Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Around the beginning of the year, I started reading fairly frequently; at the time a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Then I started Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (Project Gutenberg link to the free text [footnote one]), and either ran out of time or ran out of momentum to continue reading. It’s taken me until now to finish it; as always, it wallowed next to my bed until it gripped me and I read the second half in a few weeks.

Apparently, this is Lucy’s favourite book, and after absorbing the whole thing I can understand the sentiment. It’s not my favourite book, but I do think it is very beautiful, and I recommend sticking it out to the end if any of my hypothetical readers give it a try but find it slow going in the beginning. It was published in 1891, and is written in a style slightly more verbose than I prefer. On the other hand, I like Edgar Allen Poe’s style, so perhaps it’s the Englishness about the prose that doesn’t take my fancy. But powerful prose it is, and there are moments of real beauty in the novel.

The only way I can describe Hardy’s best writing is by analogy with figure/ground. Rather than a description of something directly, he writes around the subject, with hardly a reference to it, and with such detail to give the mind space (and time) to fill in the details of what was left implicit. (I wonder if this was also to tread around delicate subject matter.) The most poignant scenes, at the end of the first part (Ch. 11) and the very end of the book, impressed me more than most writers I can think of.

Without sufficient context of what life was actually like in the late 19th century and the social setting into which the book was published, it’s a little hard to pull out the same messages from the text as were perhaps intended. The emotions and motivations of the characters are very real, however, and while the story has its anachronisms, it hasn’t dated. I found it interesting that Hardy, through the character Angel Clare, puts emphasis both on the lifestyle of working class and simultaneously espouses philosophy over religion.

When I read books sometimes I write quotations of small sections that strike my fancy. This first follows from what I was saying in the previous paragraph. From Chapter XX: (emphasis as original)

Their position was perhaps the happiest of all positions in the social scale, being above the line at which neediness ends, and below the line at which the convenances begin to cramp natural feelings, and the stress of threadbare modishness makes too little of enough.

(The internet tells me that convenances means proprieties or conventions.)

From Chapter LIII:

Thus they passed the minutes, each well knowing that this was only waste of breath, the one essential being simply to wait.

Finally, nothing profound but this one tickled my fancy given my profession. From Chapter XLVII:

His fire was waiting incandescent, his steam was at high pressure, in a few seconds he could make the long strap move at an invisible velocity. Beyond its extent the environment might be corn, straw, or chaos; it was all the same to him. If any of the autochthonous idlers asked him what he called himself, he replied shortly, “an engineer.”

(“autochthonous” is apparently “native to a particular place”.)

[footnote one: It’s a pity the typesetting isn’t as good as it could be.]