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December 15, 2011 / nethergrove

Tess of the D’Urbervilles on Marlborough Down (Remix)

I’ve edited this review to (hopefully) make it more readable. Does it lose some of the immediacy? Is that a bad thing? Homework: compare and contrast. Any comments welcome! (Ed.)

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 partially sheltered from the wind by the remains of some ancient earthworks, now called Adam’s Grave, but whose original name has been forgotten and purpose is unknown. A thin veil of cloud 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).

So not the most delightful scene. In the fields below, the fields, planted with winter wheat, are poster-paint green slabs. 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, just a few months ago, it was so hot that my girlfriend and I fell asleep watching paragliders playing in the updraughts above the Alton Barnes white horse. Now there are only crows hovering wind that races up the steep hillside, and in the distance two military helicopters are rehearsing amongst the dull thumping of the artillery range on Salisbury Plain. Wrapped up in the dubious camouflage of a tartan National Trust picnic blanket, I settle down to read.

About as far from the figure I cut as it is possible to be, 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 emerge from the ground like moles, and set to work on the fields below. Instead my eye finds a tractor making its way along a lane. And the land is 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 Wessex.

I skip on to the section where Tess is at Flintcombe-Ash Farm in Winter, reduced to hacking swedes from a field as high and exposed as the one I am in today, desperate not to drag the name of her estranged husband down 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. I don’t usually quote long sections, but this is too grim to miss:

‘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 reading this section at home, regarding it as almost Dickensian in its melodrama. But with hundreds of acres of uninterrupted fields laid out below me, I have never felt more grateful for tractors, or tartan blankets.

I read on until the sun begins to set. The rooks have given up their individual hang gliding and have crowded together to caw their evening chorus. I think I have always blamed Tess’s fatalism or lack of initiative for her passivity and disempowerment. Now I’m not sure. The narrator lays the blame on political inequality and fate. But on top of this she also 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. If she did represent part of the landscape, she would be a poppy, thistle or fireweed struggling to grow amid the glyphosate monoculture. Hardy describes the ‘patience’ that sustains Tess as a ‘blending of moral courage with physical timidity’ (363), which is faint praise at best. I imagine her working in the poster paint fields, ending up like Adam’s Grave, having ‘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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