Book Review: Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Possible spoilers, explicit sexual terminology included

While I have yet to solidify, if possible, my knowledge and perception of the different versions of the novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the controversy surrounding them over the course of 30 years of critics’ reactions and Hardy’s revisionist responses to those reactions starting in the late 1880s, I can unreservedly share some gems of beautiful writing to be found in one version or another. That, along with a brief summarizing book review, is the purpose of this post.
The Transatlantic Press (TAP) 2012 edition preserved or restored several paragraphs’ worth of text missing from the Penguin Classics edition (1998), which is based on a not-easily-identifiable mixture of previous editions. Whatever its sources, TAP 2012 includes the Chaseborough dance scene first restored, from Hardy’s drafting prior to the first 1891 publication, only in the 1912 edition, over 20 years later. Other aspects of TAP’s version preserve text from the 1891 publication, based on direct comparison after I purchased the Penguin Classics rendering of that version while reading the 2012 TAP edition.
That’s the barest tip of the tip of the iceberg that constitutes this novel’s textual history. Suffice it to say there were moral objections to several parts of the work from different quarters, stirring in Hardy different shades of both defiance and compliance to society’s sensibilities over a 30-year span. Amidst the intrigue, according to the Penguin editor, Tim Dolin, Hardy had the foresight, lament it though he would, to bowdlerize his own work in order to pre-empt unwanted excisions by publishers.

