Like most folk over the past weeks of coronavirus lockdown I’ve resorted to streamed box sets and old technology DVDs to while away some of the time. I’ve even managed for the first time to read that largely unread work of Thomas Hardy, The Dynasts, and in the process learned an awful lot about the Napoleonic Wars. But one of the DVD box sets that I recently alighted upon and watched contained a work of Hardy’s which will be much more familiar to most folk, namely Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The DVD box-set (well only two discs) comprised a four-episode BBC production dating from 2008 which somehow I had missed at the time .
There are always the carping criticisms that one can make about the casting or the adaptation. (“No, it isn’t quite like that in the book, surely?” “He didn’t say that, did he?” “Where is Alec’s moustache – why hasn’t he got one?” “Wasn’t it dark when she set off? ” “What happened to the dressing-gown?”) But overall, it was well worth the viewing. There were some killer moments (literally, of course, in this tale), but oddly the one that stands out for me is the view of Tess we get when the hapless Angel finally turns up and finds her at her lodgings in Bournemouth, or rather “Sandbourne”, towards the end of the saga.
A semi-dolled up “Mrs d’Urberville” comes down from her rooms and greets her sickly husband (“mere yellow skeleton” says the book) at a distance. The screen version conveyed to me Angel’s shock. He had been thinking of his lovely Tess as a “cottage girl”. “Where could she be amidst all this wealth and fashion?” he mused in the book. Well now he knows.
“Tess appeared on the threshold – not at all as he had expected to see her – bewilderingly otherwise, indeed.” “… her hands… once rosy, were now white and delicate”.
Tess, of course, is no longer the peasant girl. She is now nicely turned out. And why? Well, it’s obvious. She’s been ruined.
Lines not from the novel Tess, but from Hardy’s poem The Ruined Maid written almost 30 years earlier.
This splendid piece of satirical verse is an important early poem, not least because it is a rare survivor of his early poetry from the 1860s. It comprises six caustic quatrains of how a peasant girl can become quite the lady with fine clothes, adornments and delicate skin by being “ruined” – in other words by providing a ready supply of sex out of wedlock to a gentleman. Tess’s circumstance echoes The Ruined Maid directly. Her hands are no longer the working hands of a country girl, but are now “delicate”. In The Ruined Maid we find:
The poem presents us with a dialogue of explanation between a current country girl and a former country girl who – as Hardy put it in Tess – has become “bewilderingly otherwise”. (What a great phrase that is.)
Tess, abandoned by husband Angel Clare, has finally after much tribulation ended back up with Alec d’Urberville, the “relative” who caused her “ruination”. The hands that would have been like “paws” in the “starve-acre” farm of Flintcomb-Ash are now white and delicate.
The theme of “ruination” (we need to see this word in “quotes ” since it is a highly charged term) runs through the labyrinth of Hardy’s works like a constant thread. Pick almost any tale that comes to mind and you are likely to find in it some form of “ruination” or potential “ruination”, some incident where a woman has or could be compromised by a liaison with a man and would be “ruined” by the ensuing scandal. Novels, stories, even his poetry are ripe with events and incidents related to this theme.
In our 21st century the notion that a woman can be “ruined” by a sexual relationship outside marriage seems rather curious and outmoded (though perhaps not as outmoded as it should be), but Hardy was a Victorian novelist writing in Victorian times and for his Victorian readers the portrayal of the so-called fallen woman was a very sensitive issue. Of course, a Victorian gentleman would not likely be “ruined” in the same sort of way by such behaviour, as the immediate post-marital conversation of Tess and husband Angel bears witness.
Of course, for Hardy, who loved to tell a decent yarn, the excitement and dire consequences of dangerous liaisons were bread and butter for his creative imagination. Sex and death are the staples of his tales of woe from Tess and Jude to The Withered Arm, and echoed in poems like The Dead Bastard, The War-Wife of Catknoll, and the narrative verse of The Brother, who had killed his sister’s former lover not knowing that they had subsequently married – an act which – in the logic of the 19th century reversed the “ruination”. (Those poems I have just picked out at random from only one collection of verse.)
