Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 3 – The Sepulchral Persephone

The Turberville Tomb – Inspiration for the d’Urberville family and their tomb, in Bere Regis Church (Kingsbere in the novel) (Credit: © Copyright Nigel Mykura CC-BY-2.0)

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.

The river Froome over which Angel would have precariously carried Tess in his sleepwalk – Yes, I’ve used this image before! There are only so many images related to the text! (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations, Tess of the Durbervilles (1) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

The Turberville Family Coat of Arms – Inspiration for the d’Urbervilles and their stained glass windows in the church of Kingsbere (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations-Turbeville Coat of Arms, Bere Regis Church / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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:


‘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 find 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.

The Entrance to Bournemouth Pier as it would have appeared in the 1890s (Credit: Public Domain)

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?

Hampshie is a lot more home-counties, that neutral accent closers 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-called ‘Invalid’s Walk – Bournemouth – “This fashionable watering-place, with its eastern and its western stations, its piers, its groves of pines, its promenades, and its covered gardens” that Angel Clare finds in Sandbourne (Credit: Public Domain)

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!

A map of Wessex according to Thomas Hardy’s Novels and Poems, according to his correspondence with Bertram Windle, to whom this image is credited. Hardy’s Wessex was based upon a former Medievel Kingdom (Credit: Public Domain)

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.

Stonehenge – a henge of stones. Mostly big, all old. (credit: Operarius CC-BY-3.0)

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?

St Thomas’ Church Winchester, apparently the inspiration for Hardy’s Church in Wintoncester mentioned in the final chapter. A gothic church for a gothic ending! (Credit: Neil Howard CC-BY-2.0)

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.

The coats of arms of all the Turbervilles at Bere Regis Church, the inspiration for the d’Urbeville stained glass window in Kingsbere Church in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations- The Turbeville Window Bere Regis Church / CC BY-SA 2.0)

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’

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 2 – The Wessex Artemis

The thatched cottage in Marnhull believed to have inspired the Durbeyfield’s Cottage in Marlott (Credit:Philip V. Allingham via The Victorian Web)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussion on sexual violence, sexual assault, infant mortality and cruelty to animals.

When we left our Tess she had returned home from the serpentine clutches of Alec ‘the twat’ Stoke-d’Urberville, basically had her rape dismissed by everybody as her own fault, had a baby, had it die, undergone a process approaching deification, baptised her own baby, buried it with the name “Sorrow” and was, apparently ready to move on with her life.

To achieve this she disappears from the judgements and scornful gazes of the obnoxiously Jacobean people of Marlott to spend time at Talbothays Dairy. Compared to her hometown it’s a liberal paradise that asks no questions. She spends a great deal of time walking her way there and, whilst she has always been a child of nature her previous, innocent, Eve-like aspect is morphed.

She knows sin now, she knows death now, she knows pain now and yet she, in this walk, despite all the tragedies that have befallen her, is in quite high spirits. She is master of these elements, the rustling trees, the chirping birds and the grasses flowing like streams in the breeze. Tess is now Artemis, the Greek Goddess of hunting and of nature – very Tess like – but also of chastity and protector of young girls – very ironic.

Later on, I believe, Angel Clare will go on to call her exactly that but I was thinking it long before he said it. Of the old Gods, Artemis or her Roman equivalent Diana is one of my favourites.

Diana, particularly, is said to have had a strange ritual in order to become her head Priest or Priestess. It was the duty of her head charge to live in the wilderness, hunting and gathering for food away from society and its all-too judgemental eyes. If one wanted to take that position all you had to do was successfully hunt the prior head Priest or Priestess.

Tess, like Diana’s head Priest, will lead the hunt at Talbothays Dairy but whether the reward is worth it is questionable.

I mentioned before that this will be less of a run-through of what happens with analysis and more an analysis of themes because, frankly, what happens in this part of the book bores and annoys me.

It’s a romance. Tess arrives at the Dairy where a young gentleman named Angel Clare, who once scorned her at the Cerealia in Marlott, is taking up a residency with a view to learning the arts of farming and becoming a gentleman farmer.

Tess is hot, he is horny, she’s been through some shit so has an air about her that sets her apart from the others – never mind that she is of d’Urberville stock so may have a knightly aura about her. Whatever their dumb reasons they’re dumb and into each other.

There’s not much else happens, sometimes events conspire or stories remind Tess of her past and she goes off in an understandable sulk, but for the most part it is just setting out Mr. Angel Clare as being this wonderful loveable gentleman whilst simultaneously undermining him by letting him be himself.

Now there is a lot of educated, middle-class, modern, feminist-minded interpretation of Mr. Clare that is, frankly, very harsh and very unfair to him and I think it would be wise to take a different look, especially from a male perspective and in my case a working-class male perspective.

They’re not nearly harsh enough.

‘Wet blanket’ doesn’t even begin to sum up the absolute foppery of this snivelling little twat.

If you want the hard-arsed, cold, working-class man’s opinion of Angel Clare he’s all mouth and no fucking trousers. Gentleman farmer? He’s none of the former and too much of a weed to be the latter.

He’s pretentious. That’s his main character trait.

He loathes the old families until he finds out Tess may be from one and then, oh it’ll please his parents so and he’s ever so excited. He plays a harp. He bought a harp. A man, named Angel, bought himself a harp. What kind of eye do you have to have for pretentious aesthetics to be called ‘Angel’ and specifically choose to play a harp?

He considers himself a thinker, but at the end of the day all he really does is all his family has ever done. Recite scripture and play by the rules. His entire treatment of Tess is bound in this building her up in his own mind as a platonic ideal of a woman only then to have that illusion shattered when he finds out she’s a real person, and anyone of any intelligence would have the cognitive plasticity to actually fucking think their way around it but instead he runs away like the coward he is.

He runs away, and then having run away, experiences real life, trauma, sickness, abuse and death and then realises maybe Tess is not such a gobshite after all, now that he’s realised there’s worse in the world than your twatty priest brothers not liking you or being so beloved by your father that even though he doesn’t send you to Cambridge to study he saves up a shit-ton of money for you to pursue whatever dream it is you want to pursue. Angel Clare has been so fucking protected all his life it takes him experiencing true suffering to forgive his wife for having had suffering thrust upon her…Well what a redemption story, buy him a celebratory fucking drink! Nah – fuck him, he’s a coward and a fool.

Angel Clare is a bitch. The only person worse than him in the entire book is Alec and even then Alec at least knows he’s a dick. There’s self-awareness to Alec that it takes the trauma of a trip to Brazil for Angel to develop.

A view over the river Froome and the lush valley where the Great Dairies are (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations, Tess of the Durbervilles (1) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

I have often said that I can bring myself shake hands with a villain who is honest in their villainy (not Alec, he’d get a fucking slap), but I’ll always beware of anyone who proclaims themselves good. Angel is that ‘good’, even his name is an irony.

So uncared for is Angel Clare that I can only imagine this is deliberate from Hardy. Even the author knows that Tess’ beloved is a shit-rolled-in-sugar. If it’s unintentional he couldn’t have done a better job if he’d tried!

It’s one of the reasons I find these segments so unlikeable, because all this time Tess is doe-eyed and submissive to a man who she could probably knock seven-shades-of-shit out of when it comes to a contest of who can really suffer. He rejects her when it is he who is undeserving of her adulation.

This part of the book is where a lot of the social commentary takes place. As mentioned Clare’s family are relatively well to do, his father is the Vicar of his local church, his other two sons are both following his path into the clergy but Angel was a little too independent minded to be considered for that path.

As a result, and his father seeing no point investing in an Oxford education for someone who isn’t joining the clergy, Angel has to find his own path and decides to be a pastor in a different sense, in that he will take over a farm.

I got the feeling we were supposed to ‘feel’ for Angel – something in this rejection is supposed to have hurt him. The problem is we’ve just got through a bit in the story where a girl is raped, has a baby and then the baby dies.

If it is intended to make us ‘feel’ for Angel it’s pretty bad timing because his problems are so microscopic in terms of what Tess has been through that you just think if he can’t get over that is he actually that good of a man at all? Where’s his mettle? Where’s his god-damn cock-and-balls? That’s what’s so obnoxious about Angel is he’s all misogyny with no masculinity to back it up! If you want to hate yourself for being less than a man be my guest but Tess deserves better.

Her fall from grace is being raped. His fall from grace is not quite believing in God enough to be a vicar.

The consequences of her misfortunes are being totally socially ostracised and considered ‘tainted’ for life. The consequences of his misfortunes are his dad gives him money to set up a farm.

Never mind chalk and cheese, these two are fucking chalk and obsidian. One is white, soft and crumbly and the other hard, sharp and dark.

This must, surely, all be part of the social commentary. To some animals the biggest hardship they will go through is not getting to eat the best food that day. To other animals they’ll get shot and die slowly. Angel Clare and Tess Durbeyfield exist in this odd social world that mimics the natural in so many ways and yet decrees itself so far away from it.

The other thing we need to address with Angel is the very same thing that bothers me about this part of the novel – Romance.

Romanticism, primarily an artistic movement, also reflects somewhat of a philosophical outlook. It is characterised by emphasis on the ‘individual’, the emotions and their interior world, and a glorification – to a fault – of nature. It is heavily conflicted with rationalism, which causes Angel significant problems because he seems to think himself a rationalist whilst acting the romantic.

Romanticism, and its links to emotion, would thus become entangled with notions of love, of coupling and sex.

It would also link almost directly to decadence, a movement associated with a recognition of decline, an emphasis on self-indulgence and excess and as we’ll get to in the next part, influencing the notion of the ‘gothic’ and a recognition of the beauty in horror and terror and decay.

So as mentioned, Angel is self-deluded into believing himself an intelligent rationalist and yet, in Hardy’s own words;

“He grew away from old associations, and saw something new in life and humanity. Secondarily, he made close acquaintance with phenomena which he had before known but darkly—the seasons in their moods, morning and evening, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, trees, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things.”

He’s a fucking romantic. His first thought about Tess is;

“What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!”

Already, without knowing her, he is romantically categorising her. A true rationalist would say “What an attractive young woman.” But as a romantic she must be a ‘daughter of Nature’ – deliberate capital ‘N’! Not merely nature, the everything, but Nature the goddess, the Mother Gaia! But also ‘virginal’. There are socio-romantic connotations then. For him to perceive a woman as worthy of admiration she must be a virgin. This was the social view at the time, this is the whole reason Tess has had such a troubled life so far – because that stamp of socio-romantic authenticity, that mark of social purity, her status, like her hymen, was forcibly broken.

In Angel’s pursuit of her she tries multiple times to tell him that she has aspects of her past that he would not like, that would make him think differently of her and he ignores her. Blinded by his ‘romantic’ vision, he portrays Tess in his own mind as a Nature Goddess, as ‘Artemis’. She is the pure and virginal because in his internal world, his romantic world, that is what she must be.

She isn’t, of course. Any rational person would see this, would heed her words when she says she has reason to refuse his hand but he doesn’t. His rational mind cannot compete with his romantic vision. He’s a fool. He’s an idiot. Angel Clare is an idiot.

How much of that is deliberate, I don’t know. We shall see as this tale goes on that, despite this being a romance it is a tragic one. How ‘romantic’ of mind Thomas Hardy was is debatable. He is clearly of a pastoral inclination but his constant use of nature, of season, of life and death going on around, would incline me to believe he has a tendency towards a Sadean decadence. There’s blood spilled in those pastoral scenes, milk turns sour, the butter refuses to churn, a few leaves of garlic in the field make the butter taste funny, at one point Tess – like Demeter – takes possession of the rights of life and death and kills pheasants dying slowly having been shot by hunters in a mindless bloodlust.

I think Hardy was a self-loathing Romantic. He never quite pushes far enough to revel in the suffering, to glory in it, as a true decadent would. But he sees it, and knows it is there. Romantics hide behind the flower in bloom, ignoring the corpse rotting next to it providing its soil with the nutrients it needs to grow so vibrant. Hardy doesn’t revel in the corpse, nor does he hide it from you, he merely paints the whole scene.

Anyway, I told you this part would be a muddled discussion on various themes and so it turns out to be. The upshot of it is Angel Clare thinks he is a rationalist, but actually he’s a romantic and a fool.

We are also introduced to the other milkmaids, the female characters who are all flawed and broken in some capacity.

Marian is already noted to be plump and a little over-indulgent. Later on, after her unrequited love for Angel Clare is firmly secured as unrequited, she turns to alcoholism.

Retty Priddle, like Tess is allegedly from an old-blooded noble family long since turned to bones and, in her despair at not being the chosen-one of Angel Clare decides the best course of action is to throw herself into a river.

Izzy Huett is the archetypal ditz, weirdly though, the most ‘together’ of the three, possibly due to her comfort with her flighty, in-the-moment nature. At one point she nearly runs off to Brazil with Angel Clare as his mistress until she is foolish enough to let Angel know that nobody could love him as much as Tess does and so he kicks her off the wagon and pisses off. Angel Clare is a dick.

Either way, as mentioned in the last part, Hardy’s women all seem to have some kind of fracture to them. His girls are pure whilst his women are broken. Quite what he intends by this I have no idea.

Perhaps, deep down, there is some recognition that the way of life, the way of society, breaks girls such that in womanhood all are in some way disordered. Perhaps, however, he’s merely a misogynist. It is really hard to tell because his women are also capable of demonstrating exceptional strength.

And despite their brokenness his woman are also all more morally competent than almost all of the male characters excluding Dairyman Dick – the owner of Talbothays who, him and his wife are almost normal!

Getting back to plot, it’s basically life on a dairy farm, mixed with Angel Clare and Tess talking to one another.

At various points Tess tries to get Angel to consider gettin’ it on with one of the other milkmaids but Angel, blinded by his ludicrous romanticism and deaf to Tess’ warnings about her past, only has eyes for Tess.

There is a scene where the women are on their way to church but their path is blocked by an overflowing river and the heartthrob Angel has to come and rescue them by carrying them over.

Lower Lewell Farm, the inspiration for Talbothays Dairy in the novel. This is where Angel and Tess will meet and start their ill-fated romance by not properly talking to one another and wishy-thinking everything will be okay. (credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (2) / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Chapter XXIV (that’s 24 to you non-latin numeralists) opens with the most overt innuendo possible;

“Amid the oozing fatness and warm ferments of the Froom Vale, at a season when the rush of juices could almost be heard below the hiss of fertilization, it was impossible that the most fanciful love should not grow passionate. The ready bosoms existing there were impregnated by their surroundings.”

This doesn’t make it into the unintentional innuendoes article because it’s so intentional. It should come as no surprise that in this chapter Angel finally admits his love for Tess. Indeed, he acts upon his feelings by planting a kiss on her.

