Read Tess Online

Authors: Emma Tennant

Tess (8 page)

BOOK: Tess
5.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Tess could walk over seven hills to find her love, woman, man, or the wide sky she could keep to herself, as the Celt women had done, before the fall of Maiden Castle (which, as you know, is just to the north of us here, Ella, at Abbotsbury; to the west of Dorchester), and before the fall of the temple of my mother's country, Pilsdon Pen.

I think she honestly believed it.

Yet Tess – of course – had no idea of how love had shaped the country where she walked; and how the love and longing of one man would shape her future too.

It is time, my children, to show you the procreator, lover and murderer of his very own Tess in these west Dorset hills – in this case, Mr Thomas Hardy at home.

Tess's Mouth

It's unbearably dull at Max Gate, the cold, ugly house where Thomas Hardy brought such unhappiness – and where, after her death, in a fever of remorse, he fell in love with and wrote all his best poems – to Emma. It's a ‘structure at once mean and pretentious, with no grace of design or detail, and with two hideous
low-flanking turrets with pointed roofs of blue slate', according to one observer at the time of building. And, worst of all, the stairs up to Emma's bedroom go past the walls of Hardy's study. In the last months of her illness, he will hear her mount those stairs – often in agony – and he won't go even as far as the landing to offer her assistance.

No wonder, after Emma's death, he feels remorse!

But at the time, nothing matters to Thomas Hardy except himself – and his new love, of course.

For Hardy has fallen in love – with the young Florence Dugdale – she who sent him a posy of flowers in her ecstasy of admiration; she who, invited to Max Gate with Hardy's old friend Florence Henniker, stood at the front door as she was leaving and drew the great man's attention to the flowers in his own front garden.

‘Until then the faint scent of the bordering flowers swam unheeded away', penned Hardy lovingly.

But in the autumn of 1888, the meeting with Florence Dugdale is seventeen years away into the future.

And Thomas Hardy longs for love. He dreams of a young woman he sees sometimes in London, Agatha Thornycroft.

He dreams, too, of Augusta Way, whom he sees when he visits his mother at Bockhampton.

Most of all, he dreams of Augusta Way. And, in his dreams, he word-paints Tess.

The old ballad begins to be sung through Hardy, in that grim house where Emma, increasingly absent-minded, makes the running of the house and the management of servants an impossible burden to them all.

Hardy's best companion is his dog Moss, a brindled-looking animal, half-Labrador. They walk together, in the Valley of the Little Dairies and the Valley of the Great Dairies (Blackmoor and Frome) and on Egdon Heath, where Moss starts up a hare.

And, as the hare dances away, Hardy sees his love disappearing too: his taste for love, his ability to love, his own capability of inspiring love in others. After all, he is nearing fifty.

Hardy stands alone with Moss, on the outcropping of green hill
that was once an Iron Age settlement and looks down at the sea and Chesil Beach.

He bends to pick up a stone.

With its worn, rough curvature and an indentation at the centre under two stripes and a knobbly protuberance that is like a nose under eyebrows, he could be holding an early love goddess: a Neolithic Venus: a totem for the fertility he feels draining away on all sides – from his loveless, childless marriage, from his own powers as a fertilizing male.

Hardy looks at the stone and it seems to look back at him.

Anonymous were the representations of the individual in antiquity. All-important was the shape below the casual dash of features, of eyes and brows and nose.

The mouth. The vulva. So shrunk were these goddesses of copulation and procreation that the one stood for the other, and the figurine – round, squatting under its outsize baby head – was only a receptacle for a receptacle. The bearer of a hole.

Hardy dreams of Tess's love. He sees in his creation (for already Tess is more alive than the original, the pretty dairymaid Augusta Way – and, to this day, remains so) the mouth of his dreams. Perhaps it's Agatha Thornycroft's mouth, seen and conceivably tasted on those metropolitan visits so necessary to an unhappily married genius who lives in the depths of Dorset. But, unquestionably, first and foremost, it's the mouth of Augusta Way.

And as Hardy walks back – a long walk that will take him through Powerstock and Toller Porcorum – up onto the ridge of the hill that leads down to Beaminster via Evershot – he fills his Tess with love and hope and dreams – and as surely takes them away again, like the sea dragging and pushing on the stones.

