This past week I’ve been making my way through the BBC’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles series I’d taped a few years ago. Host Laura Linney’s introduction caused me realize anew how huge a deal this work of Hardy’s was challenging not only Victorian sexual mores, but literary censorship in general. Tess, blithely unaware of the power of her beauty and magnetism, is at once a symbol for purity, personal moral authority, and vibrant longings to better herself, but also for standing for the natural world, as though her life sprang from the Wessex countryside itself. Hardy loathed the advent of industrialization, and made no bones about it.
Hardy’s Tess was first serialized in a magazine in 1891. When he submitted it for publication in novel form, it was rejected by several publishers unless he’d agree to expunge the scenes that might offend more ‘delicate sensibilities’. He used the rejections to mount a campaign against censorship; that must have been a bloody battle at the end of the 19th century.
He eventually found a publishing house in London that was owned by Americans, and the book soon became so widely contentious that Linney said that many friendships were broken over strongly-held views on the book.
The issue might best be highlighted by the subtitle Hardy added in some additions: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.
The plot at the core:
An Anglican parson had casually, if not ironically, let Tess’s itinerant agricultural salesman father know that his family’s name, ‘Derbyfield’, had been eroded over time from its original Norman ‘D’Urberville’, which name had died out due to a lack of male heirs. ‘All that’s left is the tombs of your forebears’, he said in effect.
Father and Mother, on discovery of the possible connection to some wealthy folks a day’s journey away, were insistent that Tess present herself to them as a relative in order that the connection might prove financially advantageous to their large family. They eventually wore down Tess’s objections to the scheme when ‘the fates’ brought near-starvation to the family. Mum’s hopes that Tess would marry one of the gentry were in evidence; drunken Father’s imaginings weren’t so clearly spelled out.
Upon being hired at the Mansion, the libertine son, Alec, engaged in a campaign to seduce Tess; she resisted, but stayed at her job to earn enough money to replace the horse she accidentally killed, so that her lazy sod of a father might return to his work selling farm produce.
One night after some revelry in the nearby market town, Tess refused a ride back to the Manor on Alec’s horse, not wanting to encourage him one whit. He followed the returning gaggle of Manor workers, and the besotted and calculating Alec ‘rescued’ her from a potentially dangerous situation. This time Tess accepted the rescue-ride; along the way, he pretended to get lost in the forest, and encouraged Tess to sleep on the ground while he went off on foot to discover the way home. The mists were heavy when he sneaked back to the sleeping Tess, lay down beside her, kissed and fondled her. The crisis came when he was about to penetrate her; scholars still argue about what occurred. Had she said no, but hesitated and acquiesced at the same time? But penetrate her he did. In the BBC version (I dunno how the Roman Polanski version handled it) she screamed in pain and seeming rejection. Later she clearly told Alec that he had, in effect, raped her. Her devastation was total: she was now a sullied woman, and clearly would never be fit to marry her new love, the liberal idealist Angel Clare whose quest for a pure and virtuous maiden was his highest desire. He could love a woman of a lower class, but only if she were pure enough.
Tess walked all the way home, and found herself with child. The babe died early on, just one more event in her life that caused her to feel that she was being divinely punished for her deeds, even though it might be in that Greek fashion called hamartia, or unwitting sin. Hardy portrayed it differently in different scenes; sometimes with a wider angle that she was suffering karma for her forebears’ ‘sins of the father’.
For the life of me, I couldn’t remember how Hardy portrayed Tess’s narrative of the ‘sex’ with Alec it in his novel, as rape or something more ambiguous. So, I’ve been looking into it online. Lo and behold, there are no clear answers. Apparently he added and subtracted scenes in different versions.
In one, Alec had drugged her with a potion, rendering her semi-conscious at the time. In another, Alec had asked her to marry him, and staged a faux marriage ceremony with his friend playing the parson.
In the BBC movie, she admitted to her mum that she may have been slightly attracted to him, but railed at her for never having told her of the dangers men could present, nor had she told her anything about sex, so she was utterly unprepared for the encounter. This speech was just after Mum had let her know that she should have been more careful, and thus not ruined her family’s chance at material happiness. She even then admitted that protecting her virginity might have killed her chances at marrying a toff. Thanks, Mum.
We can’t know what forces or influence caused Hardy to change the story, but clearly he loved Tess above all his characters, and was adamant that she was victimized, if credulous, and that her strong ethical principles were a good measure of her worthiness…and purity.
Part of my small epiphany about the importance of Tess was that in some ways he was the progenitor of the male feminist, creating a character he didn’t want to be treated as possession…a fourth-class citizen…without pushing back on the hypocrisy of the socio-religious culture that led to tragedies like Tess’s. She was dynamic, direct, and almost flinchingly honest in the face of personal danger when expressing herself would certainly lead to negative repercussions.