Clearly the ‘rush’ of his ‘juices’ happens sometime that night, though there will be no ‘hiss of fertilisation’ as he releases into a cheesecloth or burlap sack. He’s a wanker.

Clare goes back to his family to have a chat about how he wants to marry a milkmaid. Why it should matter to an individualist rationalist is beyond me, but it happens mainly because Angel is actually a socially conscious romantic and misogynist.

It turns out that, far from being the biggest fucking idiot in his family he has two brothers who are significantly worse. His father is made out to be a strict and devout man and yet at the same time he has a distinct fetish for sin and the redemption thereof.

There’s a great irony that occurs here in that Tess, despite everything that happens, never meets her Father-In-Law and yet he would have absolutely adored her for the fact that she is an erudite and beautiful sinner plump and ripe for redemption. He is made out to be a kind of strict and active disciplinarian when actually he is a passive force, a soft, comforting teddy bear of God, who you can cuddle and make all your sins go away.

This is evidenced by the story of him having confronted some dandy around Trantridge for his sinful life, asking him to repent and getting a beating for the pleasure. The dandy in question is Alec Stoke-d’Urberville! In almost Catholic masochism, Father Clare takes his beating with pleasure, revelling in it, in fact, as a sign and symbol that what he is doing is right and just. As Christ took his lashings whilst carrying the cross, so must the Reverend Clare take his in converting sinners.

There’s a stark contrast between the way in which Father Clare goes about his Christian business and the other pastors and vicars we have encountered. Indeed, one could argue he is the only true Christian in the book. His other sons are merely Christianised socialites, members of the clergy for the status and ability to snobbishly judge others that it brings. The parson who tells John Durbeyfield of his past is clearly more interested in matters of legacy, of the past, than saving souls for the future and when it comes to getting poor Baby Sorrow buried there can be no doubt that Father Clare would have blessed the infant as much as he could and given a ceremonious burial whilst instead the child lies in the corner devoted to the unloved and the sinners.

Father Clare suffers, puts himself in the way of suffering, in order to try and convince others to live right. No other Christian in this book behaves in as Christ-like a fashion as him and he is a stark and heavy contrast to everyone else. It is a major part of the tragedy that Tess’ experiences with other members of the Clergy, and especially Angel’s brothers, leads her to hesitate to speak to her father-in-law, because he would love her, to him she would be as Mary Magdalene, and he would stand in the way of the stones society would have cast at her. No matter the injury to himself he would have saved her soul, for all that it needed saving because he would have recognised the innate goodness in her.

Back to the plot…So Angel visits his family, they try to convince him to marry a neighbour child, of good family, but he says “Nah!” and that he wants a wife who can milk a cow (oo-err) and there is an interesting passage here;

“Angel therefore refrained from declaring more particulars now. He felt that, single-minded and self-sacrificing as his parents were, there yet existed certain latent prejudices of theirs, as middle-class people, which it would require some tact to overcome.”

Now we know that Angel’s mother is a snob, this much is made clear previously when she talks about how Angel needs to marry a ‘lady’ – a woman of good family. We also know his father has a strict adherence to his religion but, as explained above, that strict adherence would have given Tess an aura of holy hue in his eyes.

Is this short passage a little bit of projection on Angel’s behalf?

Angel is single-minded in his pursuit of Tess, despite her constant insistence that he would not want to marry her if he knew the truth of her past. He believes himself to be marrying a lady of no specific lineage, indeed her ‘newness’ is almost fetishized by him but at the same time is this a self-sacrifice he is willing to make? He seems overjoyed when he finds out about Tess’ d’Urberville past, despite having previous cursed Retty Priddle for her past saying all her “skill was used up ages ago in Palestine…”

Angel, too, is stuffed to the brim with ‘latent prejudices’ that will only be overcome in the most tactless way possible. He’s an idiot.

The upshot of everything is Tess, a woman with a hidden past yet to be revealed, seen in Angel’s eyes only as a pure and virginal goddess; and Angel Clare, a man who hides his true self behind a veneer, for whom Tess has an inexplicable devotion more to his façade than to his self – they agree to marry.

I found this whole thing so exceptionally painful on account of the fact that these are two people who know nothing of each other. Tess constantly warns Angel and he pays no heed, and Angel constantly shields his true nature behind this pseudo-rationalist persona.

If the two could only be honest with each other, and let’s put the true villain into the mix, society, if only social mores allowed them to be honest with each other – none of what is to occur needs to happen. Either they can decide to marry knowing who they truly are or they can go their separate ways and spare each other a heartache.

I believe Hardy himself has stated somewhere that they would never have been happily married, Tess too tainted in the eyes of Clare and Tess too strong willed to remain where she is reviled.

Either way it’s chapter after chapter of;

Angel: Marry me, Tessy dearest!

Tess: I can’t!

Angel: Why not?

Tess: I can’t say, it would hurt your opinion of me too much.

Angel: Nothing could do that.

Tess: Don’t be so fucking sure, matey.

Angel: Oh but do marry me, Tess, my Artemis, my Demeter.

Tess: I can’t…

…Repeat ad nauseam.

 I mean that almost literally, I was bored sick with it. Tess does write a letter explaining the circumstances and leaves it under Angel’s door but it slips under the carpet and he never sees it.

It’s like fortune favours the misery, determined to make these two bind together whether they like it or not.

Tess expresses it best;

“O my love, why do I love you so!” she whispered there alone; “for she you love is not my real self, but one in my image; the one I might have been!”

Hardy constantly brings up how ‘ideally’ Angel loves Tess and this is the problem. It’s a romantic fool’s notion that he is in love with, not the real woman who is so obviously loveable to anyone truly rational. We see the goodness in Tess, the devotion, the care for others, we see the latency of that omnipotent Goddess she was at the end of part 1 and yet even she crumbles before the mighty will of a romantic idiot.

They marry, and for their honeymoon, and so as to be in close proximity to the mill Angel intends to learn milling it, he gets them lodgings at a former d’Urberville mansion.

Wellbridge Manor, or in real-life, Wool Bridge Manor – The house where Angel and Tess honeymoon whilst he learns the art of milling. (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations, Tess of the d’Urbervilles / CC BY-SA 2.0)

They decide to play this amazing game on the first night of their honeymoon called “Now that we’re married lets explain to each other every problem we have because it’s better to tie-the-knot first and then do it rather than actually get to know each other before getting married.”

I hear some people today still play this game.

Angel confesses that he once went on a two day drink and fucking bender and Tess explains that she was raped, had a child and it died.

Tess, having been thrust into the true cruelty of the world as a young girl, accepts this reality with ease. What, after all, is a foolish dalliance in light of love? She couldn’t give a shit, she loves Angel and knows that events of the past are as bodies in a graveyard – buried and inevitably to be forgotten so why not forget them today?

Angel, on the other hand, snaps out of his romantic dream and is suddenly thrust into a world only too real for him.

His dalliance was just ‘boys being boys’ – I am loathe to use the word but it’s that patriarchal excuse for so much masculine misbehaviour.

Her rape, however, is an unforgivable taint upon the ‘virginal’ bride he supposed he was getting. His entire romantic vision is shattered by reality, by truth and – seeing as he is a romantic idiot in rationalist’s clothing – he does the only thing he can do as an idiot and a coward and runs away.

Now for one thing, kudos to Hardy. This is a brave thing to have written as he did, when he did. Tess is, despite her past, still ‘pure’ in our eyes. Angel has been built up as this great love, her saving grace, her rescue so she can finally have happiness and yet his own ‘latent prejudices’ prevent her from ever having it.

This is a very real, very stark presentation of the hypocrisy of the time. Indeed a hypocrisy that still exists. How can this woman, who took all of nature’s grossest abuses and misfortunes, be considered not good enough by a man such as Angel Clare who has been involved in the exact same sin – only he did it willingly, whilst Tess was abused?

The hypocrisy is stark, obvious and one of the reasons this book was so controversial at the time. We feel for Tess. I felt for Tess. That’s the point and Hardy hammers it home so well. Society is shit. In fact at this point Hardy is almost touching upon a notion of romantic-realism. The flowers are beautiful, but we must accept the decay from which they grow. Tess is scarred by her past, but we must accept that it makes her who she is. Angel is too unrealistic, too romantic, to realise that if he loves Tess, he loves her because of what happened to her, not despite it. She is shaped by the events of her past, the blood spilled, the abuses nature and Alec put upon her, the very decay of her own child is the fertility in the soil in which Tess the woman grows.

She truly is Artemis; half-naked and exposed she lives in spite of nature, in spite of cruelty, by mastering it and conquering it.

Angel – meanwhile – is Lucifer fallen, his own supposed rationalist ideals unable to have conquered God and Nature, for reality is cruel and his life had never taught him that. Not until now.

Around about this time we start getting some decadence and, honestly the ending of Part 2 of the book is where I started to get invested again.

The conflicts – between Tess and herself, Angel and himself, Tess and Angel, Tess and her ancestry, Angel and Tess’ ancestry. It all gets decidedly gothic.

By the time Angel is carrying Tess, in a sleepwalking dream-like state, to place her in a coffin, dead presumably for the sin of her impurity, I’m wondering where this was 10-20 chapters ago!

There’s also one passage of dialogue here that bugs me so much;

“Is he living?” Angel then asked.

“The baby died.”

“But the man?”

“He is alive.”

A last despair passed over Clare’s face.

Clearly there’s a simple way of solving this problem.

Kill the fucker.

Then he has no right to claim Tess as his own, he is buried, along with the past, along with their child and no more need be said or done. But Angel being Angel can’t even contemplate a sin like that, for as rational as he is he is bound to a Christian theology, his romanticism is now so shattered a crime of passion is beyond his reach. He’s unsexed at this point, fucked by nature, fucked by the past, he has taken the passive sexual role he expects of a woman and feels emasculated by the abusive past of Tess. He’s got no cock and balls and can’t just do the right thing and either kill a man or love his wife. It’s like a real life game of “Fuck, marry, kill” except all Angel’s got the guts to do is marry.

From the perspective of a man, and I do not consider myself the peak of masculinity but growing up as a working-class man you’re subject to violent expressions of patriarchy on a daily basis. There is not a male-male social interaction in my sphere that is not tainted with implicit competition and violence. Most literary review comes from people of a more middle-class leaning, where life is a civilised pretence compared to the terraced-house savannahs where us working-class tribals live. I am a primitive compared to most of the other people who have written an analysis on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

So my opinion, maybe it’s a little different. But where I come from you deal with a situation like this, you don’t run away from it. Mind you, where I come from the assumption is that everyone’s broken anyway, so you don’t judge so much. Where I come from you’d find Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, you’d kick seven-shades of shit out him, preferably mostly with blows to his genitals and face, you’d spit on him, tell him if he comes near you and your wife, or speaks a single fucking word against them you’ll burn his house down with him in it, you take your wife home, you make sweet damn love to her and you life your fucking life happy. Because where I come from you appreciate the blessings given to you, so rarely do they appear.

But as I said, where I come from you assume everyone has a past, you trust no one completely, and you prepare for the worst because it inevitably happens.

Angel Clare is dickless, he is emasculated from the start, angels are without sex, without gender, and Clare is presented as such. He is, in his mind, above men yet in reality less than a man.

Alec Stoke-d’Urberville is obviously the biggest villain. Despite not having appeared at all in Part 2, his grubby, self-interested, sinful fingers are all over the events that occur. His villainy, though, is obvious. His lack of worth, the necessity for him to die in a fucking fire or jump off a bridge, the disregard with which we hold his existence is clear and present. But he’s a serpent who rears up, he’s a cobra, he puffs out his neck and bares his fangs before he bites.

Angel Clare is a coiled serpent, striking defensively against whatever unwilling target, in this case Tess, happens upon him. He’s just as poisonous. He is insidious, a pretender, a ‘nice guy’ who beneath that veneer of humanism and rationalism is just a fucking Christian snob like his brothers. He’s a coward, shoving his misogyny underneath so many layers of book-learning only to let it come screaming out when that pile of fantasies gets knocked over by harsh, cruel reality.

That Alec is a fucking twat is self-evident. Angel is supposed to be the salvation, but he’s just another cruelty in disguise and that disguise is what disgusts me about him. I know people like him, I’ve met people like him, been friends with people like him and they’ve all found their way out of my lives because I sense the grim truth beneath.

One of the key themes of the book is social hypocrisy and Angel Clare is the embodiment, the incarnation of that hypocrisy.

He runs away to Brazil and Tess, as is the cycle, goes home.

Meanwhile I need to stop and get my heart-rate down because I’m just about ready to ask Penny Crayon to draw me Alec and Angel so I can batter them both!

As if to prove what a piece of shit he is as he is leaving, as mentioned in the profile of Izzy Huett, he asks her to come along with him as his mistress. Fucking piece of shit. Can’t forgive his wife a sin forced upon her, a sin he himself committed too, and then he has no balls to commit the sin of murder and remove that problem but would have little problem with the sin of adultery until Izzy lets him know that Tess could not love him more than anyone else. At which point he literally discards Izzy like rubbish, leaving her screaming and sobbing, and fucks off. What a piece of shit Angel is.

After this and, with the nature reflecting the mood, Tess goes to work at what is described as a ‘starve-acre’ farm, picking turnips and swedes (rutabaga for you Americans). Despite the fact that Angel leaves Tess with a significant sum of money she tries her best not to touch it, gives half of it to her family anyway and inevitably has to work.

On her way to her new farm, escaping from the watchful eye of someone who recognises her as Alec Stoke-d’Urberville’s former victim, she runs away and sleeps in a hedge, disturbed by noises.

When she awakes she realises the strange noises are coming from pheasant, having been shot but not enough to kill them. This merciless cross of social tradition (hunting) with natural phenomenon (suffering and death) is one of the reasons I love the themes of this novel so much.

Hardy is, clearly, critical of the ‘advancements’ made by society and civilisation. To an extent, to him, we are still the naked ape wandering the savannah, full of bloodlust, raping and tribal judgement. Still casting stones at one another in fear of contamination by the ‘other’. Hardy rarely speaks of technology and when he does his machines (trains and a threshing machine) are almost UFOs landed from another planet. They are as demons, come from hell.

It is here that we see Tess as Angel of Death, guardian of the underworld, as Demeter or Azrael. Seeing the pheasants suffering, and merciful to their plight, she wrings their necks one by one. They are wounded by a society intent on trivialising, indeed making sport of, harm only to end up strangled when they, desperately, try to survive. It is a symbolism that will hold massive significance come the end of this book.