Hardy sometimes enhances a tale of woe by garnishing the compromise or fully fledged “ruin” with the inevitable need for secrecy about the matter and this can be further ornamented with a tale of epistolary woe – for example a letter written but not read, which is a significant feature of Tess. In Tess, despite her intentions she marries without the secret of her past and her dead child being revealed, and then confesses on her wedding night to the shocked and unforgiving Angel, ignoring the sound advice from her mother to keep shtum.
I watch the film and am stupidly muttering at the screen. “Tess, don’t tell him! Don’t tell him! It won’t end well!” “You are in a Hardy novel,” I add pointlessly. “Take the hint. He’s called Angel. It’s ironic. For goodness sake! Shut up!”
But Tess is firmly in the fateful, and in her case, fatal hand of Hardy’s Immanent Will, which doesn’t give a fig for her, for her love or her honesty. Doing the right thing is not going to get reward. The “purblind Doomster” “unblooms the best hope ever sown”. I can’t help swearing at Angel and at the end once the tragedy has unfolded – I fear for Tess’s plighted – or should that be blighted – sister Liza-Lu, as she trudges away from Winchester jail with the hapless Angel after Tess’s execution. Some folk oddly see this as a glimmer of hope…
“Well that was a bundle of joy, Mr Hardy!” “That has cheered me up no end. What was the point of that?” I am sure I am not the only one who experiences anger, despair and agony as well as the ecstasy of Hardy’s marvellous work. And the point, of course, is that Hardy had to tell it like it is. Hey folk – he’s telling us – look at what our marvellous righteous morals have done to this poor woman. As far as Hardy was concerned, she was “a pure woman faithfully presented”. Hardy’s preoccupation with the “ruined maid” was also a bitter satire on the society which placed her in that circumstance.
Of course, though the quality of the novel shone through, much of the literary establishment and society were outraged. Magazines surely could not print this stuff. Hence why he had to butcher the tale in its initial serialisation and then try to patch it back together again afterwards. The Victorian patriarch reader of the Graphic could not let his daughters be exposed to portrayals of such “ruination”. It induced poor old Robert Louis Stevenson to spew the verdict it was “damnable”. Henry James wanted to give Hardy a good kicking. But, goodness me, Hardy made his point, and his readers bought the book in their thousands. Even 30 years later women were writing personal letters to him in praise of the book expressing their thanks and appreciation:
“The book is more personal to me than any book I have ever read or I think any that I shall ever read. I loved the portrayal of ‘Tess‘, and the intricate workings of her beautiful soul.”
Many, I suppose, do not naturally associate satire with the writings of Hardy, but the use of satire, irony, tragic exaggeration and even wry humour are a staple feature of his work throughout his writings – from his early poems, through his Satires of Circumstance and Life’s Little Ironies right through to the “spirit ironic” of The Dynasts and the vital poems of his old age. Nor does his focus just dwell on the ironic circumstances of individual men and women in his tales. After all – as has been pointed out so often – the subject of Hardy’s literature is not just the individual man or woman pitted against circumstance, but the condition of “man” and “woman” writ large.
Hardy wrote because he had something important to say. He needed to give voice to what he saw going on around him and right from the outset this involved a bitter and radical social satire. We see this quite clearly even in his first – never wholly published – novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, dating from around the same time as The Ruined Maid.
How illuminating it is to read his correspondence with publisher Alexander Macmillan to whom he sent the manuscript of his first novel for consideration in 1868. From the outset his aim was to get at “the upper classes” not by a full frontal assault, but by directing his “strong… feelings inserted edgewise… half concealed beneath ambiguous expressions, or at any rate written as if they were not the chief aims of the book (even though they may be)…” So at the very start of his writing career we see how he grapples with what he needs to say and how on earth he might get such “utterances of strong feeling” published and read.
