Do you ever go back and reread your favorites books like you revisit your favorite restaurant or museum? Do you ever ask yourself why?
I reread Tess of the D’Ubervilles, by Thomas Hardy, every 5 years since I was twenty years old. He wrote the book in 1891 to mixed reviews because of its challenge to the Victorian ideals of his time. In fact, after he finished his last novel, Jude The Obscure, to more criticism, he stopped writing novels altogether and kept to poetry.
His book is poetic and tragic and modern in his thinking. His depth and compassion for a female character, in the context of his time period, is astonishing enough. The censoring and revising and his need to add to the title A Pure Woman is equally as fascinating and I recommend learning about the background of this book if that sort of thing interests you. I think all books are historical and political in some way.
This book asks the ultimate question to its readers about Tess: was she raped or seduced, and is she responsible for what happened either way? Academics have pointed out different excerpts and there are many to point to both. I can write long and hard about my views but that’s not why I’m writing this blog.
I reread Tess every five years, because although the book (I reread the same book each time, although yellowed and with tiny print) never changes, I do. Every five years I reread the book with fresh eyes and with five more years of experiences and hopefully, wisdom. I can tell you I thought she was definitely raped and ill-used by the men of the novel as well as the views of society at 20, 25, 30, and 35.
At 40, I still found her situation tragic and her choices stifled by the morals of her day. Yet, during this reread, I didn’t spend much time looking for evidence in Hardy’s words for the proof of her rape. I found myself letting go of the question, and sinking deeper into Tess and her victimhood, her view of herself as “tainted.” I found myself rooting for her, even though her fate had been written over 120 years ago. Although with each reread, I felt she deserved so much more, with this past reread, I felt she deserved to feel more deserved.
Why is it so important for me to reread this classic? It’s important because my thoughts evolve, my compassion expands, and my expectations lessen to allow Tess to shine through. Hardy wrote about a marginalized woman, set against the pastoral poetics he was so adept at, and chose to let the reader decide. And I think, less than a year away from my 6th reread, Hardy was hoping to force the readers of his time to accept her purity. I felt like it didn’t matter whether seduced or rape, because she felt herself without a choice either way and the consequences of being without choice is the greatest tragedy.
Inspired continually by the courage of Tess and Hardy, I wrote Inside the River. And to honor my devotion to this book, I wrote a scene where Ana reads the palm of a dairymaid who chooses poorly. Ana asks her:
“Do you have a friend you can trust?”
“Yes, I work with Tess. I tell her everything.”
“Tell her, word for word, what promises are uttered to you. If they still ring true for both of you, then you can decide. Do you understand?”
You see, I wanted Tess to help her friend, by sharing the story.