Her time on the new farm is hell. The very name of the place, Flintcombe-Ash, brings to mind fire and brimstone. Her new boss is an arsehole who works her to the bone, but she rarely complains. Instead, Tess the Sufferer, intent to shut him the fuck up, works harder than she can maintain.

This strength, this will, this is what has been missing from Tess since the end of Part 1 but even then there’s something missing. When Tess was a girl she would do what she wanted, get what she wanted, come hell or high-water, she’d freeze the flames of Tartarus, she’d part the Red Sea, she would get what she wanted.

Now she suffers and submits to suffering. As if her submission to Angel broke the rebel within her. She makes one attempt to visit her in-laws, hears Angel’s brothers, twats that they are, speak ill of her, and people make fun of her walking boots that she left in a hedge to put on a pair of beautiful shoes Angel had bought for her, and so she gives up.

She gives up.

The Vicarage at Beaminster in Dorset, the basis for Hardy’s Emminster Vicarage, the home of Angel Clare’s family (Credit: Nigel Mykura / Thomas Hardy Locations, Tess of the d’UrbervillesCC BY-SA 2.0)

By this point, Tess is learning helplessness and I’ve written a whole article about that.

She is learning to give up. Ever the rebel until the man she loved considered her tainted she is now a stoic sufferer.

I hate it.

At one point she tries to make herself ugly, to avoid comments, looks and admirations from strangers. It is a disturbing behaviour, one still common in survivors of abuse to this day. It is sad.

When walking home from her doomed attempt to meet her in-laws she bumps into Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, now operating as a Methodist preacher.

Not for long, though, as he catches sight of Tess watching him preach through the door of a barn, immediately gets a hard-on and decides he wants nothing more in this world than to possess Tess.

Just as Angels’ romanticism was nothing but a passing fancy until he discovered that the real world is cruel, harsh and built upon a foundation of misery, death and suffering; so too does Alec realise his passion for preaching was merely a replacement addiction for his passion for lust and he quickly converts back from a priest to a sex-pest and pursues Tess.

When Tess’ father dies, and their claim to their home with him, they all have to move.

In very gothic fashion they end up setting up a temporary camp near the d’Urberville tomb. Alec pursuing them, in his hunt, all the way.

He has spied a weakness in his chosen prey, the protection of her family and offers to help them out, to put them up, if only she will be with him.

She gives up.

And that is where part 2 ends.

I reckoned this part would be shorter for my disregard of it but it is amazing how dislike can inspire more words than like.

I understand that the romance is doomed from the start, but that is why its long windedness, the lack of communication between Tess and Angel, the superficiality of it all is so infuriating. This part of the book really lingers on too long.

It has also taken the character of Tess, in danger of turning into Wonder Woman at the end of Part 1 and turned her into nothing but a simpering wannabe-housewife. Angel is like a harsh sand-carrying wind that buffs and erodes Tess’ true character until she becomes what he wants her to be, but in so doing, Tess loses so much of herself, so much of her independence. How many woman of the time had this happen to them? How many women today do the same?

All I want is for Tess to be the best Tess that Tess can be, but Angel wants her to be something else and – it’s a sad conflict.

Let me make this personal – shall I. Apologies to the other party involved.

I have recently gone through a break-up after 9 years in what I thought was a mutually loving relationship. I, like Tess, am broken. Severely. I have not been subject to rape or sexual abuse in the way Tess has, mercifully. But I am broken in other ways. I am working-class, poor, autistic, a failure, bullied, punched, pushed in front of a bus, betrayed by friends, forsaken by family and left to suffer alone. I have not been sexually abused, but I was sexually used. Tricked into thinking someone loved me only for them to take my purity for sport. I respect life for the torture that it is, and try each day to find a new reason to smile because if I don’t all I see is suffering and death. I really feel for Tess.

My being broken is, I believe, one of the key reasons my relationship ended. I won’t go into details but, out of insecurity based upon past experience I made demands that my then partner found to be an ultimatum and too demanding. I regret this. My own wounds, long since closed, were burst open by circumstance and that blood stained a relationship that had become the foundation upon which I intended to build the rest of my life. Like acid, that blood spilled eroded those foundations and my whole future collapsed around me.

In a way my partner and I each reflected old wounds back on each other. One of the first articles I wrote inspired by Tess of the d’Urbervilles, explores this.

Like Tess I have held death’s hand. I have beheld its ghastly visages, misty-eyed, gaping mouthed, every death-rattle breath another knell of the inevitable until they rattle no more. You don’t get over that, but you always dream that someone will come and be the drug that takes that pain away. I had my partner, Tess saw her anaesthetic in Angel. Yet no anaesthetic heals a scar. There will always be a reminder of that past, and you will always be looking over your shoulder to see what misery, what suffering or what reaper pursues you next.

And yet I live. So, too, does Tess. We work, we suffer, we strive, we struggle, in pride, in defiance or merely because we know no other way?

I’m calling it here, that’s the end of Part 2. In Part 3 we learn the beauty of suffering and indulge in the gothic decadence that is the ending of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

In case you missed it somehow, Part 1 – The Virgin Eve can be found here.

Or you can move on to Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 3 – The Sepulchral Persephone

We Need to Talk About Love

I am a man who has loved in his lifetime and, despite my propensity for profanity this is the four letter word I have probably said the most (Credit: Nietjuh via Pixabay)

Probably an article more suited to release a few weeks ago, around Valentine’s Day and all. I am writing this because I am currently doing an analysis of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and I have realised that despite the fact that it is supposedly a romantic tale, despite the fact that it is supposedly about love (it isn’t, it’s about hypocrisy and suffering) I haven’t talked about love at all in over 10,000 words of analysis.

So love, what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. You see when most people hear ‘love’ they think of sexual ‘love’. This is an attraction to another person caused by a response to certain stimuli; from their appearance, to their smell, the pheromones they emit, a certain ‘I don’t know what’ but whatever it is it causes the release of all sorts of happy-nervous hormones and neurotransmitters (literally mind-altering chemicals) that leads to a desire to be with that person.

Predominantly this exists as an attraction from one sex to the other but the world, and the biology in it, is more complicated than that and such attractions can exist between just about any two individuals or even individuals and objects, and that’s perfectly cool. The fundamental mechanisms are still the same, the target of attraction different. This exists in nature as well, with many species demonstrating attractions or even full relationships with same-sex individuals of their species, with other sex, with different species altogether or with objects. Biology! If you think it’s in some way fixed or innate, you didn’t study it enough!

Now, there is a nice, easy, biological explanation for this attraction we think of as ‘love’. Your genome has, for billions of years, had an underlying desire to reproduce and it is good for two humans who reproduce to feel a closeness to one another in order that they can exist in a happy community and raise healthy offspring who can go on to perform the genome’s will and produce more healthy offspring of their own, repeat until the Earth is engulfed by the Sun.

If that trivialises ‘love’ for you somewhat, I make no apology. What you feel is as a result of a physiological reaction the can form a psychological dependency for the benefit of yourself, your partner and your offspring – if you have any – humans have this curious little thing called ‘consciousness’ that can, if not overpower, at least sometimes veto overwhelming biological urges.

Even then we are so untrustworthy with it we have invented cheats like condoms or contraceptive pills to help us trick our genomes so we can enjoy all the satisfaction of pair-bonding with none of the complications of having to actually look after offspring. Clever, aren’t we?

I don’t care about the branding and watermarks. I was looking for the most awkward stock photo to demonstrate ‘attraction’ and how is it not this? They’re both wearing the same baby-shit green t-shirt and look of disdain! Neither of them touching the wine to their lips as if they think the other has poisoned it. Looking at each other with eyes on fire with suspicion and doubt…This is quality! (Credit: DepositPhotos – Used without permission, please contact us for removal but don’t make me take this down it’s so funny!)

There are then homosexual, bisexual or pansexual people in whom those mechanisms operate more or less the same only the targets of their attraction are different. There are also asexual people who may feel no sexual urges at all, or else when they do feel them they do not have the same imperative as sexual people. Again, all of this is perfectly fine and biological. People who want to claim there is something unnatural about any of this haven’t studied nature enough and need to shut up.

Now true ‘Romantic’, in the artistic/philosophical sense, love is another thing altogether. It is an aesthetic-spiritual thing whereby you create an almost cult-like devotion to a person. In Tess it is a romantic, idealised version of Tess that Angel Clare falls in love with. It is entirely his own fault, and he is an idiot. ‘Romantic’ love is dangerously unhealthy, of course, and the kind of fanaticism that leads to cults-of-personality, stalkers, religions and dictators.

It is not uncommon for a ‘romantic’ devotion to arise from a physiological attraction, just as it is not uncommon for a physiological attraction to be deflated once one realises the true nature of the object of affection (see Angel and Tess) – These two systems, one physiological and one mainly psychological tie into one another – The separation of mind and body being merely a fabrication of a pre-neuroscience understanding and interpretation of anatomy and philosophy.

We now know that mind and body are one and so these systems of ‘love’ interconnect. Our physiological attraction creates a psychological image of a person that may not reflect their true selves, just as a revelation of a true-self can affect the degree to which you are physiologically attracted to someone. It’s quite remarkable really!

The ‘Google Image Search’ page, when I put in Romance and ‘Free License’. Note the appeal to nature, sunset imagery, moon imagery – it is very pagan, much like the ‘Romantic’ movement was a counter-culture against Christianity or rationalism. The couples are all intertwined, as if trying to climb into one another, possessive not just in a physical sense but also spiritually, like demons trying to possess each other’s bodies. ‘Romantic love’ is an idealisation of sexual attraction that is unhealthy, in my opinion. (Credit: Image by me, respective images in the collection used under Creative Commons. If you want it removed contact us)

But I still don’t think I’ve explained what ‘love’ is.

And that’s because it is a question without answer. Or rather whatever answer you can come up with is yours.

What is love?
(baby don’t hurt me…Sorry…)

To me love is active. Love is not a passive feeling; it is not something that simmers in the background. Love is activity. Love is doing. It lends it somewhat a sacrificial air, sure, but sacrifice is a part of love as far as I am concerned.

Love is not merely attraction – because, circularly, that’s attraction. Love is what you do out of that attraction. Do you learn? Do you change? Do you offer a hand? Do you give a lift? Are you a shoulder to cry on? Are you there? Do you help? To me this is love.

Let me get Christian and theological. Did Adam and Eve love each other in Eden?

They didn’t have to work, everything was provided for them and they had no worries or sorrows in the world. Neither knew suffering or pain, thus neither had to help the other with anything. They were together, sure, and they enjoyed being together. Is that love, though?

When cast out, both cursed to dig and paw at the ground, or take the lives of other animals and tear at their flesh, for something to eat, Eve cursed with pain during childbirth, did they love then?

Love is not merely enjoying being together. Love is Eve rubbing Adam’s back when he has been toiling in the soil all day to grow them something to eat. Love is Adam returning the favour when Eve has been working. Loving is comforting each other through the emotional trauma of taking a life to sustain your own. Love is Adam giving Eve a hand to squeeze as she screams and gives birth. Love is them working, struggling and striving to provide for their children. Love may be a feeling, but it is expressed as action.

Adam and Eve in their so-called ‘innocent love’. But what is love when neither of them knows pain, when neither of them know fear, when neither of them knows fault? This is not ‘love’ as much as it is ecstasy. Is love merely pleasure? The joy of being together? Or is there something more to love?
(Credit: The Wellcome Collection CC-BY-4.0)

Love is what makes you go out of your way for someone else and in that regard love does not have to be between a man and a woman, or between two partners, love does not even have to be exclusively sexual. Indeed, most of the love I have ever encountered has been entirely non-sexual. Love does not even need to be mutual; indeed one person can act out of love for another knowing they gain no advantage whatsoever. Though true altruism is hard to find I cannot say it doesn’t exist. For the most part we love mutually, we love so we may foster relationships, but sometimes we merely love for love’s sake, to prove that love is.

I don’t talk about love in my analysis of ‘Tess’ because to me there is little love on display, besides Tess’ consistent sacrifice for everyone else. In a sense she is a self-fulfilling romance, yet she does not love herself. Indeed, quite the opposite. She loves everyone and everything else so much to escape herself and the hatred she has for herself. The more damaged she feels she is, the more she suffers, the more she shows love to others.

This is the sad complexity of love. To many love is suffering, but it is a willing suffering. In ‘Tess’ we see this exhibited by Father Clare, a vicar who gladly takes a beating to save another’s soul. He revels in it, for to him receiving those wounds is proof of his love for others. Love is being happy to give up part of oneself for another.

‘Romance’ has tainted this, especially in its modern interpretation. Turning nothing but lusty, possessive physiology into ‘love’ and making us all believe in satisfactory rain-drenched kisses and last minute airport confessions.

Love is seldom so joyful, seldom so happy. Love’s refrain is a dirge; it is a song of sorrow, for love hurts.

But if it hurts so much would we be better off without it?

Love Hurts: Calling to mind image of Saint Sebastian, smothered in arrow wounds for his devotion, or the Sacred Heart, the pierced, thorn-embowered heart of Christ, burning with love for humanity. This is some absolutely stunning street art from Paulo Ito (Credit: Paulo Ito CC-BY-2.0)


A mother’s kiss on a child’s wound does not actually fix anything and yet the child feels better. Love may not be able to repair the wound, but it can help us deal with it. The wounds of life do not stop coming, and our mothers are not always around. If we do not love each other, how can we feel better?

It is not a love of money, but a lust for power, that tears down rainforests for factories, plantations and profit. A love of nature, driving passionate action, can protect it, though.

You may only have a short time with the people you love, but in your actions you can demonstrate how love should be, the sacrifices love makes and the joy love can bring. You can do for others, out of love, merely for the joy it brings them.  

Think back to your past relationships, with partners, with friends, with family, think about times when you did things for them and they for you, you will remember with fondness those acts of love, even if all else turned sour. Love is the sweetener.

There is no idealism to it, it’s visceral. Love is throwing yourself under a bus to save another. Love is, actually, in many ways, a human compulsion. People see a child drowning in a river and they throw themselves in without thinking to try and rescue them and when asked later why they did it they say “I didn’t even think about it…”

No doubt an act of love, one done unconsciously, that could easily endanger the other party – indeed many are the people who have died for love.

‘Romantic’ books, movies, TV shows, they cheapen love. Valentine’s Day can fuck off. Love isn’t chocolate and flowers, it is aching feet and empty purses. Love is being that guy who sells the Big Issue who puts ‘dog food’ at the top of his shopping list. I’m no lover of dogs but when you prioritise your pet’s comfort above your own, even in dire circumstances, that’s love.

