Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891) - Rural England

Thomas Hardy is a master of bringing rural England to life in literature.  He is one of the best writers of agrarian culture found in Victorian literature.  When I read Tess, or Jude, or Far From the Madding Crowd, there are parts of it that flow smooth as silk, giving beautiful descriptions of everyday rural life.

They could then see the faint summer fogs in layers, woolly, level, and apparently no thicker than counterpanes, spread about the meadows in detached remnants of small extent. On the gray moisture of the grass were marks where the cows had lain through the night—dark-green islands of dry herbage the size of their carcasses, in the general sea of dew. From each island proceeded a serpentine trail, by which the cow had rambled away to feed after getting up, at the end of which trail they found her; the snoring puff from her nostrils, when she recognized them, making an intenser little fog of her own amid the prevailing one. Then they drove the animals back to the barton, or sat down to milk them on the spot, as the case might require. 
Or perhaps the summer fog was more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which the scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks. Birds would soar through it into the upper radiance, and hang on the wing sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which now shone like glass rods.
It's no wonder people considered him the next Dickens.  But the added touch of a strong knowledge of farming and rural life is something Hardy can take full credit for.  Throughout his novels there is always some farming aspect.  We've always heard write what you know.  And it's hard to write about rural England without having lived it.  Hardy proves he knows this subject well.  Imagine trying to write about it by researching on the internet!  You could never get that subtle imagery that flows easily with these beautiful descriptions.

Several times in his novels the direction of the plot depends on some aspect of farming.  In Jude, it was the slaughtering of the pig, in Far from the Madding Crowd, it was bundling and covering the hay before the rains came.  There are several items here in Tess, such as getting their product to market early in the morning, or the end of the milking season to determine when Tess gave Angel her answer.
The meads were changing now; but it was still warm enough in early afternoons before milking to idle there awhile, and the state of dairy-work at this time of year allowed a spare hour for idling. Looking over the damp sod in the direction of the sun, a glistening ripple of gossamer webs was visible to their eyes under the luminary, like the track of moonlight on the sea. Gnats, knowing nothing of their brief glorification, wandered across the shimmer of this pathway, irradiated as if they bore fire within them, then passed out of its line, and were quite extinct. In the presence of these things he would remind her that the date was still the question.
Notice the use of simile in all these examples - "like the track of moonlight on the sea", "meadows lay like a white sea", "trees rose like dangerous rocks".  I know, that reminds you of Dickens.  It's true.  But I'll stop comparing the two.  Hardy had plenty of talent on his own.  He had great style, it's just his subject matter that was a problem.

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