Regulars

Jack’s Naughty Bits: Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Pin it



Jack's Naughty Bits



It
goes without saying that English society during the Victorian period is famous for its
counter-sexual attitudes. Yet as a culture’s machinery of repression becomes more and
more powerful, whatever resistance there is to that machinery tends to go underground,
and what remains above becomes ever more covert and cryptic. In Victorian erotic writing,
the first path was that taken by the anonymous author of My Secret Life (an eleven-volume diary of sexual licentiousness — select Naughty Bits are on their way!), the second
by Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.


    

Tess is the gut-rending story of the travails of a peasant girl whose father
discovers he is distant descendent of a prestigious English bloodline. He sends Tess to
meet the remaining members of the family, and there begin her misadventures. Hardy’s
novel does a good job of exposing the backwardness of nineteenth-century English class
structure by charting all the individuals who abuse and take advantage of Tess (for though
she is inwardly and actually noble, her nobility remains unrecognized, and she ends up
harvesting potatoes in frozen fields and dying from abandonment.) Yet despite its moral
agenda, the novel itself is also willing to exploit Tess. And, predictably, it does so on the
sexual front, using the protagonist to create titillation for its otherwise under-indulged
nineteenth-century readers.


    

How does this exploitation occur, and how does Hardy make it covert? Not unlike
the paintings of the period which, under the guise of high art, present the naked (or
suggestively clothed) female form, Hardy writes the scenes building up to the stealing of Tess’s virtue in
a way that allows the reader to be part of the excitement. While making a superficial moral
point about the callousness of nobles and the lack of recourse for raped women, he also
mobilizes the dramatic potential of the situation, leaving us with a disquieting feeling of
both repulsion and arousal. Scenes like the one below (or paintings like Fragonard’s
famous Le Verrou [The Bolt] in the Louvre), indicate why rape and sexual harassment have always been used as thematic devices: when described, they allow the author to get saucy without
compromising his moralistic cover. But perhaps I shouldn’t judge Hardy too quickly; I’ll
let you read the scene below and see if you think he’s innocent.









* * *







From Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy






Having mounted beside her, Alec d’Urberville drove rapidly along the crest of the first hill,
chatting compliments to Tess as they went . . .


    

She began to get uneasy at a certain recklessness in her conductor’s driving.


    

“You will go down slow, sir, I suppose?” she said with attempted unconcern.


    

D’Urberville looked round upon her, nipped his cigar with the tips of his large
white center-teeth, and allowed his lips to smile slowly of themselves.


    

“Why Tess, isn’t it a brave, bouncing girl like you who asks that?” Why I always
go down at full gallop. There’s nothing like it for raising your spirits.”


    

“But perhaps you need not now?”


    

“Ah,” he said, shaking his head, “there are two to be reckoned with. It is not me
alone. Tib has to be considered, and she has a very queer temper.”


    

“Who?”


    

“Why, this mare. I fancy she looked round at me in a very grim way just then.
Didn’t you notice it?’


    

“Don’t try to frighten me, sir,” said Tess stiffly.


    

“Well, I don’t. If any living man can manage this horse, I can. I won’t say any
living man can do it, but if such has the power, I am he.” . . .


    

They were just beginning to descend; and it was evident that the horse, whether of
her own will or of his (the latter being the more likely), knew so well the reckless
performance expected of her that she hardly required a hint from behind.


    

Down, down they sped, the wheels humming like a top . . . The wind blew threw
Tess’ white muslin to her very skin, and her washed hair flew out behind. She was
determined to show no open fear, but she clutched d’Urberville’s rein-arm.


    

“Don’t touch my arm! We shall be thrown out if you do! Hold on round my waist!” . . .


    

She had not considered what she had been doing; whether he were man or woman,
stick or stone, in her involuntary hold on him. Recovering her reserve she sat without
replying, and thus they reached the summit of another declivity.


    

“Now then, again!” said d’Urberville.


    

“No, no!” said Tess. “Show more sense, do, please.” . . .


    

“Now then, put your arms round my waist again as you did before, my Beauty.”


    

“Never!” said Tess independently, holding on as well as she could without
touching him.


    

“Let me put one little kiss on those holmberry lips, Tess, or even on that warmed
cheek, and I’ll stop — on my honor, I will!”


    

Tess, surprised beyond measure, slid farther back still on her seat, at which he
urged the horse anew, and rocked her the more.


    

“Will nothing else do?” she cried at length, in desperation, her large eyes staring at
him like those of a wild animal. This dressing her up so prettily by her mother had
apparently been to lamentable purpose.


    

“Nothing, dear Tess,” he replied . . .


    

“But I don’t want anybody to kiss me, sir!” she implored, a big tear beginning to
roll down her face, and the corners of her mouth trembling in her attempts not to cry. “And
I wouldn’t ha’ come if I had known!”


    

He was inexorable, and she sat still, and d’Urberville gave her the kiss of mastery.