Love loves without thinking. It’s a feeling as old as our genes themselves. It is a feeling as deeply natural as fear. Indeed in my book the opposite of fear is not bravery, it is love. I am not the first to say or think it, either.

Love, then, can best be described as a complicated prism through which actions and suffering, through which our pain, can be shone and divided into many beautiful colours so that we may, one day, appreciate them.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 1 – The Virgin Eve

The Crown Inn pub in Marnhull, Dorset. Marnhull is to town of ‘Marlott’ in Tess, and The Crown Inn is known in the book as ‘The Pure Drop’. ‘Purity’ and ‘dropping’ potentially relating to Tess’ status as a pure, chaste girl and her ‘fall’ from that status during part 1 of the book. (Credit: Nigel Freeman / The Crown or The Pure Drop / CC BY-SA 2.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions of sexualisation of children, rape, sexual assualt and infant mortality.

The first theme presented to us is one of the most important to the whole novel. A simple, humble, some could argue lazy, countryside peddler, John Durbeyfield, is lounging about minding his own when the local Parson informs him he actually comes from a once noble family, the d’Urbervilles, who would have accompanied William the Bastard on his Norman conquest of Britain.

The social themes slice through this entire book from this point. From ‘Sir John’ as he likes to style himself after finding out his lineage, believing being found to be from an old family is going to make any difference so irresponsibly going drinking, to the Stoke-d’Urbervilles buying their name (as we’ll find out later), to the treatment of Angel Clare the countryside ‘gentleman’, who we won’t really get to know until part 2, though he has a brief cameo.

The late 19th century in Britain was accented by huge movements for social change, labour movements, sex and gender equality movements, dissent and dissenting voices were everywhere. Old money died and their castles crumbled and new money was born and built factories where castles would have stood.

The rural way of life was changing, industrialism was growing, slowly the kinds of characters we read of in ‘Tess’ would move from their country homes to squalid sheds in cities, or workhouses for factories.

For now, though, this is still the ‘old world’ and those conflicts fail to touch this small town in the valley of Blakemore (or Blackmoor).

This leads us to a second theme, the invalidity of naming conventions, nomenclature. The once noble d’Urbervilles are now the humble Durbeyfields, the once common Stokes are now the more respectable Stoke-d’Urbervilles. The valley of Blakemore was once Blackmoor. What does it mean? Change, is what it means. Why would you include so dull an addition as to tell us what a place used to be called unless you want to specifically highlight the changeable nature of things, especially labels we believe so permanent, names of places, and yet that rub off so easily.

Change is ever happening and the arbitrarily labelling of one-thing-as-this and another-thing-as-that is as old as human history and just as full of stupidity. ‘Virgin’, ‘Chaste’, ‘Pure’ – these are some arbitrary words, or names, that we will be questioning soon.

But back to the ‘old world’;

We then move on to the reason for my starting the ‘Celestial Classics’ series when I did, because the girls of the village of Marlott engage in the Cerealia. A festival named after the Roman Goddess Ceres, goddess of field and grain (and the root of our word ‘cereal’) and introduces to us our next major theme of the novel – The contrasting of paganism and Christianity in rural life.

It is explained that the reasons for the traditional Cerealia have long since been forgotten, as far as the villagers are concerned it’s just a jolly-good May-Day knees-up.

Yet in such a pastoral word, in a world dominated by season, by weather, by vitalism – the essence or spirit of life itself – can you ever, truly escape the pagan? Did Christianity not just somewhat wallpaper over the old-world worship of hill, river, stream and season? Did they not call their Zeus ‘God’ and then divide up the minor divine roles among so many holy ghosts, angelic hoards and patron saints?

There is a sense in this whole book that the pastoral is the pagan, the human social is the Christian and the two are mirrors of each other in blessings and cruelties. This opening ‘part’ – and I divide the book into three parts – is probably the best at highlighting this, culminating in the greatest combination of natural cruelty and human inhumanity.

So the girls (as well as some older women) all don their nicest white frocks and have a bit of a cavort. To be honest, it gets a little noncey at this stage. In depth discussions about secondary sexual characteristics such as hair, eyes, lips, figures…that sort of thing.

It’s of its time. I get that. “The past is a different country…” and all that. It doesn’t stop it from reading very uncomfortably to a modern reader and…

Well how best can I put it? Given the plot of the novel, and the presentation of ‘women’ throughout the rest of it I did get a genuine feeling of fetishism of youth from Hardy. Whether there is anything paedophilic in it, or whether it is merely the musings of an aging man remembering when he was a plump-cheeked boy joining in dances with these girls is hard to discern. There is a revelry in their purity, that becomes a shame in their ‘taintedness’ moving forward that I found uncomfortable.

The girls are all pure, nice, correct, proper and innocent. The women are broken, bawdy, boisterous, nervous, improper, snobbish or crude.

I’m not usually someone sensitive to that sort of thing, being a man and all, and I felt it radiating, like heat from a bonfire, off this novel. It was so obvious as to almost be a motif and yet subtle enough that it could just be discrimination.

There is something with Hardy and women, I don’t know what but it’s there and it definitely affected my enjoyment of the novel because it most affects the main character who is so inconsistent in presentation that sometimes she feels like an alien even to herself. Some of this is deliberate but, a lot of it, I felt, was just bad character writing.

Then a young Angel Clare runs in to join the dance and dances with everyone except Tess who is naturally upset. I also cannot believe in my Unintentional Innuendoes article I missed out a reference to Tess’ “Own large orbs,” which I hope, given the context, meant eyes. 

So Tess leaves the dance and goes to visit her mother, the first of the coarse and tainted women of this great novel. Tess had been somewhat put out by not getting a dance with the strange visitor, but also by the fact that her dad drives by in a carriage proclaiming to all his new-found lineage.

Tess feels guilty for not having returned to help her mother sooner. Tess and guilt are like Bonnie and Clyde or Butch and Sundance – These are two partners in crime. Mrs. Durbeyfield is basically struggling and slaving away only until such time as Tess gets back so that she can go and ‘fetch her husband’ from the local ale house. In this case ‘fetch her husband’ is code for get wankered herself, and it is heavily implied that both John and Joan Durbeyfield are in the habit of enjoying a bevy.

Nothing wrong with that, except when you decide to have a litter of children and lean on the eldest to pick up the pieces for you because you’d rather get shit-faced.

There’s an interesting comparison of Tess and her mother’s physical features;

“There still faintly beamed from the woman’s features something of the freshness, and even the prettiness, of her youth; rendering it probable that the personal charms which Tess could boast of were in main part her mother’s gift, and therefore unknightly, unhistorical.”

Given the current plot of they-find-out-they’re-of-old-stock I think this is important. Those unknightly, unhistorical features are about to get Tess in a lot of trouble because of a pursuit of a historic knightliness, at the hands of someone who is unknightly and unhistorical but is pretending to be so.

There is surely some commentary here? The sullying of the pure pastoral beauty, untainted by historical links, by new-money buying old-names pretending to be something it isn’t?

This is why I title this part ‘The Virgin Eve’ – Tess is pure. Almost newly created just for us. Yet Tess is a duality, her looks are attributed to her mother, a woman of no renown whom history doesn’t know and the future will forget. Her mentality, her attitude, is very much of the d’Urberville, and there will be talk later of their feistiness, the “d’Urberville Curse”, this whole idea that just because you come from good blood does not make you a good person.

At this point, though, Marlott is an Eden before The Fall, and Tess is its Eve. She is the most innocent, the most innocuous, the most part-of-the-Earth. It is as if she wasn’t born, John and Joan didn’t have a bump, grind and moan and burst a bloody infant, covered in placenta, the aftermath of carnal sin, into the world. Tess was grown from the soil, from a pure seed, always stood on a firm moral stalk and even when winds would blow she would guiltily sway, but never waver or break.

So Tess takes over looking after the kids while the Durbeyfield parents go get sloshed at Rolliver’s, a tiny patch of Sodom in this Garden of Eden. The only thing of note to really happen here is that it has come to the attention of some that there are d’Urbervilles living nearby. The two exceptionally responsible parents decide the best thing to do is to, effectively, pimp their daughter out in the hopes they can scrounge some dosh and get her to marry a gentleman.

The Blackmore Vale Inn, believed to be the inspiration for Rolliver’s, where Mr. and Mrs. Duberyfield go drinking (Credit: Kevin Young / Blackmore Vale Inn, Marnhull / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Eve, it seems, will have trouble not eating the forbidden fruit if people don’t stop shoving it in her mouth.

Daddy Durbeyfield is so wankered from the pub that he can’t actually do his job the next day so it’s left to his teenage daughter and – I think – 8-year-old son. He’s their youngest son, anyway. He and Tess have to take over the responsibility of transporting a wagon full of bees to a nearby town, in the small hours.

Tess gets to daydreaming about d’Urberville blood and marrying a gentleman and falls asleep and when she wakes up, her horse, Prince (ironic name), has been lanced through the heart by the postman. Not deliberately, of course, the mailcart had been speeding along and the lamps on the Durbeyfield cart had gone out so he didn’t see them.

It is interesting that Tess goes from daydreaming about her knightly ancestors, flighty, fighty Princes and Earls, to her actual Prince, her horse, being stabbed through as if by a sword in a fight, or a lance in a joust.

Tess and her partner guilt take all the responsibility. Given that the horse was, essentially, the only real, adult worker of the family the plan to send Tess to their supposedly rich relatives becomes even more desperate and Tess agrees to it. She agrees to it mainly out of guilt and partially out of how put-upon she is looking after everyone else.

This is when Eve, after wandering through Eden, meets the Serpent. Alec Stoke-d’Urberville.

As mentioned before, this line of the family is not a line of the family at all. They are the Stokes family from up north where they made their money and now wish to escape in newly-moneyed splendour to the South where all the old money came from. The Durbeyfields are none the wiser to this little scheme and don’t realise they’re no relatives at all, and don’t realise they’re sending their daughter to her own demise.

Alec Stoke-d’Uberville is, what I think we could academically call, “a fucking twat.” If he’d grown up where I did we’d have chucked him off a cliff to the beach and let him die there.

Tess arrives, he charms her with overwhelming, tells her how ‘beautiful’ and ‘pretty’ she is, suggestively feeds her strawberries, packs her a basket of roses, shoves some down her tits for good measure and sends her back home knowing full well he intends to fuck her, whether she wants it or not, calling her a “…Crumby girl,” as he sends her on her way. He’s a fucking twat.

The irony, of course, is Tess is of the real d’Urbervilles, the actually historic family and Alec is of no such prestigious lineage at all. This reversal, this change, one of the themes of the novel, is a surprisingly powerful device. Tess has every right to condescend to him and yet, due to not knowing the true lack of value of his name against hers she accepts his manners, his intrusiveness, his invasiveness and his twattishness.

Upon her return to her own family very little of a shit seems to be given besides they might get a new horse, Tess is clearly in favour with this wealthier line of the family, as evidenced by a letter asking her to work with Mrs. d’Urberville, and if she fucks off she’s be ‘made a lady of’…

Oh, the irony…

Tess’ hesitation is made pretty apparent. In some kind of reverie or trance whilst there, she had permitted Alec to do all sorts of things that made her uncomfortable and she doesn’t like him, or the idea of him. Do you know what? I don’t either. The idea of a man like that existing in my world makes me downright uncomfortable and want to throw him off a bridge. But Tess, tethered by responsibility to a heavy ball of guilt, relents.

So Tess leaves, and is escorted to her new life at The Slopes, the Stoke-d’Urberville house, by Alec himself who, effectively grabs her like a hostage and steals her away down the lanes, at speed, showing off how fast his horse is. Much like a boy-racer today might put his foot down to deliberately scare the shit out of his lady passenger, it’s all done with a view to getting her heart racing, her chest heaving and have her feeling vulnerable so that he may soothe her and comfort her and all the saucy whatnots that follow.

I’ve mentioned that Tess’ parents were useless? Right? Because I know damn well if Mrs. Durbeyfield had been my mum she’d have told Tess all about the birds and the bees and how sometimes the birds need to peck at eyes and the bees need to sting crotches.

Tess, though, is like a rabbit in headlights with it all. She knows she feels uncomfortable, and has expressed it, but can’t quite say why. It’s clear that she is sexually ignorant – not just naïve, but totally ignorant. Even despite having so many younger brothers and sisters it doesn’t seem like the manner of their coming to be in the world has crossed her mind.

Her job at The Slopes is to teach caged birds how to sing, and help the blind old Mrs. d’Urberville, Alec’s mother, hug her chickens daily.

A woman who can’t see what’s right in front of her face and caged birds – that’s some heavy symbolism.

There’s a creepy scene where, when trying to re-learn how to whistle for the songbirds Alec decides to give Tess some lessons. Here her sexual ignorance is on full display and Alec should have the sense to notice she’s a bud, not a flower and fuck off, but he doesn’t because he’s a fucking twat. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that.

His sexual overtones are overwhelming, Tess’ ignorance infuriating and every protective sense in you is tingling at this point. You know this won’t go well for Tess.

Getting past that, Tess starts to feel alright and goes with the rest of the workers to some drunken barn dance. Begging the question, who is Eric Cartman’s father?

…Sorry, wrong drunken barn dance.

This doesn’t go so well because she starts to feel self-conscious, not helped by a lingering Alec creeping around in the dark like a predator.

Eventually everyone starts to go home, but one of the women spills some molasses down her back causing everybody, including Tess, to laugh, causing – for some reason, it seems to be that she is the apple of Alec’s eye and everybody else wants a piece of him – everybody to want to berate Tess, including old molasses-back herself, Car Darch, who essentially punches Tess in the face with the power of her tits.

“Ah, th’st think th’ beest everybody, dostn’t, because th’ beest first favourite with He just now! But stop a bit, my lady, stop a bit! I’m as good as two of such! Look here—here’s at ’ee!”

To Tess’s horror the dark queen began stripping off the bodice of her gown—which for the added reason of its ridiculed condition she was only too glad to be free of—till she had bared her plump neck, shoulders, and arms to the moonshine, under which they looked as luminous and beautiful as some Praxitelean creation, in their possession of the faultless rotundities of a lusty country-girl.

I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean besides a larger, plumper country girl showing Tess what a real pair of norks is supposed to look like? It could be suggested she is trying to show the frail and slender Tess that she is muscular but if that’s what Hardy means by ‘faultless rotundities’ well then stick another one in the unintentional innuendo article!

Frightened by this confrontation Tess takes flight, the song-bird uncaged, let loose into the wilderness and the apparently conveniently waiting carriage of Mr. Alec Stoke-d’Urberville (twat). He takes her off in the horse-and-cart, getting lost down in ‘The Chase’ and this isn’t some twee ITV game show. It is euphemistically named.

