Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

I had the privilege of reviewing Masterpiece's presentation of Tess of the D'Urberfields for 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!


  1. I absolutely loved this movie! I wasn't familiar with the story though, and the ending caught me off guard. Angel irritated me beyond belief too, but I suppose he was meant to be a little wimpish...

  2. As I was saying in the PBS article, movies like this automatically turn me into the bitter ex-girlfriend. I sit there going "typical!" Guys have been doing the same stupid things forever, and perhaps that is what angered me most about Angel. You want him to make Tess happy!

    But still, the movie is fantastic! I wasn't familiar with the book either, but I will definitely have to read it now.

  3. I can feel for Angel too though...

    His dad never put him through Cambridge like his brothers... and Angel made difficult life decisions all along... When he couldn't go to Cambridge he went to learn farming for a career...

    He made a huge move marrying a dairymaid far below his class. Mom and dad and his bro's couldn't even come to his wedding! *brun* and after trying to be so righteous himself, by marrying for love - we can see how destroying it was to his moral, in light of his family, and his own pride a little too - this knowledge that his love had this 'major fault'... That poor boy was destroyed.

  4. Way to be the devil's advocate! Now I feel bad for my Angel-bashing

  5. Loved your review on Remotely Connected. I hope people go over to read it. As for Angel - meh. In the book he is less nuanced. I thought actor Eddy Redmayne made him more sympathetic, though he did come through for Tess in the end. As for Alec, he is evil through and through.

  6. That is so weird! I am actually watching it right now. ok I am actually watching it and reading blogs too but I do like it so far.

  7. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it, I was worried about it like a fretful mother so thanks for the comments! It is such a good movie, even if Angel makes me happy and sad.

  8. Same here...Angel makes me both happy and sad. I loved it!