Oh, Aggie…I’m sorry.
Senior year. Advanced English 4. My beloved English teacher, Aggie Lynch. She wore killer high heels to school every day. Tight straight skirts, and so much Estee Lauder “Youth Dew” to make you pause at the door to her room and inhale deeply. She was a tough grader, a cheerleader for every one of us. She demanded we rise to her expectations, and she cut you to the core when you didn’t. And I idolized her.
We did two book reports a year, choosing from books on her ‘College Bound Books’ handout. We chose a book, told her which book we were reading, and on the day of the book report, she walked up and down the aisle, handing each of us a 3x5 card, with our question to answer…we wrote for the entire hour…or we didn’t.
I chose Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It was too challenging to me, but I was embarrassed to tell Aggie that. So, I slogged on. And got behind, then behinder. Then that card was on my desk. I can’t remember the question…I remember the hot shame of sitting there, unable to even fake an answer. I didn’t know there was a murder…I knew there was a rape, but didn’t know when it happened.
I’ve read other Hardy, but never could get past my feeling of failure over Tess, and never faced her again…until this month.
We have a 2020 FaceBook book club, following a suggested book list I found on Pinterest…February’s book is “A book you wished you’d read in school.” Tess’s face, and rich auburn hair (I remember that, since my mom had the same beautiful hair…I did not and was envious). I certainly WISH I’d’ve read it. It would have saved my Eng 4 grade.
So I did this month.
Oh, Aggie…I’m so sorry. I was easy to nail to the wall. I, in my warm home in NW Indiana, was not ready to understand anything about Tess, except maybe her younger sister…But the broader themes wrapped up in this sad, sad, tale were completely inaccessible to my 1963 self.
Tess Derbeyfield never had a chance. Between the three men in her life, she was doomed from before the opening scenes of this book. Her father, a fellow who gives n’er-do-well a whole new definition, is more than willing to use her to further his own schemes of greatness…Alec D’Urbervilles is a classic cad, with a streak of ugly meanness. And Angel Clare may think he’s one, but he ain’t (Aggie said it was a word, just one not to use in formal writing) anything resembling an angel. He’s a prig. So. Those are Tess’s men. My youthful, idealistic blood should have been boiling as a teen…IF I’d’ve understood what was going on.
The gender politics of Tess are oppressive, and Tess will not escape…her father has been convinced he’s related to greatness, and as such, work is beneath him…drinking and storytelling is his occupation. And making babies. He blithely leaves the unpleasant job of supporting his family to the women in the house. He’s a great man and can’t be bothered. He is more than willing to ‘pimp out’ (would not have known that word as a senior—I was sheltered!) his daughter, Tess, to a family purported to be the lofty D’Urbervilles of HIS lineage. Enter the rapist. Alec and his mother have bought their family name, and cannot be relatives, but Tess goes to work on their farm, with her father’s admonition to catch the eye of that ‘distant’ relative so she can marry him and bring her family (wouldn’t THAT wedding be awkward?) the glory Daddy has decided they deserve, with NO effort on his part! Alec isn’t the marrying kind. He’s the deflowering kind, the predator kind. Because he has money and position (so she thinks) and property, he takes what he wants. And he wants Tess.
Returning home pregnant, abandoned, Tess has not showered the family with wealth and position…she’s brought another mouth to feed. Feckless father is deeper in drink, and Tess is forced to work in the fields, dragging the poorly infant along with her. Father’s fine with that, because HE is a D’Urbervilles, and can’t possibly be expected to *work*. But somehow his wife and daughters? Well, a man’s gotta live? Things get worse. The baby dies but not the social shame. Tess moves again…each move a step down (if possible) on the agrarian ladder. And, let’s face it…they were near the bottom rung from the beginning. Tess moves to a new area, where no one knows her shame. One thing about sweet Tess is, she is willing to work hard. She doesn’t shy away from pulling her weight.
There she meets Angel, but we know they’ve been in the same scene before (well, I wouldn’t have…if I got this far). When they were both young and beautiful and untouched and full of promise…Hardy hits us over the head with the ‘what ifs’ of the moment. Angel Clare is the sort-of-aimless third son of a rigid cleric. The older brothers are already established in the family profession, but Angel wants…more, different. He wants to be a landowner and gentleman farmer. To his credit, he’s spending time on different farms, learning the ropes. Or is he slumming?
He pursues Tess, she tries to escape. She tries. When she finally agrees to marry (Angel is a traditional guy), she begs her mom for guidance about her secret…does she tell or not? Mom tells her not to, under any circumstances. We know she will…we wait, and…she does. Angel abandons her.
And Tess, if nothing else, but willing to work hard at any demeaning work, to stay alive, drifts farther and farther down into the pit of despair. Her family might have once been companions of ‘The Conquerer’ in 1066, but her circumstances are dire. Do the men who put her there care? Do they know? Would they care if they knew?
Of course Hardy now drags her three men back into her life..with final, tragic, consequences. Father dies. The family is kicked off out of their hovel…someone else needs it. Alec returns and wants her again, and Angel returns, not wiser, not better.
There is a murder…a violent one, with blood dripping from the ceiling (Lordy, how did I miss that??). There is a strange scene at Stonehenge. And there is what Hardy, ironically, calls “Justice”. I was totally shattered at the last scene. I know I never got to it the first time I tried to read this book.
Gender politics, power, the plight of the working class…the rural workers who feed the nation…they’re all there. The criticism is fierce, as fierce as anything Dickens would have written. But because Hardy ties his characters to a place he knew well, loved, and to the creeping industrialization that was destroying life for his neighbors, the criticism felt more oppressive to me, more inevitable. More inexorable, more tragic.
I was destroyed at the end of this book, with Tess. And full of apologies to Aggie. She was right to flunk me on that ‘book report.’ And I hope I redeemed myself in her eyes.
Sorry, Aggie. Here’s my late assignment…almost 60 years late.