Tess was his second to last novel, followed by Jude the Obscure, after which, out of fatigue or frustration with critics’ and publishers’ opinions (the general public generally received the novel with enthusiasm) and the hassle of straddling between his own wishes and theirs, he swore off novels and spent the rest of his long life writing excellent poetry. An excerpt from his poem “The Darkling Thrush” kicks off my Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series on this blog.
Setting that complicated history and the questions it raises aside, I center this post on a literary appreciation of Thomas Hardy’s controversial work in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Like most changes Hardy made, was asked to make, or purposely neglected to make, the deleted and restored scene provokes moral objections. Its palpably sensual tone and sexually suggestive content at the turn of the twentieth century was a challenge for a Western world barely recovered from the era of Victorian mores and not yet liberated by the sexual revolution of first the 1920s and then the 60s and 70s.
Leading up to the Chaseborough dance scene, Tess has been working for Alec d’Urberville’s blind mother, caring for her birds at their estate and journeying on summer Saturdays to fairs and other outings among fellow laborers in the vicinity of the fictitious town of Trantridge, real county Dorset. On one of these Saturdays, she comes upon a singular atmosphere. Alec is the instrument of her ruin which has yet to strike, and the scene serves not only as that event’s foreshadowing but also as perhaps a blend of frankness and lyrical abandon on Hardy’s part in its indirect comment and direct depiction of real society dressed warmly in Romantic and mythological allusions.
Once she reaches the source of the fiddler music unaccompanied by the sound of dancing feet, she peers through the doorway of the outhouse. The total portion of the scene represented in the TAP 2012 edition comprises some 15 paragraphs of variable length. From the second of these paragraphs, the reader shares Tess’s somewhat entranced gaze:
“It was a windowless erection used for storage, and from the open door there floated into the obscurity a mist of yellow radiance, which at first Tess thought to be illuminated smoke. But on drawing nearer she perceived that it was a cloud of dust, lit by candles within the outhouse, whose beams upon the haze carried forward the outline of the doorway into the wide night of the garden.”
“When she came close and looked in she beheld indistinct forms racing up and down to the figure of the dance…” (start of para. 3).
The residue making up the “yellow mist” had come from “the storage of peat and other products, the stirring of which by their turbulent feet created the nebulosity that involved the scene” (para. 3). And this “residuum,” or “scroff” as Hardy first labels it, accounts for the muffling of the sound of the dancers’ nonetheless very active feet.
Then, the energy rises with the number of sexual connotations, adding also some scientific tonality:
“Through this floating, fusty debris of peat and hay, mixed with the perspirations and warmth of the dancers, and forming together a sort of vegeto-human pollen, the muted fiddles feebly pushed their notes, in marked contrast to the spirit with which the measure was trodden out.”
As we zoom in, the Greek mythological allusions binding sex with music begin and pile on thickly. I include definitions and references for further reading following the passage:
“They coughed as they danced, and laughed as they coughed. Of the rushing couples there could barely be discerned more than high lights–the indistinctness shaping them to satyrs clasping nymphs–a multiplicity of Pans whirling a multiplicity of Syrinxes: Lotis attempting to elude Priapus, and always failing.”
satyr – “creatures of the wild, part man and part beast, who in Classical times were closely associated with the god Dionysus. Satyrs and Sileni were at first represented as uncouth men, each with a horse’s tail and ears and an erect phallus. In the Hellenistic age they were represented as men having a goat’s legs and tail. Rival theories differentiate silenis from satyrs.” – Britannica.com.
similar creatures: faun (Roman), minotaur, centaur, harpy, siren. – Wikipedia
nymph – “a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis. They are beloved by many and dwell in the mountainous regions and forests by lakes and streams.” forever young, can bear immortal children by gods, though not necessarily immortal themselves. examples: Charybdis and Scylla. similar creatures: mermaid, huldra, selkie, siren. the frequent target of satyrs – wikipedia
Pan – “god of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, of mountain wilds, rustic music and impromptus, and the companion of the nymph, often associated with sexuality” – Wikipedia
Syrinx – “a nymph and follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous god Pan, she ran to a river’s edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when the god’s frustrated breath blew across them. Pan cut the reeds to fashion the first set of pan pipes, which were thenceforth known as syrinx.” – Wikipedia
Priapus – “a god fo animal and vegetable fertility whose originally Asian cult started in the Hellespontine regions, centring especially on Lampsacus. He was represented in a caricature of the human form, grotesquely misshapen, with an enormous phallus. Father was Dionysus, the wine god; mother either a nymph or Aphrodite, the goddess of love.” “in Hellenistic times . . . in the country adopted as a god of gardens . . .” – Britannica
– “a minor rustic fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit plants, gardens and male genitalia. Priapus is marked by his oversized, permanent erection, which gave rise to the medical term priapism.” – Wikipedia
priapism = “a persistent, painful erection of the penis unaccompanied by sexual excitation or desire” – Britannica
Lotis – “a nymph mentioned by Ovid. In his account, at the Liberalia festival, Priapus tried to rape her when everyone had fallen asleep, but she was awakened by a sudden cry of Silenus’s donkey and ran off, leaving Priapus in embarrassment as everyone else woke up too and became aware of his intentions. In another account, she was changed into a lotus tree to escape Priapus; later, Dryope picked a flower off the tree Lotis had become and was transformed into a black poplar.” “In Book 6 of the Fasti Ovid tells much the same story, but with the goddess Vesta rather than Lotis as the intended victim. According to some sources, Lotis was the daughter of Neptune or Nereus. Ovid suggests that Priapus later kills the donkey.” – Wikipedia
And, Pan and Syrinx are the parents of the satyrs and nymphs. Phew! Lots to unpack.

