Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891) - Quaint Traditions and Culture Shock

Something Thomas Hardy gives us in this novel is a look at the culture of the outlying villages.  It reminded me a bit of how some modern books give you that weird glimpse of a backwoods culture.  Andy of Mayberry gone bad.  The Waltons meet the Deliverance rednecks.  But occasionally, that old culture will have a brush with the new.

It's not towards the end of the book, the last 15 chapters or so, that I started to notice a trend.  Remember, Thomas Hardy is a master of bringing rural England to life.  But there's something else. He's writing in the late 19th century when old country life is being pulled hard into the modern mechanized age.  Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in Dorset, which is a rural part of England.  He knew first-hand about small villages and the local farming communities, and what the locals thought and how they felt.  Imagine families living that same lifestyle for centuries, and then in what seems a very short period of time, the industrial revolution is upon them, invading even the working of the very soil where they grow their food.
By the engine stood a dark, motionless being, a sooty and grimy embodiment of tallness, in a sort of trance, with a heap of coals by his side: it was the engine-man...He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke; these denizens of the fields served vegetation, weather, frost, and sun. He travelled with his engine from farm to farm, from county to county, for as yet the steam threshing-machine was itinerant in this part of Wessex. He spoke in a strange northern accent; his thoughts being turned inwards upon himself, his eye on his iron charge, hardly perceiving the scenes around him, and caring for them not at all: holding only strictly necessary intercourse with the natives, as if some ancient doom compelled him to wander here against his will in the service of his Plutonic master. The long strap which ran from the driving-wheel of his engine to the red thresher under the rick was the sole tie-line between agriculture and him.
No one can bring that collision of worlds together like Hardy did.  This book may one day be nothing more than a relic piece depicting quaint, if cruel, old customs and the backward treatment of women.  But in this one respect this book may stand out by bringing ancient rural traditions to life.

For instance, have you ever heard the terms "Lady Day" or "Old Lady Day"?  Probably not.  You can Google for a better explanation.  But they had to do with when farming families moved around.  To read such vivid descriptions of people looking forward to "Lady Day" is a gem.  This novel is more than just of historical significance, it has cultural significance as well.

Imagine that for the past thousand years, five thousand, or 50 thousand years, man has developed civilizations and cultures around the world.  Who knows what holidays or festivals were of any importance to people who lived in ancient times.  But works like this tell us more than just dry facts.  They give us a fine glimpse of rural traditions and a way of life that's all but faded from history.

Although this book was published in 1891, much of it has a feel of an older time.  That's because for the most part Hardy leaves out the modern world.  When he gives it to the reader, it's given as an invasive force upon traditional rural life.  It wasn't until near the very end that he mentioned someone taking a railroad, or using a telegraph.

It almost makes you feel that the treatment of "fallen women" in this book is limited to the boondocks.  But unfortunately, that's not the case.  The hamlets and farming communities may have held fast to the traditions of their forefathers against the thrust of modern mechanization but their values were common through the Victorian world.  The "backwoods" culture of country farm life in small villages depicted in Tess of the d'Urbervilles was apparently the predominant sentiment throughout not only greater Britain including London, but America as well.  More on that in the next post for this book.

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