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primaeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse 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. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers 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. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm.

This is both my most and least favourite entire passage in the book. Let me explain.

On its own it is a beautiful testament to the vile, beautiful savagery of nature. A philosophy I, myself, espouse. A philosophy I wrote an article about. A philosophy I recognise in the vegetation, the chirping, the barking, the screeching, the blossoming, the biting, the snatching, the maggots and the decomposition around me. If I am anything, academically, I am a biologist and as I have often explained, you will be having anxiety attacks half way into your first year as an undergrad in bio if you have any mind for recognising the implications of what you are taught. Earth is danger.

It is my least favourite because in so subscribing to this philosophy Thomas Hardy has left ambiguity. Discussion continues to this day as to whether or not, in a moment of bleary-eyed, vulnerable weakness, Tess allowed Alec to violate her, or whether or not, basically asleep at the side of a lane, alone, he raped her.

I have no such doubts and need no such textual clues. She was raped. There is nothing about anything of the relationship between them that leads me to believe Tess would ‘permit’ – truly consent, to what happens to her. Indeed, she is so sexually ignorant I don’t think if Alec had said “Can I fuck you?” she would know whether to answer yes or no. It is a world apart from her and, yes there are contextual clues.

He doesn’t find a girl, plump, curvaceous, rosy and warm. There is nothing ‘sexy’ about what he finds. She is a ‘pale nebulousness at his feet’. She is more spirit than human. She was ‘sleeping soundly and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears’. That doesn’t exactly sound horny, does it?

The narrator asks “Where was Tess’s guardian angel?” implying she needed protection. From herself? Not likely, she’s a strong-willed young woman whose sole weakness is her family.

I won’t get too deep into biblical discussion. In the bible the serpent tempts Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, ensuring Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden.

In Tess, the serpent forces the fruit upon her, and God ignores, leaving her to be ‘damaged’ in the eyes of a judgemental society – a society full of hypocrites.

I love this passage because of that discussion it has, that judgement it casts upon both God and human. Whether it be the rapist, the people who blame the victim after the attack, or the fools who taught others that nature was innately kind, God innately merciful and life not just a basket of cruelties.

He mentions how knights of her own, once noble, family probably did the same, or worse, to peasant girls of their time. Invoking the cyclical, invoking some kind of karma and then, striking it from the record by saying that doesn’t excuse it! In a way very critical of ‘original sin’.

But the fact that there is even a discussion is down to the fact that, for whatever reason, Hardy just can’t bring himself to say “He violated her,” or “He forced himself upon her.”

Maybe he was trying to make a point. Would you, the reader, pick up his clues and cues and figure out Tess is a victim of assault here? Or would you rather brush it away with a casual “It was to be,” and keep living your life like those people in their ‘fatalistic way’?

One of the things that made the book so controversial at the time of its release was how blatant it was in its exposure of the sexual hypocrisies and social hypocrisies of the time. I have mentioned in other articles about Romans (for the Victorians did a lot of classics reading) that the Romans, too, had a hypocrisy about their attitude to sex and family but the Victorians took it to a whole new level.

Whitewashed with Christian doctrine the sexual behaviours so natural to the species Homo sapiens are hidden in Victoriana. Hardy knew this and, like a wife walking in on an adulterous husband and casting away the sheet, exposed the utter indignity to the world. They, naturally, did not like it much.

The ‘first phase’ of the book ends here, but it is my belief the first ‘part’ doesn’t conclude until a little later.

Pentridge Village, Dorset, seen from the hills above. Believed to have been the inspiration for Trantridge. (Credit: Simon Barnes / Pentridge village viewed from Pentridge Hill 2 / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tess returns home – this return-to-home will become somewhat of a motif if not a theme. What does it mean, if anything? A reflection on the cyclical nature of things, people come and go just as do seasons, maybe? Or perhaps just that in times of crisis all one can do is pack a bag and go where you’re most familiar, most safe.

Alec insists on returning with her and they have a discussion in which he essentially acts as his own personal rape apologist and she just cries. There’s a line earlier, about Tess taking in the scenery;

“Since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing.” 

She was no doubt not the first, and will, sadly, not be the last of the young women who learn in the cruellest of fashions that even if your life is a bed of roses you should beware of the thorns. We have Hardy himself portraying Alec as serpent, temptation of Eve, and Tess as natural as a sweet bird.

She goes home to her mother who then takes it upon herself to act as a rape apologist on behalf of Alec, suggesting she should have agreed to marry him after ‘that’ and that she ‘brought it upon herself’ and various other rapey tropes still so disgustingly common today but then Tess says the thing that sealed, in my heart, if not my mind (which was already made up), what happened to her.

 “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? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me!”

As I said earlier, Tess would not have known what she was consenting to if she did give any consent at all, which I doubt since the last we know she is fast asleep. Those are the words of someone who has been raped.

Her mother does as she is wont to do, next to piss all, and we move on.

It’s later in the year and Tess is busy working in a field, isolated from a lot of other people. It is lunchtime, she takes a short break, her siblings arrive from over the crest of the hill bringing with them a new little baby, surely not another Durbeyfield?

Tess takes the child in her arms, whaps out a milker and feeds the little’un. It’s her baby. She got pregnant.

Now this was the point where the book started getting interesting for me. NO! Not because she gets her boobs out in a field.

Even nowadays breast feeding in public is a controversial topic. Why, I have no idea? This, though, is a single-mum, breastfeeding her rape-baby in front of her social peers.


Suddenly Tess is being presented in this bold, new light. This girl, this weathered stalk of guilt and shame is unapologetic. In a way it is understandable, why stand on ceremony for oneself when you’ve got a child to raise? In another way, though, this is pioneering. This is a feminist revolution in rural Wessex in the 1890s.

She only gets bolder from there. The baby, it turns out, is sick and basically dying. The family do not want the shame brought upon themselves of asking the local vicar for a baptism (because, you know, it’s a bastard, but unbaptized babies burn in hell forever or something – I don’t know, if that’s your God, you do you. If that’s THE God he’d better be ready for me when I die because I’ll kick his fucking arse the sadistic piece of shit) but either way this troubles Tess. She does not want her baby to die, unbaptized, with no name. So she does it herself. Baptising the child with the name “Sorrow” – a little bit emo, but we’ll forgive her given the circumstances.

To sit and breast feed your illegitimate child in front of your co-workers is revolutionary. To act as an agent of God, to legitimise your child, to perform a baptism – this is a rebellion against God, this is Miltonian.

Bulbarrow Hill, Dorset – No immediate Hardy connection I know if, just a very pretty scene in roughly the area all of this seems to be set. (Credit: © Copyright Mr Eugene Birchall CC-BY-2.0)

I’m suddenly thinking the rest of this book is going to be this one young woman’s raging against the machine, a proto-punk from the 1890s, sticking it to the man, sticking it to God and sticking it to everyone in between in the name of all that is truly righteous.

The commentary here, against church and society, against the interweaving of the two – the reflections of natural cruelty, religious cruelty and social cruelty, all meet in this crescendo, this massive wave that crashes into a peak, into a point, and then it just falls as rain, dissipates and goes nowhere.

We will get to that in part 2, which should be nowhere near as long on account of being nowhere near as interesting.

There is then a disagreement with the local parson about whether or not the baby can get a Christian burial which, the parson is hesitant to do but does anyway because Tess is Tess and at that point in time if she wanted a dinosaur that shat diamonds she’d get one by force of will.

Interestingly in a discussion with someone acquainted with the rules of the cloth of the Church of England apparently this is all fine and the vicar is just a dickhead. For one thing, he should never refuse to baptise an infant especially in dire circumstances. If, however, a priest in unavailable, a baptism by any Christian so inclined is acceptable. Therefore the vicar’s reluctance to give the child a proper Christian burial is down to one of two things. One, either Hardy didn’t know the rules and gave the vicar the common social attitude of the time or two, Hardy did know the rules and made the vicar a deliberate dickhead.

Relatively unceremoniously the child is buried but, at least if it’s important to you, it’s on consecrated land and with the blessing of the parson.

She then gets an invitation to go be a milkmaid and so ends the second phase and my first part.

As I said, by this point I was wholly invested. The themes are right up my alley, Tess has gone from being a girl to a demi-God, she’s been broken by social misdeeds, disguised as norms, and broken them right back in revenge and I am curious to see how this exceptionally strong-willed girl, having been through the harshest, most chthonian of heroine’s journeys, gets on with punching life in the face, kicking arse and taking names.

Only she never quite does, after this point.

Remember what I said earlier about Hardy seeming to have a thing for girls more than women? Well I think in his mind that whole baptism, that taking life, the universe and God by the scruff of the neck, saying ‘rules be damned’ and doing what she wanted was, in his eyes, more of a loss of innocence than her assault in The Chase.

It’s almost as if, to the author, that was when she lost her innocence because she is never quite as potent as she is at that moment and yet that is the moment when she is, seemingly, most Tess-the-girl.

The themes set up here all carry through the rest of the book, that doesn’t change. I can’t say anything new gets added, I can’t say anything gets resolved. The events that have occurred so far are pivotal with regards to everything else that happens, so even though some characters may not appear for a while they will definitely play their part. So what we have done is set ourselves up, in the next part, for a lot of dismissal of plot and discussion of theme, I hope!

As far as the rest of it, in case you couldn’t tell from the few passages I’ve included there’s definitely a dialect issue if you’re trying to read it casually. Luckily I’ve lived in East Anglia before, whilst the accent and dialect is not the same as this one is made out to be there are enough similarities that ‘appen I ha’n’t a rum toyim a-figyin things ‘ut. (I didn’t have a hard time figuring things out.)

There’s also the language in general. I think I mentioned in the introduction, when he is simple Hardy’s use of English is stunningly beautiful, like a crisp September morning. When he’s writing with the style that was the pomp of the 19th century, flowery, florid, overly wordy and verbose – it’s a hazy July midday and you’ve got hayfever.

That I can’t really blame Hardy for, as I said, it was the style of the time and it’s not one I particularly care for. But it is something to consider if you’re reading along or thinking about reading.

Part 1 was incredibly promising. I feel for Tess, I will come to feel even more for Tess into part 2 – but that just doesn’t carry her journey forward. It’s almost like she starts a new one in a parallel universe. From being built into this deity, baptising her own baby because God wasn’t there to do it and he damn sure wasn’t there to help her the day he was made! There was a rebel there who vanishes into submission and pride.

We’ll get to that.

I’m calling it, before I disappoint myself even more. This has been Part 1, join me again for part 2 where you get to read me ranting about Romance.

You can find that right here! Tess of the d’Urbervilles: Part 2 – The Wessex Artemis.

Celestial Classics: Ceres

I’m leaving this full-size because – my word that’s a beautiful world. An approximated ‘true-colour’ image of the minor planet/absolutely massive asteroid that is also one of the most venerated Roman gods among the peasantry (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / Justin Cowart)

Ceres is, like Vesta, a hunk-of-stuff in the asteroid belt that generally falls into the dwarf-planet/minor-planet category. I think, more than Vesta, Ceres is planetised due to its closer orbit to the sun and is the largest object in the main asteroid belt. Indeed it is often considered a proto-planet, essentially a planetary embryo, giving us great insight into planetary formation.

It is also helped by the fact that it is round and thus sort-of planet shaped, whereas Vesta does have the profile of a potato. This will be mainly because it is size, the gravity of the place pulling its matter into a round shape but also due, I believe, to a significant impact that took place between Vesta and, likely, another asteroid – giving it a solid dent. Ceres, on the other hand, looks disturbingly like our own moon.

You will be unlikely to see Ceres with the naked eye, even at its brightest, but it does get within view of some decent binoculars or a passable telescope.

It’s mainly made up of muddy stuff, ice, rock and dust all combining. There is the potential it could have water, although it would likely be brine. One of the remarkable things about Ceres is has been seen to emit vapours, outgassing, a process more normally associated with comets.

As with Vesta, NASA’s Dawn probe (we talked about it in the Vesta article but if you missed it you can find mission details here) paid a visit to Ceres in 2015 to take some close-up shots and give us a better idea of why stuff in the universe does what stuff in the universe does. As a result we discovered craters and volcanoes, outgassing, different material properties at different parts indicating a different mineral make-up, and a lot of carbon compounds.

But you’re not here for that, are you? There’s only so many words you can dedicate to “This is a bit of rocky-icy stuff in space” you want to know why Ceres? Who is Ceres?

An earthy, lichen-coated Ceres contrasting against a pale blue sky. From Swaffham, Norfolk and put here simply so I could link you all to one of East-Anglia’s finest folk tales – The Peddlar of Swaffham! (Credit: © Copyright David Dixon CC-BY-2.0)

Ceres is the Goddess of the Kelloggs corporation!

That’s only a half-joke, she is a Roman Goddess of grain and agriculture, the protector or ruin of farmers and crop growers. She also has some domain over fertility and motherliness but, she’s basically the cereal queen.

The word ‘cereal’ itself derives from the very same roots as Ceres, potentially going all the way back to a proto-indo-european language root.

That means, like Vesta, Ceres is old. She may well have been an ancient part of worship by the time Romans got their hands on her, and like Vesta she is on the Dii Consentes, the 12 major Gods of the Roman pantheon. She is, in fact, the only agricultural representative there.

So in terms of origin story, do ya wanna get weird? Let’s get weird.

Ceres is an old god. The Romans, upon ‘adopting’ Greek culture – they basically stole it, associated Ceres with Demeter. Demeter is the Greek Goddess of harvest, agriculture, grain etc. all of the same sort of stuff as Ceres except that Demeter has been associated with the Anatolian cult of the Cybele. The Cybele, or Magna Mater (great mother) became a central cult figure in Rome around the time of the Punic Wars (Rome versus Carthage) when Roman history seemed to get superstitiously tied up with the Libri Sibyllini, the Sibylline books, purchased from a Sibyl by the last King of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. These books allegedly spelled out all of Roman history and would be consulted many times when crisis hit the Empire.

So, somewhere down the road, old gods may have got so mixed up there is every potential the Romans were worshipping roughly the same one twice, in Ceres and the Cybele (or Sybil, or Cybil or Sybill…so many different spellings)!

A seated Ceres from National Museum of Roman Art of Mérida – She has lost her hands, but I’ve no doubt she would have had a sheaf of wheat in at least one of them! From around 1st Century CE. (Credit:Cynwolfe CC-BY-3.0)

Not that that mattered to the Romans, of course, they adopted a great many deities, associating them with their own (in what’s known as interpretatio Romana – or Roman interpretation) and with Greek ones, as part of their keeping populations placid during their imperial conquest. A sort of ‘we adopt your god, you adopt ours’ arrangement.

