Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Part I

Last Sunday, I thought that the latest BBC version of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles would be something nice to have on in the background while editing my novel. I got drawn into it, though; it is an excellent production. Back in 1979, I loved the Roman Polanski film; no other rendition ever equaled that one for me until now. It appears to be fairly faithful to the novel thus far and, unlike the earlier film, it fleshes out the personalities of Tess' parents a bit more. As for Tess, she is beautifully portrayed by Gemma Arterton with the right combination of passion and purity. Tess has all the vulnerability of a poor girl along with an unflinching sense of justice, which in some ways is her undoing. She embodies the noble spirit and ancient Faith of the Old England, drowning in the tide of crass industrialization, where people are bought and sold like commodities. Although Tess' family claims descent from a faded Norman dynasty, her seducer, Alec, is from a new money family which has bought the rights to the D'Urberville name, and so he also undertakes to claim ownership of Tess.

As for Angel Clare, he is one of the most frustrating characters in all literature and in some ways I hate him more than I hate evil Alec. Angel pretends to be idealistic, open-minded and a liberal free-thinker, divesting himself of his family's Protestant conventionality. However, when he discovers that his bride is not a virgin, he reacts with typical puritanical hypocrisy. This is especially disgusting since Tess was taken advantage of by her wealthy employer, against whom she had no recourse.

The music and scenery of the new production are all phenomenal. As Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times writes:

In one scene, Tess, having left the grave of her infant and, she hopes, the past behind her, sets out to find work where no one knows her. Pale and drawn by her grief, she stands on the top of a green hill and, as the sun drenches the land, she looks at the verdant scene before her and the viewer can feel her heart lift. She is a young woman still, and there is such beauty in the world to balance the pain.

For people who know what awaits her, it is a bittersweet moment. But without joy, there is no tragedy, and without such visceral visual beauty, there is no "Tess."

I am looking forward to seeing Part 2 on Sunday.



Catherine Delors said...

What a terribly sad and beautiful story. I haven't seen this one, though I loved the Polanski version.

By the way, Elena, I gave you a very well deserved award:

Enbrethiliel said...


I haven't watched any of the movies, but I've read the book about three times.

What I always walked away with was Hardy's own sense of loss. He knew what not just industrialisation, but also new ideologies were doing to England and to innocents like Tess, but he didn't believe in the "medieval" superstitions that opposed them. All the same, the imagery in the book reveals that he knew something vital had died with the end of the Middle Ages, but could not find anything in the rapidly modernising world to live up to it.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you very much, Catherine! That is very sweet and I am truly honored.

I completely agree with you, Enbrethiliel. Something had died; Hardy would never acknowledge the old faith, and yet it shines through in the character of Tess in so many ways, in her humility and sense of God. Ultimately, however, she is overcome and destroyed by the new world. Hardy's novels often have an undercurrent of despair in which it is necessary to avoid getting caught.

May said...

Tragic story, but beautiful review!

I agree there are some important moral ( and historical ) lessons to be learned from Hardy's work. It is unfortunate that he did not have the Faith.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review, Elena.
I'm going to look for this!

Allison said...

I too watched it on Sunday and look forward to part two. She is quite a beautiful actress!

Tess has an admirable sense of self.

Anonymous said...

Hummingbird, do not discount his weak faith for no faith - Claire Tomalin notes in a footnote that (following the tide of Newman and the Oxford Movement to reform the decrepitude of the Established Church) he may have considered becoming Catholic!

Tomalin's biography also mentions his grandmother's contemporary recollections of the fate of Marie Antoinette "Born in 1840, he could recall his grandmother telling him she was ironing her muslin frock when she first heard that the French queen's head had been cut .."

Hardy's sadness seems to embody the postChristian wilderness, a society that succumbed to a singularly masculine faith in a revenging God, no where to be found the tender mercies of our 'son of man' God, the bridegroom wooing his bride. But his late poetry contains evidence he had not lost "the religious sense" (a la Guardini) of the still small voice calling...

full of remorseful longing, if I may be so bold, a kind of 'living purgatory' - the Lord will not extinguish even the weakest flame nor break a bruised reed... hope springs eternal for even such duster psyches as Hardy's

(His mother's favorite book?
Dante's Divine Comedy - chew on that for penance - in jest of course!)

God Bless
Clare Krishan

Lily said...

I just read the book again last week, it is so very sad. I wish I had seen the part one you describe. I'm sure it will run again, or be out on DVD soon enough.

BTW, I asked the director of our local library to buy your books. I hope she does this year!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks so much, Lily. I appreciate it! I think the BBC already has the DVD available. Just check the link to the BBC embedded in this post!

May said...

Thank you, Clare, that's very interesting to know, and thanks for providing the links. I am glad Hardy was interested in Christianity and possibly in Catholicism.