Macmillan’s incredibly thoughtful and detailed response picks up, of course, on Hardy’s “exaggerated” portrayal of “great and terrible” “frivolity, heartlessness, [and] selfishness”. “Chastisement”, he says, which “would fall harmlessly from its very excess”. “Indeed, nothing could justify such a wholesale blackening of a class, but a large and intimate knowledge of it.” Thackeray, he notes, was more subtle in his approach, but even his “satire” and “mocking tone” didn’t do much good. As for Hardy’s “black wash” – his “ignorant misrepresentation” – well, Thackeray “meant fun”, but he could see that Hardy was “in grim earnest”. “You mean mischief,” he tells Hardy (twice). But the perspicacious Macmillan, (the first publisher Hardy approached with his book) had already seen from this manuscript alone that Hardy was a force to be reckoned with. After comparison with Thackeray, by the last paragraph, he is also bringing Shakespeare into comparative view and telling Hardy that on the evidence of what he has seen he is a writer “of power and purpose”.
In the end, Hardy does not publish this first novel. And not, it seems, because ultimately no one would publish it, (he had in fact accepted an initial “fair and reasonable deal” from Chapman Hall). Hardy declined to publish at the end of the day because he had been advised by none other than the established novelist and poet George Meredith that publishing such a “socialistic, not to say revolutionary” book would finish him as a writer before he had even started. Meredith – who read the manuscript as a publisher’s reader – warned him against publishing such a “sweeping dramatic satire of the squirearchy and nobility, London society, the vulgarity of the middle class, modern Christianity, church restoration and and political and domestic morals in general”. We are, I think, unclear whether these words – taken from Hardy’s “autobiography” – were actually Meredith’s or Hardy’s summation of them, but I think we get the drift. Hardy’s biographer, Michael Millgate, has noted the “pervasive class hostility” of Hardy’s first book.
Meredith had told Hardy that “the press would be about his ears like hornets if he published his manuscript”. “In genteel mid-Victorian 1869 it would no doubt have incurred, as Meredith judged, severe strictures which might have handicapped a young writer for a long time.”
Should Hardy have stuck to his guns, have published and be damned? How interesting it is to speculate what might have happened. But Hardy was a young unpublished writer, always thin-skinned, with limited prospects and desperate to pursue a literary career. One can hardly blame him for taking the advice from leading publishers and established writers. Even years later from his heights as the grand old man of English literature, he was pursued by malicious critics and always hurt dreadfully from their stinging comments. And, of course, from the remnants of Poor Man emerged Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree and scenes for many subsequent works.
Hardy – rather quietly – did eventually publish in 1878 a large chunk of the missing novel as An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress. Though this was only a magazine publication and was notably never reprinted in his lifetime. Even in this shortened state it is a valuable insight into the novelistic mind of the young Hardy and woven into the tapestry of the tale are many of the early threads which are picked up again and again in his future works.
One of the threads is, of course, the theme of the “ruined” or potentially “ruined” maid. The title – Indiscretion of an Heiress – gives the game away somewhat. But, as we are told in Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, the missing novel also included “with every circumstantial detail” “the kept mistress of an architect… a dancer at a music-hall… which would have brought down upon his [Hardy’s] head the cudgels of all the orthodox reviews”,
We can lurch here back into the autobiographical speculation that Hardy hated so much. Did Hardy meet such a young woman when he was working as an architect in London at around the time Poor Man was being written? We certainly know he was familiar with some of the dance halls and must have been acquainted with the women who danced in them. As his “autobiography” notes, “the most important scenes” for the book “were laid in London, of which city Hardy had just had between five and six years’ constant and varied experience – as only a young man in the metropolis can get it”. By the time we get to the publication of An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress the kept mistress of the architect has disappeared, still, perhaps, one indiscretion too far even for the maturer writer to publish.
We don’t, of course, have to speculate about potential “ruination” and Hardy’s own conception out of wedlock. Hardy biographer Millgate notes that the marriage of his pregnant mother, Jemima, and father (also Thomas) was “rather against the inclinations, so it is said, of both the contracting parties”, but goes on to note that family tradition “endorses the bridegroom’s hesitancy”. This family tradition of his father’s reluctance to marry is set out in Celia Barclay’s fascinating book on Hardy’s cousin Nathaniel Sparks, where, we are told, “he was most reluctant” and Jemima’s eldest sister Maria “sent her husband to collect the philanderer and deliver him to the altar”. For Hardy this business was very close to home and, of course, suitable fodder for a tale (Interlopers at the Knap).
