Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy


A novel set in the countryside of Wessex, England, during the late 1800s; published in 1891


A beautiful country girl is sexually assaulted and later suffers the consequences of Victorian England’s moral codes, which make her an unsuitable wife because she is no longer pure.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Written toward the end of the Victorian era, Tess of the D’Urbervilles reflects the confusion of Thomas Hardy’s changing society. The novel explores not only the hypocrisy of England’s moral standards, but also the nature of that country’s changing agricultural economy. As an inhabitant of a rural village himself, Hardy relates from firsthand experience a tale of the declining landed gentry and rural communities undergoing turbulent events.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The changing face of country life

The latter half of the Victorian era—the years between 1860 and 1900—constituted a period of transformation for rural England. More and more country villages lost their inhabitants to job opportunities in industrialized cities such as London and Manchester. Encouraging this “drift from the land,” as the migration was frequently termed, was an agricultural depression in the last quarter of the century.

Hardy’s novel takes place in southwest England, a rural region in which he was born. In real life, farm wages remained low here partly because this region, in contrast to the middle and northern parts of England, had little industry. Without factories to compete for workers, the farm employer did not feel pressed to raise wages. Circumstances grew especially grim for farm workers toward the end of the 1800s when the number of unemployed men was on the rise. One result was that it grew harder for women to find work in the fields; another was that the income earned by women in rural industries (for example, dairying, glovemaking, or plaiting straw) became vital to family survival.

While there was little industry in southwest England, life there was nevertheless affected by inventions and developments in the nation. The early 1800s had witnessed the growth of mass transportation. With villages more readily accessible to one another, trade within the nation boomed. Railways transported goods in a matter of hours instead of days. For many country dwellers, this meant an increase in commerce and trade. The dairy industry grew rapidly because fresh milk was now able to survive a quick daily journey to towns hundreds of miles away. In Hardy’s novel, Tess finds plenty of work on a dairy farm although her own village suffers an agricultural slump; this seeming contradiction is explained by the boom in transportation.

Other industrial developments affected rural life as well. There is an episode in the novel that involves Tess’s employment at a steam threshing machine, which causes her suffering. The machine requires several workers to perform small repetitive tasks for hours at a time. Tess, placed on the platform with the machine and rick (cornstack), unties each sheaf given to her before it is seized by the man who feeds it to the machine. Introduced as early as 1803, the steam threshing machine was no longer new by Tess’s day; in fact, Hardy was probably drawing on his memory of it to create the scene. It was once thought that such scenes reflected his sorrow at the passing of old rural ways (in this case, the flailing of corn by hand with a wooden tool to separate it from the stalk). But as one biographer suggests and the not-so-new threshing machine indicates, such a scene may instead be showing Hardy’s nostalgia for and “normal attachment” to the environment of his youth (Seymour-Smith, p. 20). In any case, the scene exposes a few of the rural hardships of the era.

Some of these hardships were suffered by the rural industries. Though the invention of better methods of transport benefited a number of rural industries, it brought a decrease in productivity for others. Once goods could be more easily shipped in from distant areas, most village craftsman, such as shoemakers and carpenters, lost their business to the cheaper, more efficient factory labor of the towns. This decline in job opportunity drove many young workers from the country into the city.

The departure of its youth upset not only the economic structure of the countryside, but the social one as well. Firstly, there was a change in the landowning class. In reaction to the agricultural decline of the period, the old gentry abandoned lands that had belonged to their families for several generations. Almost 6 million acres of agricultural property would change hands in the early 1900s. The majority of this land came from the breakups and sales of old family estates. In the process, as is the case with the D’Urbervilles, to whom Tess may be related, these once-powerful landowners lost not only their estates but also their economic and social influence.

