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Tess of the D'Urbervilles : Thomas Hardy's ultimate heroine

Updated on May 14, 2012

Thomas Hardy's most haunting heroine.

It's many year since I first read Tess but the memory of her has haunted me ever since and whenever a new film of this book comes out I have no choice but to see it. Tess may not save lives like Grace Darling, Flora MacDonald or Mother Theresa; she does not die a martyr's death for her beliefs and become a saint. Her appeal is on a much simpler level, she simply endures, stoically. Coming as I do from a long line of stoic women who endured much in their lives, women I look upon as heroines, the story of Tess has a familiar feel. For me Tess is the ultimate, and arguably Thomas Hardy's most poignant, heroine.


Tragedy from a careless remark.

When we first meet Tess she is a young lass dancing in a white dress with her friends at a village festival in the fields. A young man, Angel Clare, is out walking with his friends and takes a break from their hike to dance with the girls before moving on. This is Tess's first sight with the man who will ultimately be responsible for her destruction and she is enamoured but Angel walks on with his friends and leaves Tess with only a fleeting memory.

Meanwhile a whimsical remark tossed by a musing clergyman to a poverty stricken carter, Tess's feckless father, on his way home, starts a tragic train of events that will lead to death. He informs John Durbeyfield that he believes him to be descended from nobility, from the famous D'Urbervilles (of which Durbyfield is a corruption) no less. For an ignorant man such as John Durbeyfield this is wonderful news which he takes as fact and sadly believes himself to have gone up in the world. Learning where the last vestiges of the D'Urbervilles live he insists that Tess, despite her protests, introduces herself to them in order to better her lot in life. This action, which she does under duress, is to have quite the opposite effect.

Tess is a country girl, she is not naïve, and she recognises the danger her newly-met 'cousin' Alec D'Urberville poses to her. He employs her to look after the chickens and pesters her at every opportunity. Despite her dislike of him and his intentions, she accepts a ride on the back of his horse when it appears she has made an enemy of another girl in his employ. Needing to get away from the girl who is threatening violence she mounts up behind him. Predictably he pretends they are lost in the woods and leaves her to sleep on his coat while he 'goes to find help', returning when she has fallen asleep to rape her. She returns home in shame and later gives birth to a baby boy who she names Sorrow. The baby does not thrive despite her care and she has to bury him in unconsecrated ground after baptising him herself.

A fresh start.

Two years later Tess takes a job as a dairymaid at a prosperous farm. Another new hand being taken on is Angel Clare who is gaining practical experience before hoping to farm in Brazil. This is the most idyllic time of Tess's life as Angel falls in love with her and she with him. Although they decide to marry Tess is worried about Angel's reaction to the fact that she is not a virgin. Remember this is a Victorian novel and much value was put on the purity of women at marriage in those times. She writes him a note telling him of her past and posts it under the door of his room, waiting in trepidation for his answer. Next morning he seems unchanged and Tess later discovers he did not find her note. By now, everything is set for the wedding and she feels she could not bear to lose him so she does not tell him of her previous misfortune and they are married.


On the night of their honeymoon Angel surprises Tess with a confession of his own. He admits to an affair with a married woman in London and asks Tess for forgiveness which she freely grants. Thinking he may reciprocate as generously as herself she tells him of the rape and the baby. But Angel, though professing to be forward thinking, turns out to be a true product of his background as a clergyman's son. He rejects Tess, who sadly believes she deserves his rejection. They do not sleep together and Angel leaves next morning. He gives her some money and his parent's address in case she is ever in need and, saying (magnanimously) that he will try to come to terms with her past, he leaves for Brazil.


Ashamed of her past Tess now begins a very bleak time in her life. She goes to work on the land for a mean-minded farmer. The hours are long and the work is back-breaking and poorly paid. Finally, in desperation Tess decides to seek help from Angel's family and undertakes an epic walk to their home. Just outside the village she hides her inelegant boots under a hedge and changes into something slightly more ladylike to meet them but as she is about to make herself known she overhears their conversation and knows from it that they will never welcome her. Even worse they discover her boots and they take them home to give to the deserving poor. In despair she returns to the farm and discovers that a wandering preacher who turns up to give a sermon is none other than Alec D'Urberville who believes himself converted to goodness.

The wolf in sheep's clothing.

But Tess appears to have been the catalyst that sets Alec back on a downward spiral of infamy. He is inadequate to the struggle to remain a clean-living preacher and he hounds her to live with him and she might have been able to withstand his blandishments but for two things. He persuades her that Angel Clare will never return to her and her father dies leaving her mother and siblings destitute with Tess as their only hope. Alec promises to provide for them if she will become his mistress.

The errant husband returns too late.

After having endured illness and other setbacks in Brazil Angel returns to England to seek out the bride he had so callously abandoned. He finds her mother set up in a fine cottage and asks for Tess's address. He is surprised by her reluctance to give it to him but eventually she tells him and Angel hurries to the nearby seaside resort to find her. Asking for her at an expensive lodging house, he is amazed to meet her dressed in fine clothes but there is no joy in her greeting. Instead she tells him despairingly that he has come too late, that she now belongs to Alec even though she hates him. Stunned, Angel wanders off realising her predicament was his fault.


Angel Clare is wandering from the town intent on catching a train further down the line when he realises that a woman is trying to catch up with him. He is overjoyed when he realises it is Tess but it becomes apparent that all is not well and Tess admits that she has killed Alec; stabbed him through the heart as he lay in bed. Despite is disbelief Angel attempts to protect her and they make their way inland on foot, finally stopping at an empty house to shelter. The few days they spend in this house are the full extent of their marriage and when they are discovered by the housekeeper they flee to try to get to a port to go abroad. It is a vain attempt and as night falls they have only reached Stonehenge. Angel urges Tess to try to get some sleep on a stone slab, significantly an altar, whilst he keeps watch but when she awakes the police are waiting for her and she submits gracefully to pay for the life she has taken.

Later, watching sorrowfully from a hillside above the prison, Angel and Tess's favourite sister, see the black flag hoisted into the air and know that Tess has been hanged for the murder of Alec. The woman has paid for the crimes committed upon her.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles [2008] [DVD]
Tess of the D'Urbervilles [2008] [DVD]
Probably the best 'Tess' of them all. Gemma Arterton displays a touching vulnerability as the betrayed country girl and even Eddie Redmayne as Angel attracts some sympathy for his confusion. Hans Matheson offers a foil from all the goodness as the odious Alec and, all in all, this is beautifully shot film with a fine young cast which easily takes us romantics back to a time that was both innocent and deadly.

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