I had the privilege of reviewing Masterpiece's presentation of Tess of the D'Urberfields for PBS.org. Although this film is set in late 19th century England, I just had to write about it here, because it really is a fantastic film.
[Uhoh, there may be some spoilers after this!]
First of all, the whole production is wonderful. Gemma Arterton puts on a great performance as Tess and you find yourself getting emotionally involved in her life. The story is of a young working-class girl who suffers through a series of unfortunate events mostly due to her naive trust in men. But one of the things constantly on my mind was what prudes Victorians were! Then again, that was always my favourite aspect about them.
When Laura Liney introduces Tess of the D’Ubervilles she talks of how it was so difficult for the author, Thomas Hardy to get the book published without censoring the “sexual improprieties.” What were these sexual improprieties you silently ask Laura Liney. She doesn’t tell you but the answer is Tess gets raped by her employer, Alec. As you come to find out, in Victorian society this misfortune puts the woman to blame for the man’s disgusting actions. Hardy sympathetically points out the injustice of blaming a woman for being raped. Ironically, the same act fictionally portrayed in the book is what kept it from being published. Publishers didn’t want sympathy for a “fallen woman.” How crazy is that!
My first reaction while watching the many awful things that befalls Tess is, “thank goodness it isn’t like this anymore!” How can you blame a victim for the crime? But then my mind begins to wander to my favorite century. The 18th century was like a nonstop frat party compared to the Victorian era. However, it had similar literary exploits. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson was published in England about 150 years prior to Tess of the D'Ubervilles. This story is similar in that a young, naive woman who always tries to do the right thing falls victim to a dangerous man. Just as in Tess, Clarissa is raped and becomes a fallen woman. Richardson's book was first published in seven volumes, the longest English-language novel. It was a massive success, was not censored, and the character of Clarissa was almost canonized for her commitment to virtue despite the misfortunes that befell her. So why, 100 years later, did it not become okay to write about this racy subject?
There are many theories as to why the Victorians were so prudish, but one can be attributed to new knowledge of diseases, especially venereal diseases. The eighteenth century was like the swinging sixties compared to nineteenth century which was similar the 1980’s safe sex campaign but to the extreme. I have a feeling that if Tess was published 100 years prior, it would have been seen for what it is, a great story chronicling the social limitations. Hardy would have been hailed for his conscientious approach to the gentler sex. Or perhaps, Tess would have been left by the wayside, forgotten because the subject was not so unusual.
Either way, I most heartily recommend you check out Tess of the D'Urbervilles which premieres tonight at 9:00 on PBS. Don't miss it!