Hardy blows life into Tess. Of course, she's a fictional character when all is said and done, and he has to give her the kiss of life – that is, artificial respiration.

When he has brought her back to life – when he has blown his own breath into her mouth – he will fill that mouth with stones.

Of Tess's mouth, the erotic symbol which infatuated both Alec D'Urberville and Angel Clare, Hardy wrote:

‘her mobile peony mouth'

‘the pouted-up deep red mouth'

‘the red and ivory of her mouth'

‘her flower-like mouth'

‘those holmberry lips'

‘surely there was never such a maddening mouth since Eve's'

and

‘she was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake's … The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time'

and Angel

‘had never before seen a woman's lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow'.

Poor Tess. He shaped her ready for the bloody sacrifice to come.

The Beginning of Tess

Love. ‘The ferocious comedy of England, with its peculiar mark of violence'. Thus Thomas Stearns Eliot; and Thomas Hardy, with his predisposition for women and the gallows, preceded him as a transcriber of the old ballad. Love, betrayal, revenge: raped Philomela to Lucrezia Borgia: Hardy hears the strains as he walks the
lanes and streets of Dorset; and as memories come stronger and clearer when they're of childhood, he revisits Bockhampton, where he grew up, and finds his Tess.

In 1888 Thomas Hardy is nearing fifty. His marriage to Emma Gifford is one of constant illness (on Emma's part) and heavy colds (on Hardy's). He dreams of the village beauties of his youth; in London, in an omnibus, he sees a girl with ‘one of those faces of marvellous beauty which are seen casually in the streets but never among one's friends … Where do these women come from? Who marries them? Who knows them?' And at Bockhampton, where his mother still lives, he sees the beauty of Augusta Way.

Nothing in Thomas Hardy's life at this point holds any beauty. Three years have passed since he and Emma moved into a house remarkable for its ugliness, Max Gate, at Dorchester, where, due to its elevated position, it is exposed to the full rigour of winds from every direction. True, to the south and southwest it has magnificent views across to Came Wood and the monument to Admiral Hardy; and the downs which overlook Weymouth and the sea. And from the upper windows of Max Gate it is possible to look northwards over the Frome valley to Stinsford church, Kingston Maurward House, and the heath and woodlands surrounding his mother's Bockhampton cottage. But the landscape is empty and hollow, to the eyes of a man without love. Obsessively, he studies the murder trials of the time and of earlier in the century; he sees, under the quiet, peace and domesticity which is the smiling face of England, its recurring theme of cruelty, murder, reprisal and revenge. In the seedy, new-genteel suburbs, which Hardy, with his great desire to find himself in company as elevated as the position of his new house, Max Gate, would never dream of inhabiting, are the protagonists of the old ballad come back again: Adelaide Barrett, the ‘Platonic Wife' who slowly administers chloroform to her voyeur-husband who has encouraged her to make love to the young, soulful reverend, George Dyson; Madeleine Smith in Glasgow, of a refined and strait-laced family who force her to announce her engagement to a man she does not love, Mr Minnoch, and her measured administering of arsenic to the lover who couldn't marry and support her, L'Angelier.

Love. Thomas Hardy goes to Bockhampton, where as a child he went up to the barn at Kingston Maurward House to hear the old carols sung at Christmas; and from there he walks across to the manor of Kingston Maurward. He sees a milkmaid, a beauty who in 1888 is eighteen and who works in the dairy of her father, sharing in the milking and other chores. Her name is Augusta Way; and she will be his Tess, just as her father, Thomas Way, will be Dairyman Crick in the great novel that is forming in his mind. (Note: no shabby-genteel rendering of the old ballad will come from this.
Tess
is a rural drama in a landscape as old as myth, and, to Hardy's great sorrow and sense of loss, turning before his eyes to the new world and away from the old calendar of the countryside: the first cuckoo, the last swallow, harvest, Easter and Christmas, christening, marriage and burial coming round as they always had done and until now had shown no sign of changing.)

No,
Tess
will have none of the sordidness of these contemporary murders.
Tess
will be pure incandescence, the picture of woman wronged, the murderess as saint.

