Poean camp if I had to choose, more of the French decadence, overwrought emotions mixed with the general whiff of rot – it’s rather more pagan than the American, Christian-guilt led decadence of Poe.
Either way this image, dressed only in his loose night-clothes, ‘crossing the stream of moonlight’ to carry away a wife who, in her ‘broken’ state he dreams as dead to him, is one of the most stunningly beautiful images in the book.
She, like victims of an incubus or other night demon, is paralysed by him and, in no fear whatsoever, he rolls her in a sheet as one would wrap a body in a shroud and carries her away saying;
“My poor, poor Tess—my dearest, darling Tess! So sweet, so good, so true!”
“My wife—dead, dead!”
And then he kisses her! Where all love’s kisses have been absent since that fateful night of their confessions in this night-dream, in this state of unconscious, moonlit reverie his passion for her is evident.
He continues to carry her across a river, this Wessex Styx, the river that separates the souls of the dead from the living, one broken into tributaries, just as the couples’ fate, but always rejoining, always coming back together.
Across the other side he finds the empty stone coffin of an Abbot and places her within. He kisses her again and then falls beside the coffin in a slumber.
Melodramatic? Sure, but effective.
Playing out memories (when he carried her over the river) with fantasies (her being dead and thus him having no more moral dilemma) Angel Clare is in such a state that he’d will his wife dead so that he might love her again. Would he go on a hero’s pilgrimage for her? Challenge the very underworld itself to win her soul back? Not on your life would that coward do that! He’d sit by the graveside, maudlin; always mourning what could have been because he could never accept what was. He’s a romantic, he’s a fool.
Meanwhile Tess, so symbolic of where she’s at at this point, is nothing more than a compliant doll in his arms. Until he falls asleep beside the coffin and she gains some agency back she merely puts her trust and faith in Angel. This woman who once dared God to challenge her, who baptised her infant in his name before her very eyes, stared up to heaven and said “You got a fucking problem!?” is now little more than a shrouded ragdoll. All of the fire, all of the rebellion has been eroded away by the sandstorm ‘love’ she has had with Angel.
She thought she was getting a sensible, rational man who would understand her plight. Instead she got a misogynist snob dressed in ‘woke’ clothing, more concerned with what society will think than he ever let on by his action of shunning society.
When he is the centre of attention, when Angel Clare, the lone-wolf gentleman farmer is looked at as a pariah he loves it. When it is Tess, his dear beloved, he can’t bear the weight of it and breaks like the coward he is.
But this is the blurred end-of-part-2-start-of-part-3 where things take a gothic turn, and frankly this is what disappointed me most about the book, because the whole thing could have been written like this and what a better story it would have been!
The whole pastoral romance does nothing for me, Angel’s an unlikeable idiot, and we are aware from so many contextual clues that what Tess sees in him is a sham, a façade, a lie. That whole courtship is one elongated pain for how unpainful a lot of it is. I’d much rather, if this is going to become a melodrama, we get there sooner rather than later.
So anyway, we’ll skip forward a bit to when the family have moved from their home in Marlott after the death of John Durbeyfield. They go to Kingsbere, the home of the ancestral, d’Urberville, family tomb.
During all of this time Alec is leaning on her, time and time again, to shack up with him and once he spies the weakness she has for her family he plays upon it. Again, something of Tess has become submissive thanks to the influence of Angel Clare and I don’t think it makes much sense at all that she would relent to such pressures rather than go visit her father in law. It is certainly not how I would have written her character anyway for, no matter how eroded, there is always some resistance in Tess – some interior fortitude from I-don’t-know-where.
When they arrive at Kingsbere they find out they are late and their rooms let out. How much of this is true and how much is a nefarious plot by Alec is for the reader to determine. Either way they agree to stay at the family ‘vault’ – after all it is their freehold!
So the whole Durbeyfield family goes to rest where all the once noble d’Urberville’s rest. Meanwhile, kids settled in, Tess explores the church and finds her families sepulchre.
Within the window under which the bedstead stood were the tombs of the family, covering in their dates several centuries. They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like martin-holes in a sandcliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct, there was none so forcible as this spoliation.
She drew near to a dark stone on which was inscribed:
OSTIUM SEPULCHRI ANTIQUAE FAMILIAE D’URBERVILLE
‘Canopied’ as if overcast by a dark shadow, a lingering past or, perhaps a prowling sin. ‘Altar-shaped’ for they were holy once. ‘Plain’ as if all beauty and all goodness had been driven out of them. ‘Their carvings being defaced and broken’ abused by time, or vandals. ‘Their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet holes remaining…’ All value stolen, used, by others leaving only broken wounds.