Despite the ominous foreboding of this decline, English villages did not turn into ghost towns during this period. Newcomers arrived, but in localities that had once boasted only three surnames in an entire village (in other words, had been occupied by only three families), these new arrivals unleashed great commotion. Suddenly news of popular trends and current events from the big cities began to reach the previously isolated villagers. Most of newcomers hailed from England’s middle class. They built new homes, brought urban tastes to the rural areas, and replaced the figure of the landed country squire with that of the wealthy modern businessman. Old pastimes, such as the folk dancing in which Tess participates at the opening of the novel, soon seemed outdated. More disciplined activities like English football (known in America as soccer) replaced these archaic recreational pursuits. Yet despite the losses it suffered, the English village also benefited from the influx. The rural standard of living improved, and communication with other regions increased. Furthermore, country living gained a new attractiveness. With the population boom in the cities, the close-knit community and calm surroundings of the country village seemed a commodity worth having.

Marriage for the Victorians

In the novel, the character Angel comes from a traditional middleclass family that, not surprisingly, expects the youngest son to marry a woman of similar socioeconomic status. When he announces that he has found “a woman who possessed every qualification to be the helpmate of an agriculturist” (Hardy, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, p. 28), his mother’s initial response is to ask, “Is she of a family such as you would care to marry into—a lady, in short?” (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, p. 28). As reflected by her question, marriage, in the eyes of the Victorian gentry, served as a union of more than mere love.

In the Victorian era most members of the upper classes obtained their earnings from their land. The Duke of Westminster, for instance, drew an annual salary of €250,000 (the equivalent of $1,215,000 at a time when the pound equaled approximately $4.80), and his was not even England’s largest holding. As the Victorian era progressed, however, such grand estates grew more and more difficult to maintain as one parcel. In time, primarily because of the advent of foreign economic competition, there was a general collapse in British agriculture, as wool, grains, and produce could be obtained cheaply from foreign sources. Many of the gentry were forced to sell off their acreage and thus looked to marriage to provide them with the necessary means of survival. In the case of the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, a relationship of love was forsaken for a more profitable match with Consuelo Vanderbilt, the great-granddaughter of the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. The

duke was not alone in his preference for money over love.

The minimal relevance of love in marriage was further reinforced by Victorian ideas of sexuality. One medical textbook claimed that sexual indulgence “not only retards the development of the genital organs, but of the whole body, impairs the strength, injures the constitution and shortens life” (Hibbert, p. 112). As a topic, sexuality did not arise in the company of polite society. Even with the sanction of marriage, the experts warned that excess should be avoided, “and sensual feelings in the man gradually sobered down” (Hibbert, p. 112). Given such restrained ideas about sexuality, Angel’s outrage toward Tess for her past sexual encounter in the novel seems more understandable. This is not to say, however, that Victorians had no sexual feelings or unapproved relations—only that they hid them from view. While health manuals of the age did warn against excess, they also warned that abstaining from sex altogether was as harmful to one’s health as overindulging in it. And the prevalence of prostitutes indicated that Victorian men did not, in fact, abstain. The Pall Mall Gazette estimated in 1885 that London alone housed over sixty thousand prostitutes. In the novel Angel confesses his own “eight-and-forty hours’ dissipation with a stranger” (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, p. 177). It seems that what Victorian men often deemed as improper at home they actively sought on the streets or, as the novel demonstrates, in the woods. Meanwhile, society expected women of the upper classes to be passionless creatures and ascribed sexual longings only to lower-class females.

The Victorian woman

Tess the milkmaid, with her means of financial independence, represents a minority of Victorian women. The 1861 census records just one percent of the English labor force as female. By 1881 this number had advanced to three percent, and a few improvements occurred for women in the job market during the twenty-year interval. Almost 100,000 women held jobs as teachers by 1871, and other professions showed growth as well. In 1865 Elizabeth Garrett became the first women to obtain a medical qualification; by 1881 England could boast twenty-five female doctors. Yet many of these working women were subjected to a double standard, holding positions identical to those of men but being paid only half of what their male colleagues earned.