Paragraph 4 further emphasizes the sense of illusion and transformation:
“At intervals a couple would approach the doorway for air, and the haze no longer veiling their features, the demigods resolved themselves into the homely personalities of her own next-door neighbors. Could Trantridge in two or three short hours have metamorphosed itself thus madly!”
But it doesn’t stop there, and Tess interacts next with not one but two men who notice her nervous hope that the dance will end soon so her neighbors will leave and she won’t have to journey back in the dark alone. Each man is presented as a god- or saint-like figure in an ironic sense, as they are both drunken and make suggestive comments akin to Alec d’Urberville’s assuaging overtures to Tess up to this point.
The first is described as “one of [the] Sileni of the throng,” and the singular, a “Silenus,” is a particularly older, mentor-like figure in the company of the wine god Dionysus. “The plural sileni refers to the mythological figure as a type that is sometimes thought to be differentiated from a satyr by having the attributes of a horse rather than a goat.” – Wikipedia
After these exchanges, we return to the dance floor itself in paragraph 11 of this edition’s surplus Chaseborough scene:
“The movement grew more passionate: the fiddlers behind the luminous pillar of cloud now and then varied the air by playing on the wrong side of the bridge or with the back of the bow. But it did not matter; the panting shapes spun onwards.”
Here, the dancers are reduced to nebulous forms themselves, less sexual beings and more impressions of objects, like protons spinning around an atom’s nucleus. This lends the suggestion of inevitable, eminently natural movement, the essence of life and energy. Their identities are again obscured; they could be either animals or something else, but something either supra-human or subhuman.
Hardy then focuses on the dancers’ tendencies to stay with the partner they’re inclined to once begun, as if to point out the glue-like, intimate nature of these pairs, in contrast to traditional country dances of ever-changing partners and a communal sense of order and purpose and propriety. In the middle of that paragraph, number 12 of the passage, the theme of cosmic movement reaches a pinnacle:
“It was then that the ecstasy and the dream began, in which emotion was the matter of the universe, and matter but an adventitious intrusion likely to hinder you from spinning where you wanted to spin.”
The use of the pronoun “you” personalizes the described experience to the reader’s frame of reference while simultaneously bringing emotion and human intention into equality with the ultimate nature of the cosmos. This moment serves as the climax of the figurative sexual intercourse that is the dance.
The next description reiterates the sense of accomplished sexual union and orgasmic release. However, Hardy takes it one step further in continuing to emphasize the collective over an individual couple, suggesting with no great subtlety orgiastic abandon. Paragraph 13:
“Suddenly there was a dull thump on the ground: a couple had fallen, and lay in a mixed heap. The next couple, unable to check its progress, came toppling over the obstacle. An inner cloud of dust rose around the prostrate figures amid the general one of the room, in which a twitching entanglement of arms and legs was discernible.”
Again, Hardy returns to the medium of the dance: the “fusty” “yellow mist” operating even more now as a sexual fluid of semen or the mixed pool of male and female ejaculate fluids.
Even more scandalous in his day, however, must have been his final coup de grace at the end of paragraph 14:
“. . . female accents from the human heap–those of the unhappy partner of the man whose clumsiness had caused the mishap; she happened also to be his recently married wife, in which assortment there was nothing unusual in Trantridge as long as any affection remained between wedded couples; and, indeed, it was not uncustomary in their later lives, to avoid making odd lots of the single people between whom there might be a warm understanding.”
Translation:
The husband’s clumsiness with a partner other than his wife, resulting in their falling down together, led to his wife and her partner’s collision with the first couple. This arrangement of non-wedded pairs of dance partners was not unusual in Trantridge if there was affection between sets of couples and unwedded members of the opposite sex. Well into their married lives, it was not uncommon to switch partners so that single people did not feel left out in the mix either, and to make of the crowd a more unified whole of versatile dance partners, and, implicitly, sexual partners. Swingers, orgies, etc.
As if that weren’t enough discomfort for the die-hard Victorian or Puritan reader, later when the crowd departs, Hardy overtly attaches halos to their heads, as if their very sensuality and its shameless expression have made them somehow saintly or angelic.