This is not just a description of the d’Urberville family sepulchre. This is a description of Tess, this is Tess’ life. The ruin of her noble name, and the ruin of the d’Urberville name, go hand-in-hand.
She notices a figure prostrate on an altar bed, thinking it a statue she approaches, but it moves and frightens her. There’s only one who delights in frightening to arouse and that is that fucking twat Alec Stroke-d’Urberville. Here he mimics the dead, indeed he is the very essence of an undead, draining the life of others to feed his own. His energy is vampiric, a hunter of women, longing to bite their necks and use their blood for his sport. But vampires need to beware who they bite, and turn, for they give them their powers, too.
He stamps his foot to the floor so that she and he can hear the hollow echoes, tens of dead d’Urbervilles refusing to be woken from their slumber to gallantly protect Tess’ honour. What use is old blood when it’s dead blood?
When Alec is gone Tess cries at the entrance to the vault;
“Why am I on the wrong side of this door!”
She wills for death, a desire to sleep on the other side with her long-past relatives rather than endure this suffering anymore. She will suffer, though, for she is Tess.
After this Angel returns from Brazil a shell of his former self. A ‘yellow skeleton’ I believe he is described as.
The fact is he went to Brazil, as according to the novel a lot of English farmers did, to settle in a fertile province and start his farm. Once he had done so he would either send for Tess or ignore her forever or whatever because he’s an idiot.
As it turns out Brazil is a hot jungle full of spiders, snakes, exotic disease, odd seasons, insufferable humidity and basically not the promised land. Whilst there Angel suffered, he truly suffered as Tess has suffered. The result of which is he has a sudden realisation that life is short, cruel and harsh and he’s left the love of his life half a world away in a fit of childish, pompous jealousy because he’s an idiot. Did I mention Angel Clare is and will ever be an idiot?
He meets death along the way, even travelling with someone who gives him sage advice about how he’s an idiot (thanks mate) before snuffing it of some unknown malady. Essentially Angel has to feel the clutch of death on his skin, he has to see it with his own eyes, he has to know suffering to come to understand Tess in any way at all.
This is a romantic’s errand, a romantic’s inevitable slide into decadence or realism as they realise all is not sunshine and bouquets, it’s skin-cancer and thorns. Whether they accept it for what it is or revel in it is up to them, but Romanticism is doomed in all but the best self-deluders. Angel is not a strong enough mind to delude himself so, especially not when he spends several months shacked up with fever in Brazil leaving him a skinny husk of his former self. I feel no pity or sympathy for him, he deserved it. He earned his suffering, and he’s lucky fortune was as favourable to him as she was.
So he returns and goes on, less of a hero’s quest and more of a fool’s errand, to retrieve his estranged wife. He travels all the towns, all the vales and hills until he eventually finds Tess’ useless mother who basically tells him to bugger off but eventually she reveals that Tess is residing in Sandbourne.
Sandbourne is supposed to be Bournemouth, a seaside town in Dorset.
Given that at the time, certainly from the Victorian Period through the Edwardian and into the Georgian Period, the upsurge in popularity of seaside towns in the UK was huge. Holidaying and promenading became all the rage and many a moneyed family would have a second home, if only an apartment, by the sea so that they could have some leisure time.
This puts Sandbourne in stark contrast to the humble, countryside way of life only a few tens of miles further north. By this point some may even have had the novelty of an ‘electric light’ – Queen Victoria had them just across the water at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
This section drags us out of the pastoralism, and the countryside ideal, and puts us smack-bang in the middle of a society beginning to ask questions. Or not, as the case may be with Alec and Tess’ householder, Mrs. Brooks, who doesn’t seem to ask for proof of their marriage and just accepts them as Mr. and Mrs. d’Urberville.
Modernity is also painted in colours of anonymity. Angel managed to travel from town to town always finding someone who knew someone related to the Durbeyfields, but when he asks at the mailhouse, a place where they should know everybody’s name, even they struggle to think.
In the ‘old world’ everyone in town, whether they liked you or not, would know your name and likely bid you a good morning, but these towns, this ‘new world’ was different. Hiding in plain sight and anonymity would become common.
I’m not sure if Thomas Hardy was a critic of modernity and change. The way he describes machines is as very alien, but that is compared to their respective landscapes. Given that the inevitability of change is one of the themes of the book what I suspect we have going on is almost pre-emptive nostalgia.
Hardy took what he learned, a way of life from where he lived, and wrote it into a fictional museum. His work is, as much an exploration of themes and social commentary, very much a documentary of processes, people, jobs, accents and dialects that would slowly change. Consider that his Wessex takes in parts of Hampshire, and now if you’re from the UK think of the difference between what you perceive as a Hampshire accent and a Dorset accent? Huge difference, right?