One curiosity of the unpublished novel is Hardy’s original notion that this mischievous satire was “a story with no plot; containing some original verses”. Hardy had been mainly writing verse at this time and failing to find publishers for his poems. Perhaps he conceived this hybrid genre as a way of getting his verse into print. The notion certainly continued into the writing of Desperate Remedies which contains Hardy’s early poem Eunice. Indeed, Hardy also at some point rehashed the narrative theme of Poor Man into a poem with virtually the same title (A Poor Man and a Lady). We do not seem to know how Hardy intended to weave into the lost novel his original verses. Each chapter in An Indiscretion is prefaced with – initially unattributed – lines of verse – though here we have not verses by Hardy, but by other famous poets (for example, Tennyson, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Shakespeare etc). One is tempted to think that this was how Hardy’s own verse was to be displayed.
The satirical poem The Ruined Maid was written in 1866 around the same time that Hardy was conceiving and writing his “socialistic” satire Poor Man with its “original verses”. One is equally tempted, therefore, to speculate that this “ruined maid”, may initially have almost seen the light of day in Hardy’s first – unpublished – novel. As it was, the world had to wait until 1901 to witness the “ruination” of this maid, long after poor Tess had paid the price.
The critical appraisal of Hardy’s Tess is almost an industry unto itself. An academic could devote a whole life to the study of this stunning tale and the critical response; and Hardy enthusiasts will cry, rage and enthuse long after I have disappeared.
True, Hardy also saw “the passion of love” at the heart of his fiction. The letter submitting his lost novel to Macmillan importantly made this clear too and “the passion of love” shines through the bitter satire of Tess’s circumstance which leads ultimately, of course, to her murder of her lover and her own execution.
But let’s try to end on a more optimistic note. In Hardy’s ghosted “autobiography”, published posthumously under second wife Florence’s name, and written and compiled long after Tess had been penned, we find an entry relating to December 1882:
“Hardy was told a story by a Mrs Cross, a very old country-woman he met, of a girl she had known who had been betrayed and deserted by a lover. She kept her child by her own exertions and lived bravely and throve. After a time the man returned poorer than she, and wanted to marry her; but she refused. He ultimately went into the Union workhouse. The young woman’s conduct in not caring to be “made respectable” won the novelist-poet’s admiration… The eminently modern idea embodied in this example – of a woman’s not becoming necessarily the chattel and slave of her seducer impressed Hardy as being one of the first glimmers of woman’s enfranchisement; and he made use of it in succeeding years in more than one case in his fiction and verse.”
“Not caring to be ‘made respectable'”. Bitter irony from Hardy again.
And so back to Tess – the “maiden no more” and at this point the mother of a young child:
“If she could have been but just created, to discover herself as a spouseless mother, with no experience of life except as the parent of a nameless child, would the position have caused her to despair? No, she would have taken it calmly, and found pleasures therein. Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations. Whatever Tess’s reasoning, some spirit had induced her to dress herself up neatly as she had formerly done, and come out into the fields, harvest-hands being greatly in demand just then. This was why she had borne herself with dignity, and had looked people calmly in the face at times, even when holding the baby in her arms.”
The wonderful defiant dignity of Tess towering above the narrow-minded conventional judgements of her bitter circumstance.
For letters to Hardy, see the splendid website Hardy’s Correspondents – Angelique Richardson and Angear, Helen, editors. Hardy’s Correspondents, Phase One, 2019. University of Exeter.
A dozen or so books have piled up around me while writing this blog: many editions of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, including the first serialisation in the Graphic; the “autobiography” – The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy edited by Michael Millgate; Hardy’s Complete Poems and the individual collections of his verse; the Official Handbook of the Thomas Hardy Festival held in July 1968; Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy – A Biography Revisited; An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress, edited and with an introduction by Terry Coleman; A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy by F. B. Pinion; The Poetry of Thomas Hardy – a Handbook and Commentary by J. O. Bailey; and Nathaniel Sparks – Memoirs of Thomas Hardy’s Cousin the Engraver by Celia Barclay.