by Thomas Hardy
I came back to this book – which I suppose I first read in my late teens – after hearing an analysis of it on BBC Radio 4’s In our time. On the programme, the participants all spoke about the power of the novel’s setting, the descriptions of the countryside, and the value they had all found in reading it slowly, rather than rushing through as most of them felt they had done when reading it in their youth.
So I went to my Kindle collection of Hardy’s collected works, and read the novel slowly enough, relishing every page and the descriptions of the country settings, which are indeed beautifully and vividly presented.
The story is, on one level, harrowing. There is much to shock: Alec’s seduction (or rape – the novel leaves this deliberately uncertain) and his subsequent pursuit of Tess; Clare’s abandoning of her after she opens her heart to him on their wedding night and reveals her past; Tess’s own parents’ lifestyle and expectations of their daughter. Hardy knows how to tell a story, and the plot develops effortlessly to its inevitable harrowing conclusion.
I felt much more engaged in the story than on my previous reading, even though I knew what was going to happen. I also felt, as an older adult, more understanding of the circumstances that drove the characters to behave the way they did, but less forgiving of their behaviour.