Hampshire is a lot more home-counties, that neutral accent closer to Received Pronunciation. That homogenisation, that comes with rail-links to London, that comes with proximity to the capital and the pressures it would bring with it, that comes from taking fragmented villages and sticking them all in big cities – Hardy knew this would happen and wrote his own little time capsule for anyone to open up and relive earlier days.
But he also wanted you to make sure you knew they were not all rose-hued and sunshiney. It was a pagan world, a savage world, a cruel world of hunts, of bloodlust, of hard toil, of soured milk and dead horses. It was a real world, in a sense, one step short of the artifice of the cities, where trees were your skyscrapers and animals your transport.
So Angel Clare makes his way to Sandbourne and discovered there’s a Mrs. d’Urberville living over at The Herons, a private looking lodgings, where he is reunited with Tess.
Tess appeared on the threshold—not at all as he had expected to see her—bewilderingly otherwise, indeed. Her great natural beauty was, if not heightened, rendered more obvious by her attire. She was loosely wrapped in a cashmere dressing-gown of gray-white, embroidered in half-mourning tints, and she wore slippers of the same hue. Her neck rose out of a frill of down, and her well-remembered cable of dark-brown hair was partially coiled up in a mass at the back of her head and partly hanging on her shoulder—the evident result of haste.
This is a sultry passage, frankly fucking scandalous for its time, that calls to mind images of bombshells of movies future, a Marlene Deitrich or Rita Hayworth playing some femme fatale.
True to the gothic nature of this ending, Tess has turned from Nature’s Mother, from Artemis, from this spirit of all things, to the very absence of spirit, a vamp. She has been abducted by the God of the underworld, Alec, and is now his captive Proserpina, or Persephone to give her the Greek name.
Once kin with her mother, Ceres or Demeter, the goddess of Grain, she becomes the goddess of the underworld, the bringer of winter, where she resides with the dead; she is the opposite of the dandy gentleman who take Sandbourne houses as their summer homes.
This half-dressed, stone-cold bringer of winters does just that. First she coldly tells Angel to get lost. Then she stabs Alec in a fit of passion. She dresses herself in dark clothes, mourning clothes – gothic cloths! All black velvet and lace veils, and then she runs off after Angel.
Confirming her status as a femme fatale, a tragic dame in some noir, the housekeeper, Mrs. Brooks, discovers what has happened by noticing a bloodstain in the shape of the ‘ace of hearts’. She’s gambling now, is Tess. Fortune dealt her a bad hand, so now she cheats. Who can blame her, after all she has been through?
“Angel,” she said, as if waiting for this, “do you know what I have been running after you for? To tell you that I have killed him!” A pitiful white smile lit her face as she spoke.
She says upon meeting Angel down the tracks from the train station, two tramps on the lamb.
I’ll be honest, I fucking loved this.
I want Thomas Hardy’s Bonnie and Clyde, I want Tess and Angel on-the-run, lying, cheating and stealing their way to success!
I was so disappointed with this part of the book because it is the shortest part, it is the coolest part, it is the most enthralling part and there were tons of pages prior dedicated to a stupid will-they-won’t-they romance that could have been dedicated to a broken woman’s pale smile at the act of murder.
We could h ave hade more exploration at what generates that coldness, that Proserpine, wintry smirk at death. It’s fucking fascinating, it’s the first time in the book that, to me, Tess has been ‘sexy’, she’s back to having that vigour, that potency, that rebellion and what does she do with it?
Falls into the arms of a yellow skeleton and trusts him to take care of her? That’s what we get instead of a multi-faceted, epic femme fatale?
Alec Stoke-d’Urberville is blight; he is a plague that damages one crop. Angel Clare is a disease of the soil that stops anything growing there again.
By degrees he was inclined to believe that she had faintly attempted, at least, what she said she had done; and his horror at her impulse was mixed with amazement at the strength of her affection for himself, and at the strangeness of its quality, which had apparently extinguished her moral sense altogether. Unable to realize the gravity of her conduct, she seemed at last content; and he looked at her as she lay upon his shoulder, weeping with happiness, and wondered what obscure strain in the d’Urberville blood had led to this aberration—if it were an aberration. There momentarily flashed through his mind that the family tradition of the coach and murder might have arisen because the d’Urbervilles had been known to do these things. As well as his confused and excited ideas could reason, he supposed that in the moment of mad grief of which she spoke, her mind had lost its balance, and plunged her into this abyss.