The Sybilline prophecies are, alas, a tale for another time.

Ceres is an important God for peasants like me, being as she is one of the few major agricultural deities she was also part of what is known as the ‘Aventine Triad’. The Aventine is one of the hills of Rome and the one most associated with the plebeian class, the plebs – poor people in other words.

Since the far more authoritative Capitoline Hill had their own triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva; the Aventine adopted their own, Ceres, Liber and Libera.

Relationships between the three Gods are contested, with some claiming Liber, the male god, had liasons with both Ceres and Libera, both female. Some claim Liber is Ceres’ brother and Libera his wife. Either way they are basically the gods of food and wine.

You can really tell a culture is going somewhere when on one hill the wealthy can establish a triad of power and protection whilst on another the workers can establish a triad of food and drink!

Liber (right) and Libera (left) depicted on a denarius from around 78BCE. (Credit: Otto Nickl CC-BY-4.0)

This is an old association, too, dating back to not long after the establishment of the republic in the 4th century BCE. Possibly related to the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ or whatever event caused the Plebs to be given legal powers.

This association also makes her a protector of law, especially laws for plebeians, including the Lex Sacrata, that first established plebeian rights and the Lex Hortensia of 287BC that extended them. The decrees of the senate (senatus consulta) were taken and placed within the temple of Ceres and, Livy tells us this is, basically, so consuls couldn’t fuck with them!

Ceres’ temple, then, is associated with the Aventine, apparently the one in Rome was built near there and in view of the Circus Maximus – The massive race-track for horse racing, chariot racing and other games, in the valley between the Palatine Hill and the Aventine Hill.

One of the features of her annual Cerealia, held mid-late April (and thus associated with May-Day, 1st of May in our other article today about Tess of the d’Urbervilles) would be races at the Circus Maximus and according to Ovid they would absolutely torture foxes by attaching lit torches to their tails and letting them run around in pain for some reason.

I would jest about what quaint ancient barbaric customs these people have but there are people in the government of my country who think torturing foxes is also a fun thing to do so I can’t argue much for the advancement of human so-called ‘civilisation’ in 2,000 years, can I?

A panoramic view of the Circus Maximus in Rome in the ruins it is today. It was once the largest stadium in Rome, possible the world! The buildings over to the right hand side are the remains of the ‘House of Augustus’ – The house on the Palatine from which all future palaces would derive their names. I believe it was Domitian who had a lot of work built up there specifically so he could watch games at the Circus from the palace. (Credit: Peter Clarke CC-BY-3.0)

As Vesta before her had protected virginity and chastity, Ceres, Goddess of fertility, naturally protected the transition to womanhood and motherhood. In a strangely sensical association given that Vesta was protector of virgins associated with flying dicks of fire, this one just make sense.

There’s so much to Ceres but I will begin the end with the notion of the Mundus. The Mundus Cerialis, or Ceres’ World – was a pit, in which tribute, usually grain, would be thrown both to the Goddess herself but also for her to allow access to this tribute from the underworld. She was, effectively guardian of the portals to the underworld. On certain days this portal would be opened, tribute given, but also the souls of the dead could come up and see the world of the living again. Stories about it come to us from Plutarch, Festus, Macrobius and others.

I ended with that weird pouring out of libations mixed with Halloween ceremony because I think it provides one of the most profound insights into polytheistic traditions. That which we arbitrarily celebrate for the sake of saints, was to the Romans very real.

The Vmbilicvs Vrbis Romae – The belly-button of the city of Rome. Often associated with the Mundus, this may well have been where the spirits of the dead, Di Manes, would have escaped for their night in the above-world. That mysterious figure in orange, to the left of the image, may very well be a spirit of a departed Roman, come to enjoy the finery of baseball caps and jogging bottoms in our modern world. Or they may just be a tourist. (Credit: Karlheinz Meyer CC-BY-EVERYTHING)

Ceres, as God of Grain, literally was a portal to the underworld if she wanted to be. All she had to do was give you a bad harvest.

Not only is her fertile earth the soil in which your grain will grow, but it is the final resting place of many bodies, animal and man.

She stands on the cusp between life and death in almost as literal a fashion as you could imagine and, to this day, we still pour out libations, we still toast our spirits, and we still make offerings. Christianity has never helped us escape the pagan.

Now, this is where we shall finish but scholars of classical mythology will be screaming at me “You didn’t even mention Proserpina, her daughter who she was eventually in a joint cult with!”

That’s because whilst Vesta and Ceres are easily noticeable asteroids in the main asteroid belt, Proserpina, Ceres’ daughter, sits out there too. We’ll get to her. I feel she has a tale deserving of detachment from her mother’s!

Celestial Classics: Vesta

Vesta, the space-rock not the Goddess, although given how little she is represented as a woman she could easily be a space-rock. This large asteroid (sometimes designated a ‘minor planet’) is the second largest in the Asteroid Belt. This photo was taken by NASA’s Dawn probe.(Credit: NASA)


No, not what every self-respecting beige-suit wearer from the 70s passed for exotic food, and not a box of matches.

Vesta is an asteroid in the asteroid belt (that bit of rocky stuff mainly between Jupiter and Mars’ orbits), the second largest after Ceres, who we will almost certainly talk about later. It is usually, categorically, caught somewhere between ‘big space rock’ and ‘dwarf planet’. It is the brightest visible asteroid as seen from Earth and NASA’s Dawn probe spent a year orbiting Vesta in 2011-2012.

You might think sending expensive space equipment to die in the cold grip of the void so you can get a few glamour shots of a space rock is not important, but it is. For pure science’s sake it can tell us a lot about planetary formation and evolution. How matter goes about matting in the universe is something about which we know surprisingly little.

From a selfish point of view, learning about massive hunks of rock that hurtle about space is actually quite important for understanding what more you can do if one looks on a collision course with Earth, besides soiling yourself and asking if Bruce Willis actually knows how to drill in microgravity. I’m almost certain he doesn’t.

The Dawn missions were some of the most integral to our understanding the make-up of objects in the asteroid belt and proto-planet formation. Many new, exciting and amazing things were discovered. One of those things is than an impact caused a crater (named Rheasilvia – after the mythical mother of Romulus and Remus and Vestal Virgin) that ejected material into space that has landed on Earth as meteorites. The first time we have been able to connect an ‘event’ in space with material held here on Earth. For more mission details and finding go here. (Credit: NASA, JPL-CalTech)

Now, if you happen to be in the United Kingdom, and we happen to have some decent weather, there is a chance Vesta will be visible in the night sky. It’s in Leo at the moment, somewhere by the Lion’s arse to the south of the star Delta Leonis, otherwise known as Zosma. I tried to spot it yesterday evening (27th February 2021) but it was very near the full-moon which turned everything around it into a light polluted mess.

It’s sometimes naked-eye visible and with some binoculars or a telescope you should definitely be able to find it, although it is relatively tiny, of little magnitude (brightness) as a result and so won’t look like much more than a speck unless you have a really good ‘scope.

Classically speaking, though, who and why Vesta?

Well, it could have something to do with my puerility and the fact that most of the stories we have involve fire-cocks and divine impregnation. But, it isn’t…

…Just that. I mean, obviously that has a huge amount to do with it. Flaming dicks and miracle babies, what’s not to love?

It’s also the fact that she’s King of the Gods, Jupiter’s, sister. In fact, outside of the ‘Capitoline Triad’ of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, Vesta’s was one of the most important religious cults in the Roman world.

The remains of the Temple of Vesta in the Forvm Romanvm, Rome. (Credit:
Yellow.Cat CC-BY-2.0)

If you have ever heard of the ‘Vestal Virgins’ you have heard of Vesta herself. The Vestal Virgins were her priestesses, dedicated to her and only her in a 30 year vow. These vows were taken very seriously.

According to Livy, one Vestal Priestess who broke her vow of chastity, Minucia, was punished by being buried alive. That must be, historically, one of the most serious and dire consequences for a shag.

So who was this Goddess who was taken so seriously by the homely Romans? Well she is a goddess of hearth and home. Like a sort of Roman Nigella Lawson, only with a reduced propensity for suggestive finger sucking and being outrageously milfy.

A rare image of Vesta as a woman, though not of Roman era. From the “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum” by Guillaume Rouille, approximately 1553. (Credit: Public Domain)

She is also associated with fire (hence the name of the matches), and tending to the Sacred Fire of Vesta was one of the sworn duties of her virgins.

Surely not the only fire they kept burning. These were, after all, lovely comely virgins in Roman times.

But, as mentioned, the punishments for the crime of interfering with a Vestal virgin, or being a Vestal virgin who allows herself to be interfered with, were severe.

Vesta, then, was a big deal. Outside of the aforementioned big three, and the Cybil (who is a whole different kettle of cult) she was probably the most important.

Why? Because Romans believed in family.

A statue believed to be of a Vestal Priestess. This is from the Upper Via Sacra. There are actually many statues of Vestals in Rome – demonstrating their importance.

Specifically they believed in a nuclear family controlled by one bloke who probably had bad teeth and a superiority complex caused by his being the Pater Familias – translating almost literally to ‘the father of the family’. This was not just a title. It was a role that came with established and legally binding responsibilities like, for example, the power of life and death over members of the family.

You can see why Vesta was fairly key! Imagine if your dad could murder you and your mum because, you know, reasons, and the legal system would just say “Well, you’re the boss!” and move on. That was a system that existed.

Having some ‘greater power’ to default to, whether it be your lares, your household gods, or the Vestals go to for advice or guidance, is probably better than acting out of a hot-headed temper.

I couldn’t not! Known as the ‘strike anywhere’ match, and the kind of match you see tough-guys light on their stubble, Swan Vestas are named after the Goddess of fire, hearth and home and are distinguishable by their reddy-pink tips. (Credit: Public Domain)

Now, I mentioned earlier on something about fire-cocks. You see, despite having her flame tended exclusively by virgins, and despite being almost exclusively depicted or at least perceived as female, Vesta has an association with the facinus – the Roman religious (often winged) cock. You might think this a bit strange but there is some twisted, cock-and-ball logic to it.

For one thing, the feeding of the flame of Vesta, the ignes aeternum – Is this burning an eternal flame? Yes, yes it is. Well that fire would be lit in a womb-like crucible in the temple by a large rod of wood – extrapolate a little and you’ve got some penetrative, impregnating, procreative energy going on there.

The facinus, the magical flying cock, has very little evidence of adorning adults. It is believed to have warded off evil spirits, either with its masculine prowess and erect potency or by them laughing at it. My experience in life leads me to believe the latter is probably true.

Many of the decorations would have adorned doorways, as tintinnabulum, windchimes or bells.

But there has been found evidence of, for example, facinus rings too small to have been worn by adults. They would have been used to protect children, particularly masculine children. So you see, Vesta, as the Goddess of hearth and home, was protecting the kiddies with her magical flying penises! It all makes total sense, trust me.

Just a perfectly normal winged cock, with cocks for feet and a cock-tail, with if you notice between it’s cock legs, it has a cock. This bronze facinus was found in Pompeii and would have been part of a tintinnabulum – A sort of wind-chime arrangement, or collection of bells. Given How many cocks there are on this thing I think it’s got a big enough collection of bells. (Credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5)

There’s also the story of Ocresia (by some versions a Vestal Virgin) the mother of the Roman King Servius Tullius, getting pregnant with him by fucking herself with a magic cock that either appeared in, or flew out of, the hearth. So, yeah, there’s that.

I think if there’s a take-away message I want you to get from this it is that pagan religion, the pantheistic (multiple gods), animist (the belief that all objects have a spiritual essence) traditions of the Greco-Roman world and the various places they stole from was – well – it’s a whole different universe from the monotheistic, hands-off God, dominance of today.

Vesta herself outdates so many other Greco-Roman gods, she’s likely inherited from a pre-Roman Latin tradition such that most Roman sources attribute her to Trojan lineage, as per the founding of Alba Longa by Aeneas as set out in Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’.

To this end Vesta herself is a myth of a myth.

Vesta, the sacred flame, the holy hearth, the magic virgin cock mother – It might all seem ludicrous but for a blossoming hill-tribe culture around the Tiber their fire was their life, fertility was central to their success, their flames literally were divine, their genitals the magical keys to open the gateways of creation.

We can have a giggle now, but the Cult of Vesta was one of the last surviving pagan cults in Roman culture, even as Christianity swept across the empire. I believe it took an official order from Theodosius I to shut it down.

Rome was built of families. Their homes were their temples, their ancestors as Gods and Vesta – she represented something of ‘the origin’ itself. She was a spirit, a force, older than Rome. She was as the Earth, she was the volcanic fire bubbling away beneath the surface, the very soil on which Rome planted her Imperial Eagles and conquered.

A closer image of the Temple of Vesta with the sacred hearth in the foreground. It is said that if this fire went out then the Goddess had withdrawn her protection from the city. Tending the fire, then, was a serious duty. It going out a serious dereliction of that duty. Being a Vestal was, for Patrician Roman woman, one of the few ways they could serve their nation on the front lines, in that respect. (Credit: FrankCJones CC-BY-3.0)

The Vestals did not just care to one flame. They cared also to the Palladium of Pallas Athena – the holy image on which the entire fate of the Roman Empire was said to rest. They cared, too, for the Penates, the household deities, guardians of all Romans.

Much like Aeneas was gifted his shield by the smithing God Vulcan, to aid in his protection so that Rome may be; Rome was gifted these images by Athena, via Aeneas, so that she may achieve her great destiny.

Given that the Roman legacy lives on, her language refuses to die, her institutions, some limping and some galloping, take us striding into the 21st century, is it any wonder, then, that Vesta clings in our sky as an ever-present watcher?

If you get a chance, look up and you may find her.

Or you may see a flying cock.

Either way it’ll be pretty nifty.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – An Introduction

An opening page from an original 1891 print of the full novel (Public Domain)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions about sexual assault, rape and infant mortality.

I am still finding trouble processing my thoughts on Tess, but let me begin with a brief summary of the plot of the book the full title of which was once “Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” which…we’ll likely discuss at some point.

A comely young country girl’s father discovers their family are actually of an ancient lineage and gets a bit giddy about it. Meanwhile, given that the girl herself is their most valuable possession they decide to pimp her out to their near-related, though actually unrelated, relatives, the Stoke-d’Urbervilles. Basically some newly wealthy people who bought the rights to an old name. Because she killed a horse by accidentally stabbing it with a postman, Tess agrees to be pimped out, feeling responsible.

She meets with her ‘cousin’ Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, who looks like a creep, acts like a creep and is a creep. Eventually she is invited, no doubt through some sly move, to work with Old Lady Stoke-d’Urberville teaching birds to sing and hugging chickens.

Then Thomas Hardy spends two paragraphs not quite telling you if she was coercively seduced or actually raped but I think it’s safe to say she was raped.

Tess, naturally, has a problem with this, but an even bigger problem is to come in the unexpected pregnancy that results in her becoming a young, single mother. There is a touching scene where she is working hard in the field, stops for lunch to breastfeed the young ‘un, and then gets cracking back with the work and you’re almost thinking this is going to be some sort of pastoralist exploration of a new idea of womanhood, especially when she turns all John the Baptist for fear her baby will die unbaptized because, oh yeah, her baby dies.

End of Part 1 as far as I am concerned.

I want to save all the Wessexian and actually ‘Tess’ relevant images for the full reviews so have some beautiful countryside for now. (Credit: Derek Voller CC-BY-2.0)

Part 2 is Tess moving to a Dairy farm where she meets up with a bunch of other young women and the enigmatic gentleman Angel Clare who’s too unholy to be a priest so he wants to be a farmer.

Frankly this was the section of the book that least engaged me, being as it is the segment that bears all the hallmarks of a ‘Romance’ novel. Tess and Angel make eyes at each other but neither makes the first move, they share glances in the cowshed, he gives her a wink as she suggestively tugs on the teat of a cow, that sort of thing.

At this point I was disappointed because it seemed like it had turned from this pastoralist clashing of pagan and Christian ideas, something very of-the-romantic-era but not necessarily of the romance, to something that was about two people seemingly destined to be with one another and all that lovey-dovey stuff.

Except, of course, we all know Tess’ dark secret, that she was raped and impregnated before and therefore, by the morals and standards of the time is a tainted harlot and technically somebody else’s wife already.

The entire tension for this lengthy shit-or-get-off-the-pot section is built around this notion of two people who just have zero communication with one another, presented as a truly romantic tale and to me it just came across badly.

They inevitably get married, and they decided the best way to spend the first night of their honeymoon is to each confesses their sins to the other. The Godly Mr. Angel Clare apparently having spent 48 hours in a bender in some bawdy cathouse happily banging some chick, whilst we know what happened to Tess.

Of course, as was the style of the time, this makes Tess a totally unlovable slut in the eyes of Angel and he decides that as a result of her being so broken and damaged he must fuck off to Brazil.

Tess then has to work her arse off for pride, because it’s Tess and she won’t simply go and appeal to her husband’s parents for fear/shame/guilt and instead works at a Turnip farm where it turns out she meets up with Alec Stoke-d’Urberville again, and apparently he has somewhat of a penchant for the girl he raped and knocked up and so starts pursuing her.

Eventually Tess’ father dies, he was the last in the hereditary line of leaseholders on their house and so they have to fuck off but that doesn’t go quite so well.

Here I would argue is the end of part 2 – the Romance section and, frankly until the end it’s just dull and a bunch of stupid people being stupid. It is a shame because it features some of the most beautifully written segments, it is just ruined by the formerly, seemingly deified, Tess turning into nothing but a simpering lapdog for a complete wanker.

Essentially – I can find little of fault in the themes, and indeed in most of the writing unrelated to characters. The inconsistency of the characters, especially of Tess herself, is the most jarring thing.

Most of Part 2 is spent on a dairy tugging on these milkers – (Credit: John Haynes / Dairy heifers / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Then we move on to Part 3 which is frankly Gothic.

It is about a year later.

Tess, to support her family, has moved to some fancy-pants townhouse with Alec who has convinced her that her lawful husband is never coming home. Tess, apparently somewhere between being raped and wanting to provide for her family decides it best to shack up with him.

But then Angel does come home, an emaciated skeleton because it turns out Brazil is a lie, it’s actually a jungle infested with disease, struggle and strife and he’d much rather have a broken wife than a broken life – It only took him nearly dying of fever, alone, in a foreign land to realise this because, apparently, for all his learnedness is talked up he has the intelligence of a howler monkey on heroin.

Angel goes off in pursuit of his wife, sure that she is going to be happy for his return only to find her beautifully radiant, wrapped in a gown of infidelity and she tells him to go away, when actually what she means is I love you, I hate myself, give me five I’m just going to kill my fake husband.

And she does, she stabs Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, something which, frankly Angel hinted at in part 2 and I thought would turn that Romance section very interesting but never happened, but she finally does it and then runs off to find her real husband.

They catch up, like tramps, by the side of the railroad tracks, and she’s all like “I stabbed the bastard!” and he’s like “Whaaaaaat” and she’s like “Is that alright?” and he’s like “Fuck it, yeah, whatever, it’s better than Brazil” and they decide to go on the run.

So first of all they stay in this spooky mansion for a few days where they actually get to pretend to be husband and wife for a bit, but then they have to leave the mansion because it doesn’t belong to them and squatters’ rights weren’t a thing back then.

So they fuck off to Stonehenge instead. Whilst here Tess accepts that she will likely be caught and executed so gives Angel full permission to fuck her youngest sister and, apparently the police of the time are the greatest in the land because despite the fact that hardly anyone has seen a shadow of this couple they get encircled by sixteen coppers, at Stonehenge which, even now, is pretty remote, and they’re like “Ya fucked” and Angel’s like “Just let her have a sleep” and apparently they do which is most realistic.

Then she is executed, and Angel and Tess’ youngest sister walk off hand-in-hand and heads bowed.

The end.

Built somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, by fuck-knows who, fuck-knows why – Stonehenge is one of Britains outstanding ancient monuments (Credit: Operarius CC-BY-3.0)

Now here’s the thing. I expected to be incredibly disappointed with an unhappy ending to this tale because, frankly, given what she had been through, Tess deserved better.

It is very apparent the moral lesson Hardy is trying to tell here, in fact he spells it out in Tess’ redemption in the eyes of Angel. What matters most? Act or intention? Tess was always a pure girl/woman put in positions where she was abused or had to act a certain way. She is as much a victim of nature as she is of society (and I will discuss this comparison further), and I think Hardy makes that point quite well. Albeit he never quite comes out in full-throated support of Tess in what she does, there is always this sense that there is something about her a little cursed, a little damned, a little broken.

But my biggest problem is that this is a relatively short book, seemingly divided into three quite separately themed short stories all of which could have been more interesting to pursue on their own. More than that the characters develop in ways where they seem almost to come from differing, alternate universes depending on which part you’re in.

All of these parts could have been made their own, full, novel and stood alone. All of them could have had very different themes and genres, with the same core exploration – this balance of nature’s beauty and cruelty contrasted with the same in society and how one changes either.

It makes some sense, the initial release of the story, like so many at the time, would have been serialised in magazines. It’s the reason for the constant cliff-hangers. But even then, this constant amping up, this changing-of-the-guard with regards to character, is really…I mean…It’s bad. It’s bad writing. Angel, well I think we’re supposed to believe he’s an inconsistent wanker – that’s his defect. But Tess is not, she is strong one minute, weak the next, she is smart one minute, stupid the next and some of the decisions she makes are clearly more for drama.

There’s an aspect of Thomas Hardy seemingly being unable to write a ‘woman’. Instead Tess is presented as a see-sawing androgyne – of no fixed-sex. One minute she’s a coy, feminine beauty turned to socially-acceptable putty in the hands of her beloved and the next she’s making a man bleed and behaving with the uncouth manner of a drunken docker. Her decisions are just as see-saw and it ultimately leads to frustration.

Tess is built up into a figure who almost transcends sex itself, a Goddess almost and then – she’s not even torn down, she doesn’t fall so much as just crumbles. I don’t know to what extent it was Hardy’s inability to write a female character and to what extent it was a delicate balance of keeping an already controversial story away from a total ban, but you feel it.

A perfectly normal UK Ostrich Farm – (Credit: Mick Garratt / Ostrich Farming, Ings Farm / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In many ways I can see how it could be considered ‘ahead of its time’. Tess is a fiercely independent character, brutally so at times. She also, though, has an odd tendency to go on and do what other people, especially men, expect of her because…reasons? Society? I don’t know? One minute she’s giving the glove slap and the next minute she’s submissive.

I can then also see where the criticism comes from.

Hardy created a character, a woman, who in the spirit of Humanitas is so elevated she somehow transcends her sex and gender and deifies herself and then the next minute she’s shacked up with the biggest scumbag because she’s too proud to ask her actual husband’s family for help?

There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense to me in terms of the character development and it harms what is a solid set of themes.

I will also say that whilst Hardy has a tremendous ability to use simple language with precision and elegance he does also fall into the 19th century trap of being overly wordy and a bit of a flowery-twat with his language.

This, though, is literally a style of its time and if you’re going to be reading literature from the 19th century you’d better get used to it.

Anyway, expect a bit more detailed analysis on what I consider the ‘Three Parts Tess’ trilogy. I just wanted to get my initial introduction out there.

Celestial Classics: Introduction

The constellation of Orion, Ancient Greek so we’ll leave his definitely #MeToo worthy past for when we cover his myth, but one of the most recognisable constellations in both hemispheres. You can read our article about spotting him in the sky here (Credit: Anirban Nandi CC BY 3.0)

After considering writing an article about ancient astronomy, my cursory research turned up something quite amazing.

You won’t believe this, but despite the fact that they didn’t have organised scientific bodies, specific, focussed research grants or even basic telescopy, ancient astronomy was bollocks.

In fact just about the only advantage they have over us these days is less light pollution.  

In short, there’s little the ancients can teach us about astronomy. Their knowledge may seem amazing to some white dude with dreadlocks who believes deodorant gives you autism and vaccines cause third world hunger, but you can probably do a better job with two toilet roll tubes held up to your eyes and ‘Baby’s First Stargazing’ book.

They might see a Mayan star map, or hear of the Egyptian Zodiac and think “Wow, they really knew a lot!” but really that’s just because they had nothing better to do so made a lot of stuff up that seems profound until you realise it’s a celestial fairy tale. They had never spoken to anyone who actually knows anything about space like we do now, and frankly we’d have blown their minds.

We’ve found exoplanet’s moons, for crying out loud. There are catalogues of stars upon stars with codified names you don’t know exist but that someone, in some dusty side-room off a corridor in an old building at a university somewhere (you know the building, it wouldn’t look out of place in Resident Evil), they’re hunched up in the corner like Doctor Frankenstein scanning their eyes frantically over reams and reams of data so they can be the foremost expert on Star 425—2B-Exon/C7212 because, you know, curiosity. Why not?

We’re using advanced techniques of telescopy and spectroscopy to work out the components of atmospheres of planets in completely different solar systems lifetimes away from us. Even then, most of our cosmologists and astonomers today would talk about how little we know.

Those old dudes whether they’re Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman – it doesn’t matter – Nowadays They’d struggle to get any points on University Challenge for their astronomical knowledge. I’m not saying they’re stupid they were ridiculously clever for their time.

The Space Goddes, Nut, on the tomb of Ramses VI. Nut swallows the day every evening and gives birth to it every morning. A fanciful, if off-base description of the astronomy involved. (Credit: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) GFDL-CC-BY-SA-all)

It’s just their time also didn’t have the ability to have a sarcastic prick like me type a script on magic virtual paper, on a god-machine connected to a network of every technologically capable human on the planet, able to record his voice and edit video allowing him to be incisively witty on the internet. Even idiots like me can do that now. Back then you had to be a Hawking-level genius just to know how to write!

I’d say if they were born now they’d grow up to be academics but let’s be honest, if they were born now they’d be opioid addicted, internet trolling basement masturbators.

So there’s not a lot we can learn about astronomy from ancient civilisations, I am sorry to say. Well there is but it’s mostly superstition, the jumboest mumbo to have persistently mumbo-jumboed.

The twelve traditional signs of the Zodiac. Persistently jumboing mumbo if ever there was. Inherited by the Greeks via the Egyptians with a little bit of re-jigging along the way. From left to right, top to bottom the signs are Naked Crazy Man, FlyGoat, the Pokémon Krabby, Ugly Unicorn, Gay Pride, Thundercats, Broken Drums, Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley, Bow-Jack Horseman, Winds of Change by Scorpions, Collogen lips Cow and Flying Bint. (Credit: terski via Pixabay)

There is, however, a lot we can learn about the ancient civilisations from astronomy.

It’s hard to look at a patch of the Northern Hemisphere sky and see something that isn’t named after a God, a hero, a figure of myth, a monster of legend or an emperor’s mum.

Oh, and when I say there are ‘Gods in our stars’ I’m not going all von Däniken, I’m not about to start suggesting Jesus was a spaceman or Moses came from Uranus. I’ll leave that to disreputable media outlets like The History Channel. Here at We Lack Discipline we might say ‘fuck’ every once in a while, but we try and make sure our work stands up to academic rigour.

I’ll be an apologist for cryptozoology, because every once in a while we turn up a new species. Unknown animals exist. But that ‘Ancient Aliens’ crap? Even ignoring the inherent racism “Some beige mountain people couldn’t possibly have built this without help from some amazing technological force outside our solar system…”

How did I end up writing over 100,000 words on this blog since January? A near impossible task for any regular human? …Aliens (Credit: Memes)

Have you fucking met humans? People build Georgian townhouses out of Lego for fun! There’s a record for most number of clothespegs stuck on somebody’s face, people have rowed across the Atlantic – not sailed, rowed – with their own arms – for what? Because they can?

And these are people with televisions, internet, Nintendo Switch. I have a Nintendo Switch, a PS2, PS3, PS4 and gaming capable PC right here, right now and I’m choosing, instead, to have a go at pricks who want to belittle indigenous cultures by suggesting they couldn’t build shit.

They had so much time, so much in resources and Jesus Henry-Hoover Christ have you seen Cathedrals? You’re telling me that in 5,000 BC a bunch of people in Britain couldn’t lift some heavy rocks and lay them, half-planned, half-slapdash, in a circle, but a few thousand years later they could build an intricately scuplted church that looks like a Gothic wet-dream in Europe…Why?

It is wholly believed that, in 50AD, Roman humans built this remarkable aqueduct in Segovia, Spain that still stands to this day… (Credit:Z3144228 CC-BY-4.0)
…But a few thousand years earlier were incapable of stacking bricks in an increasing taper, to a pyramidal point, at Giza, without extra-terrestrial interference. I call bullshit, very often racist bullshit. (Credit: Morhaf Kamal Aljanee CC-BY-3.0)

Even besides that the whole Ancient Aliens deal has not turned up any solid evidence. Do you know what, I’ll even admit in my heart of hearts I would love it to be true. But prove it. The History Channel should not be promoting this bullshit.

