It is another book adaptation produced by BBC and it certainly lives up to my high expectations. I’ve read the novel about two years ago as a part of my Victorian novel class and watched this 4-part miniseries. I therefore knew just how faithful they were with the story and characters. It even came up in the exam and I was really glad I’ve done some extra work to make memorizing details easier.
Thomas Hardy writes novels that deeply touch readers with their stark portrayal of Wessex and social commentary on a number of issues. He is known to me as the one writer who always manages to break my heart. I still love him and seek a more cheerful novel of his; be ready for some serious tissue action by the end of the series or book. What is so frustrating is that his novels are so realistic despite the various human calamities he portrays. The tragedies are the product of the society and characters themselves, so there’s really little they could do to avert them. In this aspect his novels are closer to Greek tragedies. The protagonists just can’t escape their fate, and we know it.
Tess of D’Urbervilles is a tragic story about pride, family, and sexism of the Victorian time. It is also a story about poverty, daily struggle and hope, about doing the right thing, sacrifice and love. Characters are flawed but that makes them more human and therefore more relatable. What impacted me deeply is the fact that Tess Durbeyfield (Gemma Arterton) does everything for her family, but nobody does anything for her. It is she who pays the price for her father’s pride, her mother’s foolishness, and her siblings’ incompetence. They always look for Tess to save them and do little to change their circumstances on their own. I found that truly appalling.
The series manages to capture the tone of the book and adds a strongly vivid portrayal of the landscape, the people, and the changes taking place amidst the agricultural workers of the time. New machinery, invented to help farmers, appears to do more evil than good for the poorest workers. Before the machines, they were in demand as seasonal workers and farm hands, now the work is scarce and the competition high. It is not the working houses and factories of the city, but we can nonetheless see there is not much difference in poverty. The loss of rights and agency, the hopelessness and pain is just the same in the countryside as in the city. There is always a new level of poverty you can sink into, even if you thought you’ve hit rock bottom.
But let this bleak description of the series not dissuade you from watching it – there is light and beauty in this world for Tess too. The time spent at the pastures in the summer, the budding romance with Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), new hope for the future… This part of the novel and series is magical. This may be the reason why we’re hit even harder by Tess’ misfortunes and the close of the story. In a way, Tess represents women in general and how they are treated by men.
This is definitely a feminist novel in the way it tackles Victorian societal standards and expectations of women, the damaging virgin/slut dichotomy Angel is a prime example of, the cruel double standards regarding sexual experience, rape and childbirth. Alec d’Urberville (Hans Matheson) may be the villain who took advantage of Tess and who returns time and time again to torment her, but I’m not that happy with Angel either. He abandons her, his wife, and even attempts to take another milkmaid from the dairy as a mistress to Brazil. He changes his mind, but it takes him a long time to see the truth and the way he mistreated Tess. He loves the ideal not the real woman.
It is the men in Tess’ life who are the cause of her downfall, but in her time and age it was she who got the blame. Which reminds me how little has changed – slut shaming is as strong as ever, hypocrisy too. In a way, we’ve come just a little bit further on Tess’ road to freedom and equality.
It is a wonderful series that will grip you and not let you go until the bitter end. It may flow slowly at times but don’t give up and be prepared for some waterworks, gnashing of teeth and other emotional responses.
Websites with further information on the novel and series:
(Images are from various websites, found by google image search.)