Angel doesn’t see the truth before his very eyes. Choosing to revert back to his foolish, pseudo-intellectual consideration of old blood he wants to blame d’Urberville passion for what she has done. There is the legend of the ‘cursed d’Urberville carriage’ after all – Some legend that a maiden past was assaulted in a carriage, fought back and either he killed her or her him. Yet Angel doesn’t realise properly that he is the reason she killed him. Blood does not beget blood, action does. He has some recognition in the ‘amazement at the strength of affection for himself’ but Tess would have gone living in sin had he never tried to find her.
“I will not desert you! I will protect you by every means in my power, dearest love, whatever you may have done or not have done!”
Angel says. We’ll see how true that is.
They eventually, in true gothic fashion, find a spooky mansion to sleep in for a few nights to keep the attention off themselves. It is currently vacant, a woman comes in good weather to open the windows but they intend to give her the slip.
Here they get to live in a solemn simulation of what would have been their married life. Ironic in that, just as they would have been had they stayed married, they are both stilted and hiding their true selves from the world.
Tess begins speaking in fatalisms, “What must come will come.” She says. Angel, being the coward that he is, being the fool that he is, has no plan or what slender plan he has, has no idea how to carry it out. He promised to protect Tess, he promised never to desert her and yet “What must come will come.” Is even Tess started to feel Angel will not keep her from her fate?
Moving only at night, like ghouls, like the already-dead, Tess and Angel’s plan is to make their way north and escape from a port there.
Instead, they come across a megalithic structure of tall, strong, pagan stones.
“What monstrous place is this?” said Angel.
“It hums,” said she. “Hearken!”
Angel, the Christian pretender to this Pagan realm considers it monstrous, Tess, the very incarnation of nature itself, in the guise of Persephone, half of the earth and half of the dead, hears it, she heeds its call.
They are at Stonehenge, the ancient monument that, even to the ancient Romans would have seemed as ancient as time itself. Probably erected somewhere between 3000 and 2000 BCE the stones would likely have stood as both calendar and temple, maybe even a gathering place. It has always been associated with pre-Christian paganism, and robed ‘druids’ still attempt to practice there today.
She rests here and they have a conversation about how if anything is to happen to Tess then Angel should take her younger sister, Liza-Lu, as his wife. It is almost an offering of an earlier, unblemished, version of herself, like a computer asking you giving you a messge to trade it in for the upgraded model. Liza-Lu is chaste, and pure, just as Angel had always wanted. There’s something sweet about Tess’ offering and yet sordid, as if Angel would be gaining the prize he always wanted at the cost of the one he let slip through his fingers and shatter by his clumsiness.
Tess lays herself upon a stone. “Did they sacrifice to God here?” she asks, as if aware that she is offering herself.
She is, and as she dozes into a sleep, police officers encircle the couple. Angel, for all his promises of protection is as useless as he has ever been. Willingly cuckolded by circumstance, never quite able to act pre-emptively, bravely or with any potency where Tess has shown courage, activity and initiative.
“It is as it should be,” she murmured. “Angel, I am almost glad—yes, glad! This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much. I have had enough; and now I shall not live for you to despise me!”
Even her last words are an apology to this useless dolt that attached himself to her vibrancy and energy and sapped it, parasitic, until all that was left was a helpless desperation that only found its power again when he returned.
She goes with stoicism, but meekly, submissive, a giving up. The same giving up we saw when Angel left, when she submitted herself to the hardest of labours, when she returned to the clutches of Alec Stoke-d’Urberville.
The final chapter sees Angel and Liza-Lu, hand-in-hand, heads bowed, leaving the city of Wintoncester, where Tess has just been executed.
Liza-Lu is described as a ‘tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualised image of Tess’. Literally the prize Angel had always been seeking, though he did not know it, and though he did not realise he would have to sacrifice Tess to get it.
“Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Æschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.
Justice, in quotations, the sarcasm dripping like the blood from Alec’s wound.
It is interesting to note that the main acts of violence, Tess’ rape, her murdering Alec, the execution, are all without description. We do not get to see these acts, as if, pivotal though they are the acts themselves are irrelevant. What matters is why the acts were done.
Has ‘justice’ been done? Tess has been a toy of injustice all her life and the minute she acts to take any power of justice back she is killed for it. Nature, much like the law, much like society, much like the state, is indifferent to her plight, to the reasons and causes leading up to her murder of Alec.
A gentleman has been murdered, and by his sordid mistress, a woman married to another who already had a baby out of wed-lock no less! To the indifferent, it appears as if justice is done but to the knowing, we know that if there is any mercy involved it is that Tess is no longer ‘sport’ for misfortune to play with.
Otherwise no justice has been done at all.
