the observer Sun 23 November 2008
In the years after the 1891 publication of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy acknowledged that he had written the book 'with too much feeling to recall it with pleasure'. If writing the book was an affecting experience, reading it proves equally so. The character of Tess, a girl-woman betrayed by the callousness of religion, by social convention and by the men who exploit her, is so lushly drawn, so sympathetically conveyed, that it is almost impossible not to feel crushed by the unfairness of life as she experiences it.
Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.
Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'.
These evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power.