Hardy had balls, that’s for sure.
One would think there might be a Chapter X general note in the Penguin Classics edition concerning this deleted scene, but they don’t give it such prominence. However, they do include a note marked at the specific location where the text is significantly different between versions:
“2 – When Hardy removed this chapter from Graphic [first publication in this magazine for serial form of the text] it included a long dance scene at this point. It was retained when the chapter was published separately [as Saturday Night in Arcady], but was not restored to Tess until 1912. Appendix V reproduces both versions.”
Spoilers ahead.
At this point in the story, an incident during the journey home directly precipitates Tess’s fatal decision to go with Alec d’Urberville, who takes her into the forest and in some versions rapes while in others seduces her, resulting in her birthing a daughter, prior to which one version replaces the rape/seduction scene with a duplicitous false marriage scene between Tess and Alec.
And the confusion about Tess’s character and morality only mounts with the increase of changes and counter-changes Hardy makes over the ensuing years, in everything from subtle actions taken to gestures and tears to comments on her thought processes. The same goes for other principal figures in the book, so that when the revisions have finally ended, the modern reader hardly knows what to make of it all.
Still, and amazingly, despite all the complications, Hardy manages to deliver into posterity a well-loved narrative and tragedy of Greek proportions in a captivating writing style. Its considerable length is buffered by a noticeable economy of language coupled with playful use of extraneously large, technical-sounding words, and some made-up ones, such as “vegeto-human.” This latter feature particularly irritated many critics, but as an incorrigible intellectual in love with big words, I love Hardy for it. The tale is epic and complete and the commentary on society’s moral hypocrisy not only discernible but memorable.
Hardy elevates our understanding of human complexity, not only in his carefully told tale but also in the vacillations of all that pre-emptive shaping, editing, redaction, and rewriting. Tim Dolin, editor of the Penguin Classics edition’s textual history section and end notes, remarks on the practical impossibility of identifying a definitive edition, and proposes there may really be no such thing.
Indeed, this notion may be the simple truth of most published writing; especially in hindsight, the author knows that more could have been done or done better, but at some point they pull the trigger or nothing ever gets published. For the reader as well as the writer, the work always remains to some degree unfinished, which only adds to the fascination of literature.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles has become a new favorite book of mine, and I am sorely tempted to eschew future plans on my to-read list to take another sensual spin full of rich, transporting description around Thomas Hardy’s d’Urberville universe and the magnificently complex and shape-shifting character of Tess Durbeyfield. All that remains is the tiny matter of which edition to choose next.

book on the grass

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

Wildlife TV Programs This Week

One of my favorite ways to view wildlife is through TV programs on my favorite nature channel NatGeoWild (DirecTV 283). There is always something delightfully soothing, fascinating, mysterious, invigorating, or surprising to see–and always much to learn.

In the USA, two special options rendering reality in two very different styles will be broadcast this weekend. They are The Zoo on Animal Planet (channel 282) and Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild (channel 283).

The new episode of The Zoo (link to live streaming of season 1 episodes), a show I have yet to sample about adventures at the Bronx Zoo, is on next Saturday, April 1, at 10pm Eastern and features a desert fox, or fennec, named Charlie. I LOVE fennecs. The tall, pointy ears, the dark eyes, the foxiness, the elegance–truly entertaining canids.

Of course, I love Scotland, too, and until now have not seen a show advertised on NatGeoWild (channel 283) that focuses on Scotland’s natural treasures: Wild Scotland will air starting at 8pm Eastern next Sunday, April 2, in a series of 1-hour-long premiers, each focusing on a different season’s challenges and species in the Scottish wilds. Plus, it’s narrated by Ewan McGregor (at least the UK version is, which seems to focus on the Hebrides)–can’t wait!

Episodes for this series, part of a regular program known as Destination Wild in the U.S., start with “Spring Awakening” at 8pm (Eastern), about this unpredictable season’s effects on life in the Highlands. This new episode is followed by two others at 9pm and 10pm, “Mid Summer’s Night Dream,” and “Into the Woods” (I found no direct links for profiles on these episodes).

Earlier that day are additional, re-run episodes of Destination Wild, including Wild France. I added that to my DVR, also, just for good measure. Wild Alaska was one of the earliest in that line that I recall seeing years ago.

If you missed Big Cat Week on NatGeoWild this year, you missed some great shows set in North and South America including the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains. The majority of shows presented a diverse array of African savannahs, river deltas, deserts, and swamps. I DVR’d most of the shows and watched them later at my leisure. My preferences were the mountain lion, leopard, and cheetah episodes, as well as those involving, you guessed it, African wild dogs, aka African painted dogs.

