The tide turns: progress and change in literary reception (looking at Thomas Hardy)

The fallen woman has always been a figure of great complexity. The austere culture of the nineteenth century meant it was especially hard for people to reconcile breaches of chastity with the pitiable image of abandoned motherhood. The conflict between the human instinct to sympathise – and, dare I say, empathise with the fallen woman while being a part of the strictly moral Victorian society lies at the heart of literature’s presentation of the fallen woman. Looking at old newspaper reviews of Thomas Hardy’s works, it’s possible to identify and compare different reactions to his writings, particularly with regard to his book, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. In 1913, Walter de la Mare tried to categorise Hardy’s writing formulaically, into masculine and feminine simplicity, and masculine and feminine complexities. He classifies ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ as part of Hardy’s ‘epic’ collection, rather than a ‘dramatic’ work. A modern reader is likely to disagree, and to tell you that this book falls under the category of melodrama, if anything: Hardy’s forays into fate, mysticism and morality is very much of its time. Indeed, when looking at a 1994 issue, Perry Windream writes sardonically of the plot: ‘Angel flies back to give Tess his blessing, and justice is finally done when a band called The Judges introduce her to God at a swinging party in Wessex.’ Such a response to the text is a far cry from the 1928 announcement that a staging of Hardy’s book meets with ‘enthusiastic scenes’ on its opening night. So it seems that reviews of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ corresponds with the rise of secularism over the twentieth century, and the contiguous increase in contempt for the poetic style of Thomas Hardy. And yet the many filmic adaptations (most notably the 2008 BBC mini-series) make use of Hardy’s romantic style to present the relationship between Tess and Angel as fateful and tragic. The nostalgic lens through which the viewer sees Hardy’s Wessex has impacted far beyond his readership. Even as early as 1937, an announcement in the Daily Telegraph informing that: ‘Wool Bridge, which spans the River Frome near Wool Manor, Dorset […] is to be spared […] Hardy made Wool Manor famous as the house in which “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” spent her wedding night.’ His representation of Tess, then, was compelling enough to engender varying reactions to his novel over the course of a century. The newspaper articles discussed here testify to the ever-changing caprices of the public readership, and prove his reputation for controversial writing to be more right than ever before.


Sources used:

  • Hardy, Thomas, and Perry Windream. “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” Daily Telegraph, 25 June 1994, p. 24. The Telegraph Historical Archive, Accessed 3 Aug. 2017.
  • “‘Tess of the D’urbervilles.” Aberdeen Journal, 8 Sept. 1925, p. 6. British Library Newspapers, Accessed 3 Aug. 2017.
  • The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), Thursday, February 06, 1913; pg. 50; Issue 578.  (2112 words)A Study of Hardy. Works of Thomas Hardy in Prose and Verse (20 vols) (Wessex Edition)
  • “Tess of d’Urbervilles Bridge Saved.” Daily Telegraph, 23 Nov. 1937, p. 18. The Telegraph Historical Archive, Accessed 3 Aug. 2017.

    Source: author’s own image.

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