Love and melodrama. If a seedy note does creep in, it's at the lodgings in Sandbourne (Bournemouth, as we know) where Tess and Alec spend their second, unloving honeymoon. In these cut-price plush surroundings – as fake as the impostor Alec himself – Tess will be driven to the ultimate act of violence. And by killing him, she inevitably sentences herself.

By killing him, she doubly kills – for it is the terrible betrayal of Angel Clare – the refusal to accept her when she confesses her lovemaking with Alec, her baby – that she avenges while immolating herself as well.

Tess hangs.

And Angel Clare, after standing under that prison wall with Tess's young sister Liza-Lu, takes the girl's hand and they go off into the future together.

It's no way, really, for a young girl to start out in life. In the shadow of the gallows of her sister. What can have become of them? – as the Victorians used to say.

But I'll tell you the rest of the story, as far as I can. Which means, as you know, that we have to go as far back as we can.

For now, remember this: Hardy has found Augusta Way. They stand talking in the meadow. (How lovely she is. What a mouth! Hardy is driven insane by women's mouths.) They go indoors (for in those days there was no marked distinction, in old rural communities, between gentry and dairyman farmer: Thomas Way and his family live in part of Kingston Maurward Manor, a delicate and grand eighteenth-century house that is used just as any house would be, by a large family busy with a farm).

Do they kiss?

Kissing is very much on the poet's mind. At Evershot station on the way here, he has discovered some mistletoe that had been there ‘ever since last Christmas (given by a lass?), of a yellow, saffron parchment colour'. This mistletoe will come to him again, when he writes of Tess's disastrous honeymoon with Angel Clare and her return to Wool Manor, where they had sworn to be so happy – before she told him of her past – to find it, mocking, discoloured, still hanging as a meaningless symbol above the bed.

Thomas Hardy kisses the beautiful milkmaid, Augusta Way.

And so begins the story, both literal and figurative, of your life.

When You Were Free

The owl hoots and the old black-and-white TV ‘snows' so you can't see the face of the presenter, and to my eyes all those dots and whirling grains could be the piles of shale they're shifting at West Bay – expecting? – half-expecting? – to find the body of a man buried under there and thirty years dead.

So let me tell you, little Tess, before we go to the funfair that plays all day and all night in my memory – the fair where Tess lost
her sense of freedom and happiness and adventure, if not, at least, her maidenhood (but what does that matter when freedom had gone?), and Alec became for once and all the champion, the chief and overlord of us all.

Let me tell you of the days when women strode and fought and were priestesses, druidic votaries with wreaths of the pink summer-flowering vervain about their necks.

Let me tell you

About the Celts

Up until about 400 B.C. the inhabitants of this island were Indo-European, a sophisticated race who managed to get through from Iron Age to Bronze Age without indulging in so much conflict that they wiped themselves out. (They were small and dark: Maud and Victor are pure Indo-European, Alec is pure Celt. Tess, with her dark beauty, is a mixture of the two.)

When the Celts came, everything changed. Their religion was of an otherworld, where Dis ruled, and a goddess who sounds closely allied to Demeter. They went in for bloody human sacrifices – to Earth Mother, the Great Goddess – and they told their history orally. The secrets of their power were passed down by word of mouth.

In Dorset their tribe was known as the Dwr-trigs (dwellers by water). And, like the water, they were ruled by the moon. Their time was cyclical time.

Does that sound familiar to you, Ella, as you wriggle there and want to get out of the history lesson altogether?

Listen, I'll tell you something – you see, you sat up already because you knew that if you were told something that way, it would mean something to
you
.

It wouldn't just be a piece of dead writing, as dead as that old
piece of driftwood over there, important only to men of thousands of years ago.

What you heard would be like the streak of gold in the white stone my mother brought from Pilsdon Pen when she married my father, to remind her of the Marshwood Vale that was her real mother country.

BOOK: Tess
5.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Worth Waiting For by Jamieson, Kelly
Anything For You by Macy, Kaydence
The Book of Deacon by Joseph Lallo
Mrs. Jeffries Takes the Stage by Emily Brightwell