I finished Tess of the d'Urbervilles last Saturday afternoon, lazing about on Clapham Common on a lovely sunny afternoon in SW4. The Common's the nearest to a rural idyll we have in these parts.
Hardy's classic is a beautifully written book with much lyrical description of the English countryside and the people working in it. It's not the usual book I would read but perhaps a vague memory of Nastassja Kinski in Roman Polanski's 1979 film Tess (above) spurred an interest. Now I'll need to see the film.
Things begin with the traditional May day dance that the women and girls do every year and the book has a lot of this sort of disappearing country tradition :
And as each and all of them were warmed without by the sun, so each had a private little sun for her soul to bask in; some dream, some affection, some hobby, at least some remote and distant hope which, though perhaps starving to nothing, still lived on, as hopes will. They they were all cheerful, and many of them merry.
This sort of poetry infuses the book, with rich evocations of a non-existent world now. The machine (engine) might be rare but it has started to make its rumbling noisy presence felt. The rustic charm and Hardy's occasional written dorset dialect reminded me of the book Precious Bane by Mary Webb, something I haven't actually read but heard, as a superb BBC Radio adaptation a few years ago. Yet another book I need to add to the reading list.
A lot of the real power comes from Hardy's unflinching (for the time) look at the realities of working lives in the countryside. These are hard lives for men, women, girls and boys, with a lot of back-breaking work and hardship. No unemployment, health or housing benefit here. Tess is very strong willed and she's proud, and she also has a great joy in life that shines even at low points. It is this that makes you love her company so much.