Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Hardy's Tess

Amongst the books I'm reading currently, one of the most interested has been 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' by Thomas Hardy. My Dad protests whenever Hardy or his books are mentioned. I invariably hear the words 'depressing', 'morose' or something similar uttered, before discovering that he hasn't actually read Hardy in quite some time. In fact, whilst Hardy novels are known for their sadness and somewhat depressing bent, they are also full of beautiful portrayals of rural England, exquisite tenderness (in the case of Tess) and fascinating character studies.

All to say that, I thoroughly recommend him.

Yes, ‘tis true that he will, in someone's words 'tug at heartstrings you never knew you had', but his novels are glorious. If you're a fan of the English countryside, they are a feast for the imagination, as Hardy lovingly describes in full colour the area of Wessex where most of his novels are based. Not only that, but in some ways Hardy is thoroughly contemporary in his concerns. In Tess, Hardy rages against the superficial moralism, self-righteous pietism and injustice of his day. At the heart of Tess, Hardy is wrestling with what makes someone innocent, guilty, and who is to blame. Perhaps most striking is his understanding of who God is. There is no triune God of love and fellowship here, only a 'First Cause' who watches as dispassionately as Hardy watches tenderly. Hardy's critique of late Victorian moralism is damning, portrayed as a fusion of morals and a sense of social superiority based on class upbringing.

Some of what Hardy critiques is no doubt true; who and what decides innocence or lack of it, what is sin and who is to blame. The despair felt by Tess, ‘all is vanity’ she sighs, chimes with the sense of futility we find in Ecclesiastes (which I’m studying with Dave Bish at the moment). On the other hand, a medieval scholastic understanding of God has replaced the triune God Yahweh. Just shows the damage when we start from ‘unmoved Movers’, rather than the Trinity.

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