It tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, at sixteen the eldest of several children of a poor family in the village of Marlott.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Tess of the d’Urbervilles first appeared in serialised form in the weekly magazine the Graphic, in the second half of 1891.  It was published as a three-volume novel at the end of that year.

It tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, at sixteen the eldest of several children of a poor family in the village of Marlott.  After her feckless father has learnt, by chance, that he is a descendant of the ancient and once powerful d’Urberville line, Tess is persuaded to visit a wealthy old woman of that name, to claim kinship, and thereby perhaps to profit, directly or indirectly.

As it happens the woman is not a genuine d’Urberville: her deceased husband, a successful business-man, adopted the name at random to imply distinguished lineage.  Her son Alec, a dissolute young dandy, is attracted to Tess and persuades Mrs d’Urberville to employ her in a humble capacity.  The young girl repeatedly rejects his advances, but after some months a situation arises in which he is able to take advantage of her.  Having submitted she confusedly assents to being his lover for some little time before leaving him in disgust and returning home.

She gives birth to his child; but the baby soon dies, leaving her crushed by grief and shame.  Eventually she rallies, and travels to Talbothays, a dairy-farm, to take up work as a milk-maid, and begin a new life.  There she meets Angel Clare, the son of a devout evangelical clergyman.  Angel, having lost his religious faith, is gaining experience of agriculture with a view to becoming a farmer.  Seeking new values he finds himself increasingly beguiled by the beauties of nature and by what he sees as the innocence and simplicity of country life.  He falls in love with Tess partly or largely because she seems the epitome of such qualities.  She is dazzled by him, but resists   his advances, feeling that her ‘lapse’ with Alec makes her unworthy of him.

Her whole future course of life is determined by the conduct and the competing claims of these two suitors…

As originally submitted the novel was turned down by several editors.  It was accepted by the Graphic after Hardy had cut or modified certain episodes that he realised had been felt to be too ‘shocking’ for a popular audience.  Some of the material omitted he then published elsewhere ‘as episodic adventures of anonymous personages’.  He reassembled the novel as he had first conceived it only when it was published in book form.

The critical response was in general very favourable: there was widespread recognition that Tess was an exceptional achievement.  Commercially speaking, too, it   proved to be Hardy’s most successful work to date.  He was hurt and offended, however, perhaps disproportionately, by one or two reviewers who claimed that the novel was ‘disagreeable’ or immoral. When Jude the Obscure (1895) met with still greater hostility Hardy abandoned fiction and devoted himself to the writing of poetry. 

Tess is now generally held to be one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – of Hardy’s novels.  It has been translated into numerous languages, and adapted for both the theatre and the operatic stage.  The universality of its appeal was demonstrated in the popular 1979 film version, shot largely in Normandy and Brittany, directed by a Pole, Roman Polanski, and featuring the German actress Natassja Kinski in the title role.

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