I’ve long taken an interest in period features and historical novels and during my recent trip to London, I managed to get my hands on a collection of BBC adaptations of classics, one of which was Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. In it, I found transcendent themes of love, femininity, justice, and a story that will remain etched in my memory.
The film opens with a picturesque scene of a May Day Dance, and Tess joining in the festivities with the locale. She is beautiful in an ethereal way, innocent, loyal, kind, and aspires to pull herself out of the working class life by training to become a teacher. The author chooses this spiritual and festive moment to introduce Tess to a man named Angel Clare, a man who will become part of her life forever. This is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film as it sets the theme for pure love set against the pristine countryside.
Tess’s father is stopped by a parson studying ancient aristocratic families in England and is informed that he is a direct descendent of the aristocratic D’Urbervilles family. Seeing this as an opportunity for assistance in their time of misfortune, Tess, as the eldest of her siblings, is forced to go to her D’Urbervilles relatives at Tantridge to claim kin and seek their monetary support.
Instead of meeting with Mrs. D’Urbervilles, Tess meets with her miscreant son, Alec. Portrayed by the dark and handsome Hans Matheson, the reader and viewer can instantly sense a feeling of distrust in his diabolical character. Born bad, as he states so himself, “I suppose I am a bad fellow – a damn bad fellow. I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad in all probability”, he begins stalking the innocent Tess against her will. Though she tries to resist him with grace and patience, he eventually gets the better of her during an opportune time and rapes her.
Tess is left in a numb and self-loathing state and returns to her family’s cottage. She later gives birth to a son whom she named Sorrow and as her father castigated her for shaming the family, he refuses to have the baby baptized. The baby, however, is sickly and dies within a few weeks. Tess is given another blow when the local pastor refuses to allow the baby to be buried in the church’s graveyard and she decides to leave the village in search of employment and possibly start a new page in her life.
Tess eventually finds employment at the Talbothays dairy farm and she is surrounded by a loving community. She meets Angel Clare there once again and they fall madly in love. As their love blossoms, Angel starts idealizing the image of Tess as a pure goddess since she comes from the countryside and he being the son of a well-off clergyman. This puts pressure on Tess on whether to confess her shadowy past to Angel or not. Angel eventually proposes to Tess and for the first time, it seems that her fortunes are starting to brighten. However, on their wedding night, Angel confesses to his dallying with an elderly woman in London and naively assuming that he will forgive her previous misgivings too, she tells him all.
“The woman that I love is not you,” says Angel after Tess finishes her tragic tale. It is ironic that after trying so hard to persuade his parents to accept his choice of Tess as a wife, he would leave her for something that was out of her control. We may wonder why Tess, living in the nineteenth century even risked telling her husband about her past, “I love him. It would have been a sin to deceive him”, demonstrating her purity of heart.
Angel decides to leave for Brazil to pursue his farming ventures and tells Tess that he needs time to think over their relationship and that he will contact her in due time. Returning home with little money, her mother reprimands her for her stupidity, yet Tess is hopeful that if Angel truly loves her, he would not castigate her for something that was against her will. Forced to work again, Tess “jumps from the frying pan straight into the fires of hell” and goes back to work during a brutal winter season. Coincidently while walking next to the farm one afternoon, she sees a travelling tent and is shocked to find Alec preaching to an audience.
This is where the plot gets interesting. Upon seeing Tess, Alec loses his weak spiritual façade and starts pursuing Tess again. Tess wrote letters to Angel but didn’t hear from him, so she assumes that he is not coming back. In one of her letters, she writes, “O why have you treated me so monstrously, Angel! I do not deserve it. I have thought it all over carefully, and I can never, never forgive you! You know that I did not intend to wrong you – why have you so wronged me? You are cruel, cruel indeed! I will try to forget you. It is all injustice I have received at your hands!”
At this point in the story, I am torn apart as Tess unwillingly succumbs to Alec’s pursuits and his promises of providing enough for her family to live comfortably, especially after her father dies. I am still hopeful that Angel, her guardian angel will come to her rescue.
Meanwhile, Angel was recovering from yellow fever and heeding the advice of a man who says that he shouldn’t blame his wife for something that was in the past, he starts seeking out Tess in various locations. He finally finds her in the posh resort of Sandbourne, where she is known as Mrs. D’Urbervilles. Heart-broken, she cries out to Angel, “It is too late for me now, I’m already dead.” Angel leaves without a fight, probably ashamed of forsaking her in the beginning.
Tess goes back to the room to the selfish and abusive Alec and after a heated fight, she murders him and rushes off to find Angel. She finds him in the train station and they hide away in the countryside until they can find a port on which to sail away. Tess and Angel share a few days of uninterrupted bliss in a rented house that they had broken into before being discovered by the cleaner. They run away again and eventually arrive at Stonehenge and spend a night under the stars before being surrounded by the police in the morning. “It couldn’t have lasted,” Tess said, “Too much happiness.” The last scene of the book depicts her execution and Angel walking away, heart-broken.
I was too shocked for words to make sense of why the author chose such a grim ending for his innocent protagonist. According to Tess’s friend, Izz Huet, who concluded after speaking with Angel, “Whatever she’s done, she doesn’t deserve this.” Perhaps the author wanted to talk about the realities of rural life and the injustice cast upon women by the patriarchal order. Her father, for example, was an unwise parent who has absolved his responsibilities of sheltering his daughter from harm in several instances. No mention was made of him seeking justice when his kin, Alec D’Urbervilles, had raped his daughter nor any compassion is shown towards the baby and his eventual death. I also believe that Hardy wanted to portray Angel’s role in Tess’s fall by creating unrealistic expectations of his idealized partner to the point that his misdeeds should be forgiven by her but not vice versa. It is also interesting to note why Tess, in the final scene where Angel shows up, couldn’t have simply walked away with him and left him to protect her from Alec? Why did she have to kill him?
Throughout the story, I kept looking for glimmers of hope for poor Tess. Maybe some stories do end up tragically and perhaps sadness is a better instigator of action towards alleviating women’s plights worldwide. But maybe, just maybe, a vision of happiness could have been a far better source of inspiration for us readers and potential advocates of human rights.