WBN 45: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Sometimes I wish I’d decided to read the 100 worst books as voted for the British public as well, so I could occasionally say something rude or biting or sarcastic. I’m good at that! Instead though, I’ll just have to heap praise on yet another amazing book.

This is the story of Tess, a young working class girl, who is sent to visit distant, rich relatives in the hope that she will be able to get a better job or even make a good match whilst there. This visit changes her life immeasurably, and the story follows Tess as she tries to put her past behind her. She is, for me, the ultimate tragic heroine, and although she always tries to do the right thing, other forces in her life (men and society, mainly) always seem to stand in her way.

The book was originally published in 1891, under the title ‘A Pure Woman,’ to mixed reviews. People were wary because the novel is sexually quite progressive for the late 1800s, and really challenged some of the traditions, customs and mores that were in place at the time. Tess is subject to the double standards thrust on men and women in Victorian society, and this shapes her future. Hardy attacks these double standards vigorously, and I would almost call this a feminist novel, for its time.

The main thing that I admire about the book is how full and complex and flawed Tess as the main character is. I often find male writers nowadays stick to male main characters, and this can sometimes lead to most of the female characters being thin caricatures or stereotypes. (Of course there are many exceptions to this.) You find yourself swept up in Tess’ dilemmas and difficulties, and you really do feel for her. You can completely understand why she makes all of the decisions that she does.

Not only has this incredible book featured in the top 100, but it inspired the last one I read – One Day. The concept was inspired by a scene where Tess is contemplating significant days in her life that come around each year, when suddenly she realises that every years comes the pre-anniversary to her death date, but it goes by without her noticing. (Incidentally, David Nicholls also wrote an adaptation of Tess for TV a few years ago.) It was also discussed in A Prayer for Owen Meany, and what I read in that book helped me appreciate Tess even more on this, my second reading.

On finishing this book, I officially reached a landmark – I’m 1/5 of the way through the challenge! Congratulations to me 🙂

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