The original title “Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” makes pretty apparent the moral judgement Hardy intends for us to have for Tess and was one of the biggest controversies of the time. How could she be pure? After all she had done?
Well the real question is, how could should not be after all she had done to her?
This ending, this gothic melodrama, finally begins to revel in the suffering, not so that we can enjoy Tess’ fate but to make us feel all the more guilty at it. She is a gothic Persephone, who can bring bounty or frost depending on where she dwells and, it seems, the world is intent on sending her to the underworld. Damning themselves to an eternal winter and at the same time being free of this attention-grabbing vamp who never asks for your attention, you simply can’t help but give it.
I thought, by the end of part 1, that if this book had a tragic ending I would hate it. As it was I didn’t, indeed I hated the middle portion, this dull summer romance as all of Tess’ vitality is drained by a tapeworm disguised as a saviour.
As it is I wanted more of couldn’t-give-a-fuck-Tess, stab-’em-in-the-gut-Tess. I wanted to see her power actually utilised, to see the life she could make if she took control and, instead she just ends up submitting herself meekly because Angel and love or some such bullshit.
The greatest disappointment is that there wasn’t another stage, there wasn’t another step, it didn’t go further in the gothic direction, she didn’t return as a ghost to haunt Angel, or come back to life as a vampire to enthral him in her death as he had done with her in life. Nope, she’s just dead.
Obviously the book deals with some difficult to handle themes, I know I am a blunt man so I only hope I have handled them with sufficient delicacy as to not offend. Certainly with regards to Tess and the horrible abuses she suffers.
If anyone is offended by my opinions on Alec and Angel they can swivel, one’s a vermin snake who needs eliminating and the other’s as dickless as he is stupid. I still don’t, by the end of the book, understand if I am supposed to sympathise with Angel or not. I don’t. Every woman wants him, his parents have him set for life, and by the end he gets to trade in Tess for her young, ‘purer’ sister. He gets everything he ever wanted.
Whether he does this out of an obligation to Tess and her family or whether he has any attraction to Liza-Lu is left to the reader to decide but I think Hardy’s deliberate choice of words, describing her as ‘a spiritualised image of Tess’ is supposed to lead us to think one way. Angel was in love with a spiritualised image of Tess. Here is that very image.
Angel, for all his talk, his charm and his philosophies, only ever wanted a malleable virgin he could teach to be his perfect bride and Tess was always too herself to ever be that. Liza-Lu, though? That’s a different story.
So Angel doesn’t get off lightly in my eyes. He doesn’t deserve to. In many ways he is more responsible for what happens to Tess than Alec is. As I said earlier, Alec is blight, he takes one season. Angel poisons Tess for the rest of her life and is the very reason that life has to end in the first place.
Is there are reason why Tess of the d’Urbervilles has such an enduring legacy?
I find it hard to believe it is, on literary merit alone, so worthy a work. Hardy’s writing is without question. He has a fantastic use of the English language, if tending a little to Victorian floridity. His character work, though, and this is a dramatic piece that hinges on character? I find it very questionable.
Many of the decisions Tess makes, he slow descent into submission, he infatuation with Angel, her return to Alec, they fail to make proper sense to me. Where we leave her in part 1 where were we find her in part 2 it is like two different characters by the same name. She does not morph or slowly change, it is a sudden transformation.
In many ways Hardy crafted for himself an idealised woman, much as Angel did. In many ways he is the Gods who so pettily toy with her. His reflection of the social mores of the time also gives us a stark reflection on his thoughts and, just as with Angel, no matter how aware of these ‘latent prejudices’ he may have been, Hardy shows them readily. Yet somehow Tess still manages to transcend that, as if creating a character so obviously stilted in her creation, makes her all the more ‘real’ despite the unreality of her behaviour.
So, whilst the language may be pretty and at times incredibly effective I found character lacking. The likeable people are mostly peripheral, if we excuse Tess and, she’s only likeable because otherwise she wouldn’t be a martyr.
In fact if I had to give a reason why it has retained popularity it is because of Tess. Despite the character flaws, in my opinion caused by Hardy’s incapability of writing a realistic, rounded female characters crossed with the necessity of constant amping up, cliffhanging and melodrama caused by serialisation of such stories at the time, she still does possess something of an otherworldy nature to her. She is Eve, Artemis, Demeter and Persephone all rolled into one.
What is more she is the suffering of our natural, historical, anthropological and social sins. In effect, Tess is a she-Christ, dying to save us.
Missed the other parts? Catch the full list here.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Introduction
Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 1 – The Virgin Eve
Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 2 – The Wessex Artemis
and the parallel ‘We Need to Talk About Love’