The law, like other societal institutions of the era, also treated women unfairly. Although England legalized divorce in 1857, its limited scope enabled men to divorce their wives more easily than women could divorce their husbands. For instance, while a husband could file for separation on the ground of adultery alone, a woman needed to prove both adultery and cruelty or desertion by her husband. And if a woman sought redress by getting a divorce, she often found herself socially ostracized for her efforts. In any case, whether the man or woman filed for separation, grounds for divorce remained difficult to prove, and the termination of the marriage was often not granted. When in the novel Tess tells Angel that she had once been raped, she assumes that with this knowledge, he would be able to divorce her should he wish to do so. He replies, however, in a most definitive tone, “Indeed I cannot” (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, p. 187). The rape occurred before the marriage and so did not constitute a violation of it. Although the qualifications for divorce expanded in 1868, the procedure nonetheless still proved to be arduous.

Women also suffered inequality in marriages of the time. As the writer T. H. Huxley observed, “Women … were brought up to be either drudges or toys beneath man or ~a sort of angel above him’” (Huxley in Hibbert, p. 38). There existed no common ground. Upon marriage, a woman surrendered all assets over to her husband; until the late 1880s, she held no legal claim to her own belongings. Women who did not marry were hardly better off: in Victorian society, an unmarried woman was regarded as a failure in some way. The commonplace belief was that a woman’s place was in the home, and in any case, most women could not afford, in the financial sense, to leave it.

Hardy’s novel comments on the difficult position of the Victorian woman. Although Tess attempts to make moral and wise decisions throughout the book, she remains bound, by virtue of her gender, to the role of the social deviant. Society shoulders her with blame for becoming the victim of sexual assault and calmly accepts her husband’s desertion of her on the basis of this knowledge. The full title that Hardy gives the book, Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, attests to the author’s sympathy for the plight of his heroine.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Tess Durbeyfield arrives at her village cottage in Marlott one evening to find her father in an excited state. He has learned that day, via the village parson, that his family name hails from a noble line of gentlemen known as the D’Urbervilles. Although the family proper has long since died out, John Durbeyfield and his family represent the last of this great lineage. Dreaming of the riches that he will collect, John and his wife, Joan, conspire to find any remaining D’Urbervilles, however remote their kinship might be. That evening Joan reveals her discovery of a rich woman in the nearby town of Trantridge who uses the surname d’Urberville. Well aware of her daughter’s physical and social charms, Joan decides to send Tess to Trantridge to make the acquaintance of the supposed relative.

Although Tess initially refuses to take part in the mission, a turn of events changes her mind. While delivering goods for her peddler father, Tess has an accident with an oncoming carriage. When her horse dies at the scene, Tess realizes that she has killed the family’s primary source of income. Feelings of guilt compel her to go along with her mother’s plan. When she arrives at the Trantridge mansion, Tess meets Alec D’Urberville, the son of the rich woman. Unbeknownst to Tess, Alec’s family simply stole the surname upon their arrival in the area. They bear no relation to either Tess or the true D’Urberville line. Alec refuses to allow Tess to meet his mother, as the old woman is an invalid. Taken with Tess’s beauty, however, he secures a position for Tess at the mansion caring for his mother’s fowls. Tess’s family, ecstatic at the prospect of Tess obtaining luxuries for the lot of them, willingly grants her permission to move to the new town.

Tess’s seeming good fortune soon turns into a nightmare. Alec, a well-known rogue, hotly pursues Tess despite her rebuffs. Although Tess does make new acquaintances in Trantridge, Alec’s presence taints every social event. One night after a neighborhood dance, Alec follows Tess on her walk home. Offering her a ride on his horse, he takes her to a remote part of the woods where she can no longer find her way on her own. In the cover of darkness and isolation, he forces himself on her. The next morning, Tess flees Trantridge and returns home to Marlott.

Within the year Tess gives birth to a baby that does not survive. With her name tainted and her chastity sullied, Tess decides to leave her village and find work elsewhere. Eventually she makes her way to Blackmoor Vale, an area known for its dairy farms. There she finds a post at Talbothay’s Dairy working as a milkmaid. The dairyman and his wife provide a warm, comfortable home for their employees. Tess shares lodgings with three other milkmaids, Retty, Marian, and Izz. Together the four girls enjoy an idyllic summer.

They spend their days milking the cows, and their evenings dreaming of the dairyman’s apprentice, Angel Clare.

