Here at Litphonix, we’re of the view that you can’t go far wrong with a Hardy novel. The quaint, pastoral nature of his fictional dreamscape, the idyllic county of Wessex, with its towering hedgerows and golden barley fields, is what inevitably draws readers in, and still more poignant are the dramas of farmyard and country lane; the struggles of his characters against themselves, society and the elements alike. Yet, one maiden in particular tugs long and hard at the old heart-strings time after time: the indelible Tess.
Indeed, the poor girl is pushed from pillar to post in this stirring story of patriarchal injustice and innocence profaned. Tess’ life is set on a rather grim track when her uppity parents – John and Joan Durbeyfield – send her to claim kin with the profligate Alec D’Urberville, with whom she allegedly shares an ancient bloodline. It transpires that the pair are not in fact related, D’Urberville’s late father having bought the title out of vanity, but the libertine wastes no time in securing the blushing beauty a position on his mother’s estate, with damning results.
When Tess becomes pregnant, and loses her child, she is forced to abandon her simple and homely existence for the perils of life on the move, hiding from the past – but redemption may yet lie ahead when she meets the ineffable Angel Clare, her saviour and her downfall…
Ever the pioneer of equal rights, Hardy deftly countered the deep-seated double standards of Victorian society about women (the root of all evil…mwahahahaha!) and ‘purity’ that meant rape was a woman’s fault and a woman’s undoing. Alec (the Devil Incarnate) and Angel (not quite as chaste as his name suggests…) are held up to epitomise this, each of them blameless in violating their own purity while Tess is entirely accountable for the theft of her own. Still, she endures poverty, destitution and heartbreak, and loneliness, and hunger, and just about every misfortune going, with twice the courage of the male characters who put her in that position.
By the end of the novel, my eyes were brimming with tears and all around me, passengers on the First Great Western train to London Paddington looked on, baffled by my spontaneous outburst. Such is the sobering effect of great literature – a chance to step back and put everything in perspective, to realise how much we have developed as a society since Hardy posed the question: is this really justice? I cannot recommend Tess more highly, and for those of you unfamiliar with Hardy, what better way to begin than with this heart-rending tale of love and loss, newly available to narrate on the Litphonix database! Why not get started now? Happy (or, rather, cathartic) reading!