I continue to commute about ten hours a week, and listening to audio books on my car's CD player remains the best way of filling all that mentally wasted time with something that enriches my inner life. Plus, as I learned when I listened to an unabridged reading of War and Peace, it is also a great way to fill the gaps in my reading with books that I really should experience before I die, but might never do so at the rate things are going. Somehow I decided that the next author I needed to broach was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), an English writer who devoted most of his career to poetry, but who is now mainly remembered for his novels set in the fictitious British county of Wessex. His best-known titles, to judge by whether I had heard of them, include Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure. Together with the last of these, Tess of the d'Urbervilles stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy and harsh criticism that spurred Hardy to turn away from fiction at an early stage in his career. The student of English literature must regard this decision as a tragedy similar to, say, the music world's loss when Sibelius quit composing with thirty years left on his meter.
But where would be the fun of studying Brit Lit without sad stories like these? Suicides, drownings, early deaths in the trenches of the Great War, the toll of consumption upon all manner of promising young talent... It's enough to give the reading of great books an extra kick of morbid fascination. And even though Hardy outlived his doomed heroine by some 37 years, this particular book is enlivened by the scandal and (for faithful Christians) intellectual challenge that results from its attacks on Christian morals and beliefs. Among its ironies, however, is the fact that Hardy never openly reveals the syllogisms by which male protagonist Angel Clare apparently knocks Christian dogma into a cocked hat; he leaves them to the imagination, or perhaps to the research of people interested in the thought of that era.
Another irony is that, while the heroine's predicament tears the "conventional morality" of the Victorian era to bloody shreds, the most doctrinaire believers in it (Clare's parents) happen to be paragons of compassion and forgiveness; and as the narrator points out, the crucial point on which the whole tragedy turns is the point when Tess fails in her resolve to appeal to Parson and Mrs. Clare, fails to trust them to be exactly the open-hearted saints they would have been to her.
Tess's predicament stems from a youthful indiscretion, in which her innate purity and virtue were tested past the breaking point by an amoral seducer named Alec d'Urberville. In spite of what you might guess from the title, she never marries him, though she bears a child who does not live long. After living quietly for a few years, Tess tries to start over in life with the sovereign resolution to avoid entanglements with men, but soon after going to work on a dairy farm she meets and falls in love with Angel Clare, a parson's son whose freethinking tendencies have led him to seek a career in farming rather than the church. Ever conscious that her past could blight their future together, Tess resists Angel's proposal of marriage as long as she can, then delays the wedding day while dithering over whether or how to tell him her whole history.
It finally doesn't come out at all until their wedding night; and when Clare recoils from her, the author makes it clear that the faithful one of the couple is the wife who suffers while Clare looks for answers in Brazil. By the time he realizes that he is the one who has done wrong between them and rushes back to England to reunite with his wife, the thin line between "happily ever after" and unavoidable tragedy has already been crossed. Exactly what shape that tragedy will take, and how much of an emotional wreck it will leave you, will only become clearly apparent in the superbly paced final pages of the book.
I listened to this book as read by the amazing Anna Bentick, who brought a distinctive intonation and regional dialect to each and every character, male and female. Her voice, and Hardy's words, brought vividly to life a tragedy that at times reminded me of folk tales and myths, at others of lyric opera (I even idly considered sketching an outline of a libretto for one). And though my one-sentence review of this book will henceforth be that "I have been emotionally assaulted and battered by Thomas Hardy," I can't quite shake the idea that the next audio book I borrow from the library will be something by the same author.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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