The son of a well-to-do parson, Angel, unlike his brothers, opts for a career outside the church. Hoping to become a gentleman farmer, he travels across England learning various aspects of the trade. Tess and Angel experience love at first sight. Although they come from vastly different economic backgrounds, the two attempt to forge a relationship. Tess, however, feeling that because of the rape she is by nature the wife of another man, has difficulty entering into a relationship with Angel. In time his kindness and constant pressure win her over, and a wedding is planned. On the morning of her nuptials, Tess attempts to confess the incident to her betrothed, but Angel insists that she wait until later to talk of faults.

That night he confesses that in a period of recklessness, he spent two days sexually involved with a woman. Tess gladly forgives him, and in relief that their pasts indeed share a similarity, recounts her own tale. Angel, however, cannot likewise forgive Tess. He tells her that she is no longer the pure bride that he married, and refuses to remain with her. Within days, Angel leaves for Brazil and Tess returns home.

At home in Marlott, John Durbeyfield dies, leaving his family without the means to maintain their lodgings. It is during this desperate period that Alec D’Urberville returns to Tess’s life. Under his intense pressure and promise of money for her family, Tess agrees to live with him as his wife. Soon after these arrangements come to fruition, Angel returns home to find his Tess. During his sojourn, he has come to realize his error and has forgiven her. He catches up with Tess and Alec at a hotel where they live. His return throws Tess into a state of wild desperation in which she kills Alec and flees with Angel. Reunited with her true love, Tess seems not to care that her life might soon come to an end. The couple travels to Stonehenge before the authorities apprehend them. The close of the novel finds Tess punished with death by hanging.

A society in flux

From religion to economic and social details, Tess of the D’Urbervilles brings alive changes of the late Victorian era. In religion, for example, a reactionary movement against laxness in the Church of England had sprung up in England during the 1700s. It was a back-to the-Bible movement, spearheaded by John Wesley, whose followers separated from the mainstream to form the Methodist Church. Its focus on hellfire and damnation made outsiders identify it as a grim, fanatical sect. Yet it persisted into the 1800s, in which the writings of various novelists, Hardy among them, showed strong disapproval for the sect. In Hardy’s novel, the villainous Alec d’Urberville becomes a preacher for a Methodist group (the “Ranters”), an experience that fails in any way to redeem his base character.

Shifts in England’s rural economy and social order likewise surface in the novel. While the early 1800s had seen great herds of sheep and cattle driven to market, the advent of the railroad made this kind of transport unnecessary. Rather than raising cattle, or corn, or sheep for various purposes, it became possible, in fact, to devote a farm entirely to dairy products, as Tess’s workplace does. Tess explains this one day as she and Angel Clare drive some milk cans to a train, observing that Londoners would drink the milk at breakfast on the morrow, a formerly unheardof feat. Railroads, in other words, made specializations such as dairy farming possible by quickly transporting perishable goods.

But if nineteenth-century changes brought some advantages to rural society, they also brought disadvantages. Large landowners were not a segment of society adversely affected by all the changes. The beginning of the 1800s had seen a hierarchy of relatively stable rural classes:

  1. Landed aristocracy—old families with large estates, each consisting of ten thousand or more acres
  2. Gentry—landowners with less property than the aristocracy one thousand to three thousand acres), who often rented out their holdings to others to farm
  3. Yeomen—gentlemen farmers who owned nearly as much property as the gentry but worked the land themselves, a class that disappeared toward the end of the century
  4. Laborers or cottagers—the lowest rural class, who inhabited one- to four-room thatch or slate dwellings and owned or leased the same small plot for generations, using common lands for grazing their livestock.

Tess’s family, of course, belongs to the lowest group of rural laborers. When her mother was a child, such laborers had often stayed on the same farm all their lives, renewing their lease from one generation to the next. As the century passed, however, the rural focus shifted to large-scale farming, another consequence of new transportation and mechanization. One result was that instead of renewing leases, as had been the custom, landowners would now send cottagers packing when their leases expired, a calamity that befalls Tess’s family. In the end, Tess herself “spends her brief life as an itinerant farm laborer, working here for a dairy farm, there cutting turnips—but always moving on when the season is over and the task is done. We are made witness in the tale of her life to the story of an itinerant laborer whose own destruction is meant to mirror the disappearance of the traditional English countryside” (Pool, p. 166).


