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December 10, 2011 / nethergrove

Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Marlborough Down

It seems rather unnecessary to describe the Wessex landscape when writing about a Thomas Hardy novel. The narrator in Tess has done all the work already, far better than I can hope to manage. I’m sitting on one of the many outcrops of chalk hills that carve Wiltshire up into distinct Vales, looking down over the Vale of Pewsey to Salisbury Plain. I’m being partially sheltered from the wind by the remains of some ancient earthworks, a fort or lookout point, whose name has been forgotten and whose purpose is unknown. A thin veil of altostratus clouds bleach whatever warmth the sun might have had. Beneath the clouds,‘fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless’ (9).

I can only imagine that the modern fields in the Vale of Pewsey are even larger. Winter wheat at different stages of growth flattens the fields even further into unvarying slabs of poster-paint green. The tractor lines in the leached, chalky soil have a sickly pallor, the colour of putty. Row upon row of parallel pairs of lines are overlaid on top of the ghost of the previous season’s rows, which ribbed the field at a slightly different angle.

The last time I was here, it was so hot that my girlfriend and I fell asleep watching paragliders playing in the updraughts. Now there are only crows hovering wind that races up the steep hillside. Across the Vale of Pewsey is Salisbury Plain, where two military helicopters are rehearsing amongst the dull thumping of the artillery range. I settle down to read.

Hardy describes women like Tess who work in the fields as becoming part of the landscape. “She becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein…a fieldwoman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it” (111). It’s too cold for me to really grapple with the gender politics of this, but looking up, I half expect to see a gang of Tess-like women working on the fields below. Instead my eye finds a tractor making its way along a lane. Suddenly the land feels empty. Hardy describes the rural community as something timeless, natural and eternal, but also, paradoxically, as fragile. I wonder if he would even recognise this Wiltshire. I have to remind myself that he was writing about a fictional idealised Wessex even in the 1890s.

The section I really want to read is when Tess is at Flintcombe-Ash Farm in Winter, hacking swedes from a field as high and exposed as the one I am in today, desperate not to drag down the name of her estranged husband with her. She makes the landscape feel inescapably bleak. Her suffering is so passive that she normally makes me angry, but now, numb to the bone despite my mum’s Peruvian gloves, wind-raw cheeks, I’m only glad I don’t have to hack swedes.

‘The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also. Every leave of the vegetable having been consumed, the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other all day long, the white face looking down on the brown face, and the brown face looking up at the white face, without anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.’ (363-4)

I remember regarding this section as wildly sentimental pathos when I read it before, at home. But with hundreds of acres of uninterrupted fields laid out below me, I have never felt more grateful for the tractors.

From here I can watch cars drive along the long, straight lines of the roads at 50-60mph, and yet they seem to be crawling. Tess has just get up at 4am to walk 15 miles to visit her in-laws, knowing that she will need to walk another 15 miles to get home that afternoon. Of course, the visit was an utter failure, ruined by chance coincidence, as are all of Hardy’s protagonists. From here I can perhaps see 15 miles through the rain (the clouds gathered a few minutes ago). On a hillside nearby, a little way along the ridge, a steady trickle of people have come to walk their dogs. The rain moved on, and I can see it making its way along the Vale.

The sun is beginning to set. The rooks have give up their individual hang gliding and have gathered together to caw their version of the evening chorus. I think I had always blamed Tess’s lack of initiative for her disempowerment before. Now I’m not sure. Hardy seems to lay the blame equally on political inequality and fate. But to me she seems to be afflicted by some kind of Landscape Affective Disorder (thought LAD wouldn’t make for an appropriate acronym), oppressed by the malevolently featureless fields into accepting her own condition as hopeless. Hardy describes the ‘patience’ that sustains Tess as a ‘blending of moral courage with physical timidity’ (363), but I think from here she seems to have ‘lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surroundings, and assimilated herself in it’ (111).

I was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1891, but the copy I read was published by Penguin Popular Classics, and was bought from the Elephant English-language bookshop in Barcelona. I think it actually belongs to my girlfriend, but these things get a bit hard to keep up with.

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