In Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Tess of the Durbervilles’ the description of the glorious summer at Talbothay’s dairy farm when Angel and Tess fall in love is one of my favourite pieces of writing. “Some spirit within her [Tess] rose automatically as the sap in the twigs”. Hardy goes on to talk about humanity’s “invincible instinct towards self-delight”. That’s exactly how I respond to summer’s bounty in the garden.
It was my good fortune to be foundation Head of English at Melville High School in Hamilton in the 1960s. I could chose the set texts I wanted to use without having to curse the selections of my predecessor. For the Seventh Form I chose, Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Tess’, and George Orwell’s ‘1984’. I’m not sure I’d chose them now. But I did then and they worked. I loved all three, (‘admired’ is probably a better word than ‘loved’ for ‘1984’). My enthusiasm proved contagious.
Just over a week ago I wrote about a teacher’s delight in striking a gusher. ‘Tess’ once erupted into much more than just a gusher. One of my teaching methods at that senior level was the use of seminars. I’d given a boy the task of presenting a viewpoint on Alec. During the course of his talk he mentioned Tess being seduced. One of his male classmate snapped, ‘no, she was raped’. They were off, ding-dong, the whole class, the argument raged.
I was rather stunned. In those days matters sexual were better left out of the classroom. Ironic, considering my set books’ subjects. Should I close it down. But they were revealing knowledge and a degree of sophistication that made me realise they possessed an inner world that my fellow teachers and I had little knowledge of. They knew their society even if they were not at home in it. It was I that was on the learning curve. I had been under-estimating them, treating them as students when they were already young adults.
They turned to me. What did I think? I drove them to the passage. Clever Hardy! That question is left up in the air though it is clear the young man has his way with her and she bore a child nine months later. The fact she later lived with Alec before she murdered him suggested he exerted some charm over her.
I dared the question. Hardy called her a ‘pure woman’. Was she? They all agreed she was, boy and girl alike. Angel was the one for whom they reserved most scorn. Alec was a bounder but Angel was a fop. (The words are mine, I report a sentiment). I concur with their conclusions. The power of fiction; Hardy’s in particular. I have always thought that Hardy understood women better than any other male novelist. That experience confirmed that judgement.
But Tess is caught by life ambiguities – as we all are. She must die because she killed for love – an age-old story. Hardy knew how to turn the bitter-sweet corkscrew. He has a sad short story called ‘On the Western Circuit’ with a brilliant description of Salisbury Cathedral at the beginning of the tale. After a brief encounter a London lawyer asks a country girl to write to him. She is illiterate so she asks her cousin to write for her. Then she realises she is pregnant to him. Stirred by the warmth and depth of feeling in the letters the man agrees to marry her. Not till after the wedding does he learn the truth
'What are you doing, dear Charles?' she said timidly from the other window, and drew nearer to him as if he were a god'.
'Reading over all these sweet letters to me signed "Anna"' he replied with dreary resignation.