Hardy seems to have drawn his portrait of Tess using several different models. As far as the circumstances of Tess’s “undoing,” the author relied heavily on the life of his servant, Jane Phillips. During the summer of 1877, the young servant girl disappeared from her home. Genuinely concerned for Jane’s welfare, Hardy and his wife sought out her whereabouts only to discover that she had run off with a lover. Later, in December of the same year, a church registry recorded the death of an infant son born to the same Jane Phillips. The child, like Tess’s in the novel, was baptized by its mother, and had no legal father to list in the record book. For Tess’s occupation, Hardy found inspiration in the milkmaid Augusta May—an eighteen-year-old who worked at a dairy run by her father.

For the physical Tess, Hardy turned to an idealized model—the wife of the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft. Hardy once commented, “I think [Mrs. Thornycroft] the most beautiful woman in England; [it was] her on whom I thought when I wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (Hardy, p. 363).

For the decline of the D’Urberville family, Hardy had to search no further than his own ancestry for inspiration. In 1888 the author traveled to Earshot to visit Woolcombe, an estate that once belonged to family members, the Dorset-Hardys. As pointed out in the back matter following the novel, there on the grounds of the old estate he found evidence of the “decline and fall of the Hardys” (Hardy, p. 356). He concluded as his novel does, “so we [old families] go down, down, down, down” (Hardy, p. 356).

Hardy’s fictitious “Wessex” county is modeled on his hometown region of Dorset in southwest England. Hardy originally created the Wessex area in 1874 for his novel Far from the Madding Crowd. He renames many of the Dorset towns for their appearance in his works. The real town of Shaftsbury becomes Marlott, and Manhull likewise becomes Vale of Blakemore.

Fascinated by country lore and events, Hardy took some key episodes in the novel from the pages of the Dorset County Chronicle. An article from an issue dated October 17, 1872, tells of a vehicle collision between a mail cart and a wagon. The incident bears a striking resemblance to Tess’s own accident on her family’s horse cart. As for the novel’s opening scene, where John Durbeyfield learns of his esteemed ancestry, Hardy states that the event “occurred under my own eyes. I was standing at the street corner of a little town in this county when a tipsy man swaggered past me singing Tve-got a-great family vault...’.” (Hardy, p. 361). Through bystanders Hardy learned that the man hailed from one of England’s oldest Norman families.

Reception of the novel

As material in the critical edition of Hardy’s novel indicates, the novel received conflicting reviews. The Pall Mall Gazette (December 31, 1891) states that Hardy “never exercised [his art] more powerfully— never, certainly, more tragically—than in this most moving presentment of a ‘pure woman’” (Hardy, p. 381). Another paper, The Athenaeum, remarks, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles is well in front of Mr. Hardy’s previous work, and is destined, there can be no doubt, to rank high among the achievements of Victorian novelists” (Hardy, p. 382). One of Hardy’s fellow novelists, however, had less pleasant things to say about the opus. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to his friend Henry James, “Tess is one of the worst, weakest, least sane … books I have yet read. . . . I should tell you in fairness I could never finish it” (Stevenson in Hardy, p. 387). Particularly irksome to Hardy was a piece in the Saturday Review that spoke of the characters as unnatural and the whole tale as dreary. Citing the praise the work garnered, Hardy’s friends tried to convince him not to be so distressed by unfavorable comments. Indeed, in light of the overall response, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was a critical and commercial success. The novel would elevate Hardy to a new career plateau, financially enabling him to become a full-time novelist.

For More Information

Brown, Jonathan. Village Life in England, 1860-1940. London: B. T. Batsford, 1985.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Scott Elledge. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

Hibbert, Christopher. Daily Life in Victorian England. New York: McGraw Hill, 1975.

Kauvar, Gerald B. The Victorian Mind. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1969.

McCord, Norman. British History, 1815-1906. London: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1982.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting To Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Touchstone, 1993.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.