Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Thomas Hardy gets the award for most awesome mustache of any writer read during the course of this blog so far. I mean this dude looks like he played for the 1973 Oakland A's. He could have been down there in the bullpen with Rollie Fingers and no one would have batted an eye. Seriously. But no, Hardy was no ballplayer. Instead he was a bad-ass writer, cranking out some killer prose. That's one of the things that really struck me about this book...that Hardy could write like crazy. He was also a poet, and it shows in many passages, where he'll wax on poetically about the English countryside where the novel takes place. Some might find his style boring, digressing into languid description at certain points, but I loved it. It set the mood for me. I mean, between his writing and his mustache this guy would be a total chick magnet...if he weren't dead.
The novel's plot is sad and tragic, and it takes a bit of understanding for the modern reader like myself not to just think that the people in the story are complete idiots. The story opens when John Durbeyfield, a drunken farmer, finds out he is descended from an old family named d'Urberville who used to be strong and powerful in the English countryside...although the money and power are long gone and the line is almost extinct. Durbeyfield decides this discovery of his ancestry is just the break his family needs, so he sends his oldest daughter, Tess, to meet and possibly get money from a family named d'Urberville, presumably related, who live on an estate in a nearby town. Durbeyfield needs the money because he's too busy drinking to make his own. Tess doesn't really want to go, but does so out of love and duty for the family. Once there, she learns that they aren't really cousins, as they have adopted the d'Urberville name to give them prestige. And she meets Alec d'Urberville, a young man and a scoundrel, who convinces her to come live on the family's estate so he can try to woo her, and when that is unsuccessful he rapes her. Tess goes home, and is of course pregnant. She has the baby, but the baby gets sick and dies soon after. Tess does not get any breaks.
So Tess, now a scandalized woman for having had a baby out of wedlock, even though she was freaking raped, leaves town and goes to work on a dairy farm where she meets the love of her life, Angel Clare, the son of a preacher man. They fall for each other and get married, even though Tess is horrified of her secret past, and has been tortured about whether she should tell him or not. On their wedding night Angel tells her he has a secret and he feels bad for not telling her. Seems like at some point in his past he got horny and fucked someone. He hopes Tess can forgive him. Of course she can, and then Tess feels safe and tells him her secret...that she was raped and had a baby that died. Angel Clare is mortified and shocked and says how can he love her now that he knows she's not a virgin. So he leaves her and goes abroad to seek his fortune in Brazil.
At this point, the modern reader, like myself, is going "WTF is WRONG with this dude? He's got a beautiful wife he loves, and he's going all ape shit over her having been raped?" But that's the way it was back in those days, and we are all products of our environment. It's pretty clear Hardy doesn't agree with Angel's viewpoint, since it brings tragedy to everyone (oops, sorry for the spoiler). And the book's subtitle is "A Pure Woman" in case we don't get it. Victorian morality was harsh and Hardy clearly condemns it. And meanwhile Tess is all forgiving of Angel, and says she understands how he feels and that he just needs to take some time off and think about how much she loves him and then he'll come around and yes, it's all her fault. It's not her fault, of course, and she's a little self-sacrificing...well, OK, not just a little. It's all greatly annoying to the modern reader (I've used that phrase three times now and I hate it, but I can't think of another one...and that's not the booze talking because I've only had one beer tonight, a delicious Christian Moerlein "Over the Rhine" Ale, from Cincinnati, Ohio) but the people in this novel were Victorians, and they had a whole 'nother way of looking at things than we do. It's easy for us to condemn their behavior, although, actually, as I said that's what Hardy wanted the reader to do. So I guess his job just got unintentionally easier over the years.
Anyway, Tess goes to work on another farm, and on her way there she runs into...wait for it...yes, Alec d'Urberville. He's now recanted his former evil ways and is a traveling preacher. But when Tess talks to him, he seems really creepy still, especially after he makes Tess promise never to "tempt him" again. What a dick. Anyway, soon he decides he wasn't really born again, and gives up preaching so he can stalk Tess. He comes and visits her while she's working her ass off in the fields, telling her if she comes with him she can live in luxury and he'll take care of her beloved family as well. He tells her Angel isn't coming back, so why not just come with him since he loves her. It's creepy. He's creepy. He's a fucking Victorian stalker. But then Tess's father dies, and her mother and brothers and sisters are now all in deep financial trouble. So after lots more angst Tess goes with d'Urberville, who gives money to her family and puts her in fancy clothes and has her live in a fancy hotel with him. Presumably he gets what he wants out of the deal too, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
Then Angel Clare, who FINALLY gets over it, has a change of heart and comes back from Brazil for Tess. He finds her at the hotel. "Too late", she says, and turns away. And then...but hey, I don't want to spoil it for you. Let's just say there's suddenly a murder, and fugitives on the run, and a posse, and an execution. Oh, and Stonehenge. All in the last 20 pages or so. Yes, the ending seems oddly rushed. There are some other odd things in the plot of this book...some weird coincidences, like Tess happening to run into Alec d'Urberville when he's become a preacher...that also seem forced. The language in the book may be beautiful at times, but the plotting can be awkward. Hardy wasn't perfect. Just sayin'.
As a biologist, I couldn't help but see not-so-subtle Darwinian references in this book, which is not surprising, because Hardy was a contemporary of Darwin. Hardy talks about the d'Urberville line as going extinct, and seems to indicate that they had some kind of tragic flaw that lead to their eradication from the land. And Tess's downfall simply reinforces this notion that the family is doomed by forces beyond their control (like natural selection). All that remains of the d'Ubervilles, aside from Tess, are fossils...old mansions in the countryside once owned by the family, and dead d'Urbervilles buried in church crypts. Very eerie, and Victorian gothic, and Darwinian.
So did I like this book? Yes. Despite getting frustrated with the characters and their damn Victorian morality, I found myself not wanting to put the book down. And Alec d'Urberville, that rouge and scoundrel and rapist and stalker, is creepy and evil and vile...and it's always unnerving when he turns up. Which kept me entertained. As does the author's mustache.