Incidentally, although big cats are endangered in many places, the social life of lions leaves something to be desired with the males’ lack of protective instinct for younger sibling cubs and the infanticide of marauding adult male lions. Dogs, otters, and even bizarre hyenas are less dysfunctional. For a primer on how great African wild dogs are, see the footnote. *

Sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace to watch individual animals tough it out–leopards, cheetahs, mountain lions, jaguars, even honey badgers. However, Shark Week (NatGeo) is a ways off, not till late summer, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (previously on USA but this year on FS1) airs each year on Valentine’s Day, and Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet (channel 282) broadcasts as an alternative to the NFL Super Bowl (also early February for you non-sporting breeds). Those ships have sailed.

Generally, Animal Planet focuses more on adventure that may or may not involve animals, with programs such as North Woods Law, Pitbulls & Parolees, Tanked, and Treehouse Masters. I’m less of a fan overall of Animal Planet because I would rather see actual animals, not just people acting like them. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

These are not the only channels for observing wildlife on television, just the most obvious, most reliable, and most popular. Every once in a while, there is a special presentation, a Disney movie, films like March of the Penguins, and others on various channels from movie channels to science to family. Of course, now YouTube and other online venues offer even more opportunities to view animal and wilderness videos of all kinds. Our options continue to expand with streaming media and the mobility of videos being shared across social networks.

But if you’re more of a traditionalist as I tend to be, and you prefer good, old-fashioned TV for most of your visual home entertainment, check out this week’s offerings on NatGeoWild and Animal Planet throughout the week. I like The Incredible Dr. Pol, American Beaver, Otter Town, and anything to do with wild canids like foxes, wolves, jackals, coyotes, and dogs (including Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan shows). Tune in especially on Saturday for The Zoo at 10pm Eastern and for Wild Scotland starting at 8pm Eastern on Sunday. Enjoy!

Wild Scotland Reference

By the way, as I am in the process of presenting my multi-part series on Outlander-oriented tourism in Scotland–having visited the country last year but sadly seen little wildlife during that trip–I’m including below a few resources to learn more about exploring wild Scotland in person. 

For general tour guide sources about wild Scotland, I recommend:

Scotland the Best: Peter Irvine chooses his top 50 Scottish places to eat, stay and play – Daily Record – THE latest edition (book) of Scottish travel bible Scotland the best is out and here, author Peter Irvine selects his top 50 places to eat, stay and play.

Rough Guides – The Rough Guide to Scotland – The new, full-colour Rough Guide to Scotland is the definitive travel guide to this gem of a country. In-depth coverage of its burgeoning food scene, artistic innovations and awe-inspiring wild places

Walk Wild Scotland (walkwild.org) – Wilderness. Adventure. Culture. Relaxation.

Regional Guides and Guides by Type of Place or Activity

To begin to drill down into specifics, a helpful starting point for exploration is the Scottish Natural Heritage nature reserves and parks page. It provides different category links for types of sites and where to find them, including national, regional, and local nature reserves, national, regional, and country parks, national nature reserves and those managed by SNH, as well as other sites.

The following are some select resources I happened to come across while trip planning. This is in no way an exhaustive list; some vast territories are not covered.

In the South

WWT Caerlaverock – Wildfowl & Wetlands Centre near Caerlaverock Castle, managed by Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (wwt.org.uk)

Adjacent to WWT Caerlaverock is the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (snh.gov.uk) – “an internationally important coastal site on the North Solway Coast.” It is a birding hotspot (winter) and habitat for natterjack toads (summer) in the shallow pools on the northern edge of the reserve. “Winter attracts staggering numbers of wildfowl and waders. Oystercatcher, pintail and curlew feed on the mudflats and roost on the merse (local name for saltmarsh).”

St. Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders (a National Trust Scotland site) – “A nature reserve and seabird colony on a dramatic cliff-top known for dolphin and puffin sightings.” – Google maps

Central Scotland & southern Highlands

In Fife, just north of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth: Welcome to Fife Coast & Countryside Trust and Local Nature Reserves.

Rannoch & Tummel (rannochandtummel.co.uk) – In the Big Trees Country of Perthshire: Loch Rannoch, Schiehallion munro, Dunalastair Estate, Blackwood of Rannoch (Scots Pine, remnants of the Great Forest of Caledonia), Kinloch Rannoch (village), Tummel Bridge and Loch Tummel, Rannoch Moor, Rannoch Station, churches, and more

Argyll & the Isles

Scottish Beaver Trials in Knapdale Forest – “Spot the signs of beaver activity in one of the most stunning parts of Scotland.” For information on the project, see the Scottish Natural Heritage page about it.

Argyll & the Isles (exploreargyll.co.uk) Wildlife and nature reserves page – a brief overview followed by three pages of specific results on wildlife and nature tourism in Argyll & the Isles, including Bute Forest, Islay Sea Adventures, Mull Eagle Watch, and Staffa National Nature Reserve.

Cairngorms National Park

Cairngorms National Park (visitcairngorms.com – official) – Activity search results for “Wildlife Watching” include well-established wildlife tours such as

UK Wildlife Safaris: Cairngorms Highland Wilderness–diverse, elaborate over 7 days, the tour offers sightings of red deer, wild goat, golden eagle, common seal, red squirrel, otter, pine marten, badger, and Capercaillie via treks to the Speyside Wildlife Hide, the Moray Firth, and through Caledonian pine forest–

and Rothiemurchus Safaris and Tours (Aviemore): osprey, badgers, red squirrels, red deer, pine martens. See Rothiemurchus.net for the full range of outdoor activities available, which include wildlife watching and photography, self-guided walks, pony treks, fishing, white water rafting, gorge swimming, hiking, kayaking, biking with bike hire, clay target shooting, quad bike treks, mountain climbing, archery, and special activities for kids.

For more Highland wildlife and bird watching safaris, go to VisitScotland.

Farther North and West

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves (nnr-scotland.org.uk) – Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve (lower northwest coast vicinity, Highland): On the hill you may see red deer, pine marten, mountain hares, foxes, voles and stoats.

Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide (managed by Forestry Commission of Scotland) along Loch Sunart between Acharacle and Strontian, West Highland – otters, pine martens, a heronry, and, rarely, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles

Islands

Arguably the best place to see puffins is Handa Island. The Islands are generally best for waterfowl sightings year round.

Eilean Ban: The Brightwater Centre (eileanban.org), The Pier, Kyleakin, Isle of Skye island wildlife: “On the island you may see Voles, Pine Marten, Rock and Meadow Pipits, while in the water around, Shags and Cormorants are regularly seen feeding, and Eider Ducks have appeared in large numbers. Porpoises and both Harbour and Grey Seals are visitors, not to mention the resident Otters!

Don’t forget to learn about wildlife and nature in the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland!

If you decide to hold off till the weekend, Wild Scotland is sure to be another great way to start exploring the Scottish wilderness. Watch it this Sunday, April 2, at 8pm Eastern on NatGeoWild.

The Zoo‘s latest episode called “Birds and the Bees” features the fennec fox, bee-eater birds, and a leopard; it airs Saturday, April 1, on Animal Planet at 10pm Eastern.


Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with any of these companies and make this recommendation from personal interest alone.

  • African wild dogs are the most efficient predators in Africa, with a percentage of hunts resulting in kills more than 90% of the time, and arguably the most humane. Rather than slowly suffocating or bleeding their prey, like big cats often do, African wild dogs immediately go for the belly, which induces the numbing effects of shock and results in a quick death. Again, dogs are better than cats–it’s just a fact. But they’re all endangered, and each ecosystem survives in a delicate balance. For a snapshot of other wild animals I enjoy, see Five-Phrase Friday (23): Cool Creatures.

More on my blog about Scotland: