Not everyone is a fan of Thomas Hardy. The Southern poet James Dickey found him old-fashioned.
When I briefly met Dickey some years back, he was plotting his escape from a PR woman. She had entrusted him to my care while she took a 15-minute break. During our desultory conversation, he asked if he could come to my house (“No”); he also asked who my favorite writer was. My mind was blank and I blurted: “Thomas Hardy.” The Wrong Answer bell immediately chimed on Dickey’s Favorite Writer Quiz Show as he said, “He was our grandfather’s writer.”
I have encountered many people with similar opinions of Thomas Hardy. Hardy is out of style: perhaps he was always out of style. Certainly, he struggled against the censorship of critics and many editors, who were severe about his “immoral” descriptions of sex, sexual harassment, rape, and unhappy marriages in the 19th century.
Hardy’s books are serious, usually tragic, but they also crackle with witty dialogue and comic scenes. He balances considerations of social mores, class, poverty, education, and the nature of love with everyday scenes of life in the setting of his imaginary Wessex area. His graceful style is spare and poetic, exceedingly modern at times. But I fear that modern readers do not, as a rule, take to Hardy. A few years ago a writer at Book Riot said she hated Tess of the D’urbervilles and wanted to tell Tess to “grow a pair.” I think you will agree with me that Dickey’s designation of Hardy as “our grandfather’s writer” was much sharper and more descriptive.
When I reread Tess of the d’Urbervilles this weekend, I was struck by the lyricism, the realism, and the sheer exhaustion of Tess’s struggles. Doom haunts the characters from the beginning. Hardy fans will not be surprised that the plot takes an immediate downward swerve. The novel opens with a minister’s telling Tess’s father, John Durbeyfield, that he is the last descendant of the aristocratic d’Urberville family. The wealthy buyers of the d’Urberville estate took the name, but the Durbeyfields have the blood. Ironically, this knowledge leads to the downfall of the Durbeyfields and the faux d’Urbervilles.
Through one of Hardy’s classic strokes of fate, the Durbeyfields lose their livelihood. Tess, pushed by her mother, reluctantly visits the d’Urbervilles, who offer her the job of looking after the poultry. The son of the house, Alec d’Urberville, flirts with her, stalks her, and rapes her after a dance. Tess moves home and has a baby, but after the baby dies she finds a job as a dairymaid miles from home. Most important, she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a minister’s son studying to be a farmer, who is so charming and handsome that all the the young women are smitten, even Tess’s two roommates. After much resistance, Tess agrees to marry Angel, but isn’t sure it is moral in the light of her past. When after the wedding he admits he has had sexual relations with a woman,T ess confesses her past, thinking he will empathize. As soon as he learns her history, he takes off for South America to learn more about farming. He leaves Tess a bit of money, but she struggles to make a living as a laborer on a farm. Will he be back?
As to who is worse, Alec or Angel, I would say they are on a par. But Tess does encounter Alec again, and he is concerned about her, as well as in love. Tess does not want him–she is obsessed with Angel–but Alec looks after her family and saves her from poverty. Each time I read this, I am more annoyed with Angel.
Since I didn’t expect the struggling Tess to be a modern woman in Manhattan or London, I admired this book very much. But it has a difficult publication history. Because the first publisher didn’t read the book until the proofs had been printed, and then found the content offensive, he offered to pay Hardy for the manuscript with the understanding it would not be published. Hardy, who was well-respected and knew someone would publish it, suggested they cancel the contract without any payment. The novel went through many revisions, and there were wrangles with publishers. The harsh criticiscm of Tess and then Jude the Obscure depressed Hardy so that he stopped writing fiction. Think of the novels we might have had!
By the way, D. H. Lawrence wrote that Hardy was the most important novelist of the 19th century (or that was the gist; it’s been a while since I read Lawrence’s essays). Hardy’s influence on Lawrence is apparent. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is modeled on Hardy’s Two on a Tower.