Except, of course, for the one most important and key time: when Angel Clare asked her to marry him. Even with her mother’s warnings ringing in her ears: ‘Never tell a soul about what happened to you, Tess; I know how your silly heart will tell you to be honest’…she did try to tell Angel the story. The letter she wrote him about the events was mislaid and he never read the tale she’d told him. When she realized on their wedding day that he hadn’t forgiven her her ‘sins’, he didn’t even know of them, she reeled. Oh, dear. She struggled with her Better Angels, but sincerely might not have known the difference by then. O, desire for some happiness! They married.
But woe, not long into their honeymoon, Angel confessed some early sexual ‘sins’ to her; she naturally forgave him everything. In turn, she told him hers, remembering that he’d been adamant that that nothing, nothing she could ever tell him about her past would change his love for her.
He walked out on her of course, simply unable to let go of his parents’ and society’s condemnation of The Whore of Babylon. Forced sex was not an excuse, of course, and having a child outside marriage was monstrous. That theme made its way inevitably into Tess’s consciousness. She wouldn’t hear from Angel again for more than a year, and was too proud to appeal to his family for the help he had advised her to seek, had she the need.
She spent the year and more working for another monster, but each time Alec showed up to find her to ‘make her his own’, having figured out that he desired her above all others, she sent him away, not wanting to ‘become his creature’, no matter what riches he offered her and her family. But there came a point when she rejoined her family as her father lay dying, and finally died, that the family was evicted from their cottage, and were made homeless.
Alec showed up; she ordered him away again, but Mum essentially sold her to him. Tess finally gave in. When she discovered what her mum had done she was standing at the barred gate holding one of her D’Urberville ancestors in the tomb the parson had earlier foreshadowed to her father. “Why am I on this side of these bars?” she cried to the sarcophagus. The sarcophagus didn’t answer.
The rest of the novel leads a reader along with hopes and near misses at more than a few moments of transitory happiness for Tess; I won’t tell you the ending in case you want to read or watch the story.
But I will clip a few bits of James A. W. Heffernan’s paper, “Cruel Persuasion“: Seduction, Temptation, and Agency in Hardy’s Tess”. His comparisons and Hardy’s allusions to Milton’s Paradies Lost were very interesting, as were his footnotes, some of which indicated that Tess was a subject of legal analysis of rape, and how important Tess’s mental state was to any verdict.
“[Academic critic Ellen] Rooney’s probing analysis of rape and seduction in Tess deserves close scrutiny by anyone who would write on this topic. But close scrutiny of the novel itself does not fully confirm her conclusions. On the contrary, it shows that Hardy can and does represent Tess as both a desiring and speaking subject, that he endows her with agency, that she explicitly considers Alec her seducer, and that as such he is far more dangerous to her than he would be as a rapist. Lurking plainly as well as mythically behind Alec is the figure of Milton’s Satan. Alec tempts Tess as Satan tempts Eve, and in spite of the enormous differences between Tess and Paradise Lost, between a world supervised by Providence and a world abandoned by it, Hardy’s repeated references to the Book of Genesis and to Milton’s poem prompt us to consider carefully the relation between what Tess wants and what she is led to desire, what she is and what she does. For Tess, I contend, is an agent, a heroine endowed with the power to act and choose and with the tragic power to fall — even as her purity, unlike Eve’s innocence, survives.
Like many other critics of Tess, Rooney makes the heroine’s purity depend on her passivity, her status as the helpless victim of rape. According to Catherine McKinnon*, whose essay on feminist jurisprudence serves as Rooney’s point of departure, “objective” definitions of what constitutes rape in the eyes of the law cannot truly distinguish between rape and intercourse. A “feminist distinction” between the two, McKinnon argues, lies “in the meaning of the act from women’s point of view.”3 Applying this principle, Rooney argues that we cannot adequately distinguish rape from seduction by invoking the difference between equivocal and unequivocal resistance. If seduction entails complicity, and “complicity is reduced to (feminine) acquiescence,” then “the passive object of seduction repeats the passive object of rape” (Rooney, p. 93). As Rooney notes, then, McKinnon herself “preserves the purity of women by seeing them as objects; sexuality is entirely the work of men and sexual women wholly victims. The (desiring) feminine subject does not exist.”
At any rate, I’d like to thank Thomas Hardy for creating his Tess, and kicking open the door on sexist sexual, tragedy-producing mores in Victorian England. Some critics claim that it was a bit by way of penance for the way he’d treated other female characters in earlier novels. It might have been so, but this was good penance, imo.
* Catherine McKinnon, whose essay on feminist jurisprudence serves as Rooney’s point of departure, “objective” definitions of what constitutes rape in the eyes of the law cannot truly distinguish between rape and intercourse. A “feminist distinction” between the two, McKinnon argues, lies “in the meaning of the act from women’s point of view.”
(cross-posted at kgblogz.com)