So, back to the mainline – There are Gods, heroes and myths in our stars.

Where to begin, then? We can look to the constellations where Perseus, Hercules and Orion all dwell, like some sleazy heroic hotel on Corfu.

We could look to the planets, our Solar System housing the great Greco-Roman gods, one of whom is a gaseous giant, a grotesque and turbulent windbag who can turn himself into a swan to get laid (incels, there is no excuse).

There are even tales to be told of the Moons of Jupiter, the Galilean Moons being specifically named after lusty liasons with the turbulent shape-shifting swangod windbag himself, Jupiter (or Zeus).

Jupiter and the Galilean Moons – all of whom have mad myth of their own to explore. Maybe one day we’ll get to them. (Credit: Dennis CC-BY-4.0)

But I’m not going to start there. I’m going to start (celestially) much smaller but (mythologically) pretty respectable.

So welcome to my new series – Celestial Classics, where I hope I can combine my love of amateur astronomy with my love of classics and hopefully you’ll come to love it too.

You should do, there will be a lot of classical mythology which is about as absurd as a sock full of crabs on holiday in Peterborough.

Why not move on to our first installment – Vesta – The asteroid and Roman virgin Goddess of hearth and home.

Wanna Play? – Why Games are Important

A ‘Ludo’ game board, the aim of the game is to send your coloured pieces around the board before making their way ‘home’. Based of the an Indian game, Pachisi that can trace its origins back to the 6th Century. Basically humans have abstracted play for as long as they have abstracted! Incredible (Credit: Peggychoucair via Pixabay)

Chess has seen a resurgence recently. Access to interesting youtube content from Grand Masters and International Masters mixed with the success of Netflix’s chess-themed drama ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ have returned its status as a game of intellectuals and Kings. But is it really all that and a bag o’ chips? I mean, games have come a long way since chess happened.

It got me thinking, so here’s a little opiniony thinky piece about chess and play.

Chess-like games have likely existed for nearly as long as humans could first look at a bit of a stick, a pebble or a dried nugget of shit and abstract that it could represent a person. The latter especially so, I know many people who are dry shits – I’m one of them – so it’s not a hard abstraction to make.

Even so it likely originates in ancient Asian cultures. We can trace a lot of modern chess-likes back to the Chinese game of Xiangqi (pronounced like shangchi – I think…) which has its first textual mention in the first century BCE. As with everything in history there’s a lot of debate about whether this was or wasn’t the same thing as the later version of the game. Then some bloke about six hundred years later wrote about it and historians debate whether that was the same game and so on, and so forth.

It’s always the same old story of a bunch of old men who smell like leather and wee nitpicking over functionally useless, arbitrary details and avoiding the point. The point is since humans were first bored, and could abstract an object as representing another figure they’ve been playing games.

Chess – The Game of Kings – Literally, the whole deal is to try and trap your opponent’s King. It is essentially an abstraction of old state dynamics. Castles, bishops, knights, kings, queens etc. Considered a ‘respectable’ even an ‘intellectual’ game whilst some videogames, despite being much more complex, are still frowned upon. (Credit: moritz320 via Pixabay)

Being a gamer in this day and age carries a lot of baggage. It summons forth images of overgrown man children, dangling 70s hippy hair framing a scruffy neckbeard, wearing some nerdy t-shirt and jeans, smelling of snack remnants and body odour and furiously fiddling their controllers. I assure you, in my case, this is true.

Chess, meanwhile, summons up images of smart Nordic types in black turtleneck sweaters, one hand posted on their chin in Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ pose using their hyper-intelligent calculator brains to think moves ahead of their opponent and achieve a tactical victory. I assure you, in my case, this is false. But then I’m also not good at chess.

Even though the games the stanky nerds play may require more urgency, more tactics, greater response times and more adaptability. Even though their game may be newer, meaning they have had to literally learn and build the knowledge base itself to even practice being good at the game whilst chess has a recorded history dating back hundreds of years and established, teachable, learnable strategy and method – we still respect chess players more.

A graphic of a standard PS4 Control-Pad – The DualShock 4 – Two analogue sticks provide rotational and directional ‘movement’, whilst the rest of the buttons abstract to certain in-game actions. That this controller layout, or one approximate to it, has become standard and been adapted to many different game types, shows tremendous design and skill on behalf of players (Credit: everesd_design via Pixabay)

This is because of reputation and nothing more. It’s because the Kings of the past didn’t play Starcraft or Clash of Clans. It’s because there were no consoles, no tactics RPGs, no min-maxing roguelites or God forbid – Grand Strategy games.

Let’s take a grand strategy – say Europa Universalis developed by Paradox Development Studio and published by Paradox Interactive. Have you ever played Europa Universalis? It is now on its fourth instalment so if you haven’t played it by now where have you been? Oh, having a life. Sorry.

Europa Universalis puts you in charge of a state, with almost no set goals or objectives other than to do some stuff as time progresses. For example the first game had you running a European nation between 1492 and 1792. In many ways it is a complication of the scenarios chess abstracts and simplifies. You have to carefully manage budgets, monarchies, populations, religions, militaries, diplomats and a whole glut of other of the nuts and bolts of running a nation. The court dynamics that chess abstracts and simplifies are here recreated in as much detail as you can cram into the game’s algorithms – the numbers, maths and equations in the code that make a game play, that determine the outcomes of actions and the computer players’ responses.

If you were to ask me who I respect more, the world’s greatest grand master of chess or the person who, say in Europa Universalis: Rome, took the Picts to the height of European superpower I would have to say the latter.

The fact is both chess and Europa Universalis are incredibly complicated and involved games. Both can be learned, practiced and their internal situations manipulated until you can succeed at just about any aim you would like. Yet one form of ‘play’ is not only socially permitted but socially acceptable and another is less so.

A screenshot of Europa Universalis IV (EU) (© Paradox Games) showing a map of Europe. The ‘goal’ of EU is to just run a state. How you do that, what your goals and aims are, are entirely up to you. In many ways a complication of the abstractions of chess, you must manage your court dynamics carefully in order to ‘succeed’ in whatever it is you are trying to succeed at. Maybe you want the City State of Venice to Conquer Italy? Maybe you want to expand the British Empire or maybe you want Austria to take over the world? The choice is yours, but the loftier your goal the more intricate knowledge of the game’s mechanics, and the more luck, it is going to take to achieve them. (Credit: Paradox Games and Dharma Review – used without permission, contact us for removal if desired)

Humans play. Almost all animals play. Play is an essential part of living. Early in our lives it tends to represent an acting out of future roles and responsibilities. We play soldiers, we play doctors, we play house. Sometimes it may represent an act of understanding our environment. We play animals, we play plants or we play trees. Sometimes it represents the basis of evolutionary competition. We play tag, we play hide-and-seek, we play punch each other and see who can take the hardest punch without crying (just my shady, working-class upbringing?). Sometimes it helps us develop the coordination we need. We play ball sports, catching, throwing, hitting – all imitations of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer behaviours, an anthropological legacy.

As we get older play becomes, in my opinion, something even more vital. Whether it’s make-believing with kids, having a tickle-fight with your partner, playing ‘would you rather…’ with your friends, backgammon, chess or picking up a controller and embodying someone or something else for a while – it keeps us honed, it keeps us stimulated, it keeps us young. It reminds us of our plasticity, our ability to learn, change, adapt and overcome challenges when our lives and their challenges become stable, predictable and familiar.

Children playing, whether digging in dirt (mimicking future potential construction skills), skipping rope (hand-eye coordination and cardiovascular fitness), throwing a ball around (mimicking skills vital for prehistoric hunting behaviours and hand-eye coordination) even just running around (humans are known to have been long-distance, cardiovascular hunters) or even things like board games, card games and videogames (teaching hand-eye coordination, as well as abstracted management mechanics, upholding of rules (or how to cheat!), and cooperation. Games are not just ‘fun’ – they essentially make fun the learning of skills vital to living. (Credit: Cade Martin, Dawn Arlotta, USCDCP)

Chess hasn’t been solved. There are so many permutations, calculations and complications that a computer cannot come up with a decisive, winning strategy every time. Computers regularly beat human players but a new relationship is forming. Humans, in tandem with computers, are learning how to beat human and Artificial Intelligence alike.

This, to me, is the true power of play. To work together with a system of simulation to allow us to learn, to know, to understand and to be better people.

Why Does ‘We Lack Discipline’ Engage with Academics?

Some ‘academics’ – Funnily enough three men, when most of the academics I’ve been engaging and interacting with have been women! (Credit: Tulane Public Relations CC BY 2.0)

If we’re so anti-establishment, if we’re the fucking mean punk school, why do we give a shit?

You know it’s a valid question and one I have been struggling to come up with an answer for.

I am choosing to directly confront the issue today because of one reason. Today I got a like from Professor Sarah M. Durant, Acting Director of Science for the Institute of Zoology at the Zoological Society of London.

If you’ve been following my top ten cats series you’ve actually learned a lot about me. You will know that I skipped work in an autistic meltdown to catch a train and walked to London Zoo in the rain in my work attire (including Cuban heels that ruined my feet for a week afterwards). You will know that the cheetah is my favourite species of cat, although not We Lack Discipline’s number one. You will also know that that is because in my failed attempt to become a qualified biologist, in pursuit of working in zoology, I worked on several projects to do with cheetahs and (Durant et. al.) was probably the most repeated phrase in all of them.

When she liked my tweet, I didn’t cry, but I welled up. This isn’t just a ‘like’ from a person to me. This is acknowledgement. From someone whose work I massively respected, spent hours reading and – when I left university – never believed I would ever have any interaction with, despite my interest. That acknowledgement hit me, hard.

Professor Sarah Durant in a badass cheetah jeep! (© ZSL, Serengeti Cheetah Project and Sarah M. Durant – Used without permission, if you would like the image removed please contact us)

You see I’ve long since learned that ‘academia’ the vague concept, is not necessary in the pursuit of knowledge, if that is your sole aim.

Libraries are an exceptional resource, the internet has made access more open than ever, Wikipedia (for all that it is discredited in academic circles – and rightfully so given that for an afternoon the ‘Spoonerism’ was invented by Epic T. McSpooner, the cowboy-astronaut – I know, I did the edit) is a fountain of knowledge directing you to all sorts of sources, if you want academic papers you can often just contact the academics themselves for a PDF because they know they are usually behind a paywall and not everyone can afford the entry fee.

You can learn without needing to go to school. In fact we all do, on a daily basis. How we learn, the ability to discern what information to trust and what not to? That’s the skill that’s lacking.

Now if you want to push the frontiers of that knowledge? You’d better find your way into that ruthless academic world just like if you want to win the World Series of Poker you’d better start gambling. That doesn’t make either of them a good world to get into.

We Lack Discipline is about more than democratising knowledge it’s about democratising, and making accessible, all different kinds of knowledge to people like me. The curious flunkies and intelligent drop-outs, the people that that world doesn’t suit but they don’t stop reading, they don’t lose their curiosity.

We Lack Discipline is for the people who never got the chance to go to university but were always interested in animals, or Romans or psychology but life got in the way.

It’s for the people who never felt comfortable in that world because where they grew up swearing was used like fucking punctuation, and reading a book got you mocked but they’ve grown up now, they’re sturdier in their knowledge of themselves and feel self-conscious getting involved because – well let’s be honest it’s not a welcoming world, is it?

Some academics, like Dr. Cora Beth, also do awesome outreach in the form of Lego. I highly recommend following the whole thread or reading it here. It’s a wonderful story of archaeology and uncovering Britain’s Roman past (Credit: @DrCoraBeth)

But we need our academics. Again, there’s no new knowledge without them and whether they were privileged enough to cruise into that world, or whether they had to fight hell-for-leather for their position if I get misty-eyed because I get a like from them on twitter you can bet your arse that they’ve worked theirs off.

Academia is a fucking savage world, sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ableist. Outside of sports or politics I couldn’t think of a more elitist world, inclined to sticking its head up its own arse whilst shooting itself in the foot – a remarkable feat, really!

The individuals within it, though? They worked hard to get there, I guarantee it. I know it, I may be no academic myself but I’ve been close enough to people who are, I’ve helped them work, I’ve seen how hard they work.

You leave that undergrad world and you’re getting yourself into something just as rough, just as brutal and just as competitive as working-class life – In different ways, and with less direct threat of violence, but no less intimidating.

The point is whether it is engaging with Dr. Cora Beth on her Comfort Classics, whether it’s a like from Professor Mary Beard, whether it’s being followed by an inspiration for my foray into biology in Dr. Karl Shuker or whether it’s a like from Professor Durant it represents something I did not find when I was at university.


It represents what I have been asking for, for such a long time, in so many of my pursuits and that’s someone just listening, and acknowledging me.

Professor Mary Beard – The Fairy Godmother of British Classics – Whatever I may think of her university as an institution few people have worked harder to make the classics, to make the ancient world and our understanding of it, something for EVERYBODY. She has worked tirelessly to democratise the classics and the respect and acknowledgement of people like her is important for We Lack Discipline (Credit: UC3M CC BY 3.0)

I don’t need the validation of the academic establishment. I think I said after the Mary Beard ‘like’ that now all I need is a reputable institution to offer me an honorary PhD. I could turn down and my academic dreams have come true.

That’s where I’m at, now. The question is asked of me all the time “would I go back and study for a degree?”

Do you know what? I could invest five years in paying off my student loan overpayments, applying for places, getting turned down, applying again, getting turned down, going to whatever university wants to pick up my scraps to work my arse off studying one specific thing, so some posh prick can scoff at my degree certificate because it didn’t come from a Russell Group university, so I can work even harder for respect, in one specialist topic.

Or I could spend five years not shutting the fuck up about all the things I’m passionate about. Literally talking about everything I do and study, comparing literature to video games to paintings, discussing Roman history, feeling like I’ve had enough of the Romans so moving on to Assyrians, then getting bored of that so my interest goes back to cats – I can research what I want, when I want, keep building an audience, keep building a voice, make it accessible and available for everyone out there and maybe try and make a little career for myself doing that.

Hopefully I can eventually have the money to pay other people, whether no more qualified than this particular Curious Idiot™ or whether they are actually academics, to work with us, write articles for us, podcast with us, make videos with us. Hopefully I can continue to grow a truly grassroots academic outreach scheme.

Which do you think is the option that seems better to an already two-time dropout Curious Idiot™?

It’s no contest, but I need the respect of my peers. I need to work to earn that respect. I need academics to see through the jokes and the swearing to the real nuts and bolts of this project and understand what I’m trying to do here.

And those likes, those engagements, those retweets, those collaborations…To the man who has nothing, they mean everything.