How Tess of the d’Urbervilles ruined me for (certain) other books

Have you ever thought, “Wow, I wish I could un-read that book…”?  I have that thought quite often, and you’d think it would be about the multitude of terrible romance novels I’ve read.  But you’d be wrong.  I really wish I hadn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I wouldn’t mind un-reading Jude the Obscure either, while we’re at it, but it’s Tess that really broke my heart.

Here’s a list of the top five things that I despise about Tess:

  1. After a horse-injuring accident that is totally not her fault (but she thinks it is), Tess gets shipped off by her parents to visit a distant relative whom she doesn’t meet but whose scapegrace son, after much ado, rapes her.  Tess manages to escape and returns home, ruined and in despair.  That’s bad enough on its own, but the absolute worst part about it is that Tess (and everyone else, frankly) believes that it was all her fault.  And she bears a child out of the union who lives only a few weeks and dies after being christened (by Tess) Sorrow.
  2. After that godawful experience, Tess goes to work as a dairy maid on a farm some distance from her home.  There she meets (again) the would-be hero Angel Clare, son of a Reverend, who is young and carefree (and careless) and ‘falls in love’ with Tess.  After they marry, he confesses that he’s not coming into the marriage a virgin, so Tess feels safe to confess the same.  Angel isn’t a fan of equality, though, so he abandons Tess, hours after marrying her.  What is poor Tess to do?  She goes to find another place to work.
  3. Remember the rapist?  He and Tess meet again by an odd twist of fate (or the author just being a total asshole) and, after a good deal of coercion involving her mother and sister being absolutely destitute and Alec (the rapist) being the only person in a position to help them (but only for a cost), forces her to stay with him as his mistress.
  4. Angel Clare… I really hate him, maybe more than I hate the rapist.  After he abandons his wife, he decides to head off to Brazil to start a new life.  On the road, he meets up with one of Tess’ former friends at the dairy and asks her to join him as his mistress (GOD!!!); she agrees, but eventually he realizes it wouldn’t be a good idea.  In Brazil, Angel has a bad time.  His farming venture fails and he falls very ill, and after a while, he begins to realize that maybe he wasn’t the world’s best husband.  He decides to head home and reclaim his happiness.
  5. The ending…. I mean, I pretty much hate everything about this book, but I really hate the ending.  Angel eventually finds Tess, but it’s too late.  She’s already become the rapist’s mistress, and she’s so overcome with shame, she knows she can’t just leave the rapist and recover things with Angel (or exist on her own, really).  The only thing she can do is kill the rapist (stabs him repeatedly).  After the murder, she sets off after Angel, and they spend a few days together in happiness until the law catches up with Tess and she is arrested and executed.  Tess charges Angel to care for her younger sister, Liza-Lu, and hopes that he will be happy with her.  The book ends with Angel and Liza-Lu holding hands as they watch the execution happen in the distance.

It’s been about ten years since I read Tess, but it made an indelible impression on me.  It’s not often that I absolutely hate a book and everything it stands for, but that’s how I feel about Tess.  That book and everything that happens in it fill me with an impotent rage against the whole history of the world and against that inclination that may occur naturally in females or may be cultivated in us to internalize all the horrible things that may or may not happen to us and conclude that they are our fault.  Blech.

Cover image, Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer

Anyway, this rant about Tess of the d’Urbervilles is brought to you by Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer.  Great cover, right?  Actually, it sort of reminds me of some of the stylized poses of Titian or Rubens painting Venus and Adonis…


Anyway, back to Barely a Lady… Actually, I really enjoyed it until I finished the book and realized how very much it reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles… then I got a little angry at it, but I still think it was overall a good book.  Unlike Tess, I recommend that lovers of the romance genre read Barely a Lady, because it is well written and unwraps its intrigue and mystery very slowly like the best kind of present.  Honestly, if I’d never read TessBarely a Lady would probably have gotten a 5-star review out of me.  Instead, Tess has ruined me for books about long-suffering females.

I don’t want to write about the plot of Barely a Lady.  Most of the fun of reading the book is figuring out what’s going on, and I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone.  Suffice it to say, then, that Eileen Dreyer is masterful at unfolding backstory in a way that keeps you entertained and on your toes.  Most of the time backstory is murder on a plot, as all the action is on hold until the reader is brought up to speed on what are considered important details (but, usually, the backstory isn’t all that important to the reader’s experience).  But Dreyer weaves in the backstory very carefully, bringing in a bit here, a bit there, and always furthering the plot and character development (of the female characters, at least) with every pass.  There are a few flashbacks, but they didn’t annoy me very much.  Except the Mimi one… I could have done without that nonsense.

So here’s my problem with Barely a Lady: Jack.  He’s the hero, so you expect him to be heroic.  Or perhaps you expect him to be an anti-hero (those are OK too).  What you don’t expect is for him to have all the character of a petulant child who lashes out because he does not get his way.  And maybe he, like Angel Clare, at some point realizes that he was phenomenally in the wrong, but I just don’t think that he paid enough for what he did.  The ending was utterly implausible to me.  Maybe I’m just not enough of a long-suffering woman, but I think a lot more groveling was in order, and I would have enjoyed reading every page of it.  I know–way overkill–but the ending felt like a little betrayal, to me.

All that to say, damn you Tess of the d’Urbervilles!  I was really looking forward to that book, and you ruined it for me.