Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented is a novel by Thomas Hardy, first published in 1891. It initially appeared in a censored and serialised version, published by the British illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. It is Hardy's penultimate novel, followed by Jude the Obscure. Though now considered a great classic of English literature, the book received mixed reviews when it first appeared, in part because it challenged the sexual mores of Hardy's day.
Tess is the eldest daughter of John and Joan Durbeyfield, uneducated (and rather shiftless) peasants. One day, John, a poor carter, is on his way home to the village of Marlott when he meets Parson Tringham, who addresses him as "Sir John". When he asks for an explanation, Tringham, an amateur genealogist, informs him that he has noble blood; 'Durbeyfield' is a corruption of 'D'Urberville', the surname of a noble Norman family, now extinct. Although the parson means no harm, the news immediately goes to John's head.
Meanwhile, Tess is on her way to the village May Dance when she sees her father riding past in a carriage, singing about knighted forefathers in lead coffins. Embarrassed, she makes an excuse for him and continues on her way. At the dance, she briefly meets Angel Clare, the youngest son of Reverend James Clare, who is on a walking tour with his two brothers. He stops to join the dance, and finds partners in several other girls. On leaving, he notices the lovely Tess, and though wishing to dance with her, he continues on his way, leaving Tess feeling slighted.
Later, at home, Tess learns the reason for her father's odd behaviour when she is informed of the family's noble lineage. Hoping to find Tess a rich husband, Joan decides to send her to "claim kin" with a wealthy family, the Stoke-d'Urbervilles, in nearby Trantridge. That night, Tess falls asleep while driving to market – her father being too drunk to undertake the journey himself – and the family's only horse, Prince, wanders into the path of another vehicle and is killed. When Joan later broaches her scheme, Tess feels so guilty that she agrees to go on the foolish errand.
In reality, the blind Mrs. d'Urberville is not related to the Durbeyfields or the original d'Urbervilles; her husband, Simon Stoke simply bought the baronial title and deeds. However, her libertine son, Alec d'Urberville, takes a fancy to Tess and secures her a position as poultry keeper on the d'Urberville estate. He immediately begins making advances; although somewhat flattered by the attention, she resists. Late one night, however, while walking home from town with some other Trantridge work folk, Tess inadvertently antagonises Car Darch, Alec's most recently discarded favourite, and finds herself ostracised and about to come to blows. When Alec rides up and offers to 'rescue' her from the situation, she accepts. He does not take her home, however, but rides at random through the fog until they reach an ancient grove called "The Chase". Here, Alec informs her that he is lost and he leaves on foot to look for help as Tess falls asleep underneath the coat he's lent her. After Alec comes back, alone, it is left to the reader to decide whether he rapes or seduces her.
After a few weeks of confused dalliance with Alec, Tess begins to despise him. Against his wishes, she goes home to her father's cottage, where she keeps almost entirely to her room. The next summer, she gives birth to a weak, sickly boy who lives only a week. On his last night alive, Tess baptises him herself and christens him 'Sorrow', her father having locked the door because he does not want her to send for the parson.
More than two years have passed since the Trantridge debacle and Tess, now twenty, is ready to make a new start. She seeks employment outside the village, where her past is not known, and secures a job as a milkmaid at Talbothays Dairy in a fertile valley some miles off. There, she befriends three of her fellow milkmaids, Izz, Retty, and Marian, and re-encounters Angel Clare, who is now an apprentice farmer and has come to Talbothays to learn dairy management. Although the other three milkmaids are sick with love for him, Angel soon singles out Tess from among them and the two gradually fall in love.
Angel decides to spend a few days away from the dairy visiting his family at Emminster. He finds his parents breakfasting with his brothers, the Reverend Felix, a town curate, and the Reverend Cuthbert, a college dean at Cambridge. Felix and Cuthbert sadly note Angel's coarsened manners, while Angel decides that their comfortable situations have made them staid and narrow-minded. Following evening prayers, Angel discusses his marriage prospects with his father. The Clares have long hoped that Angel will marry Mercy Chant, a pious schoolmistress in their village, but Angel argues that a wife who understands farm life would be a more practical choice. He tells his parents about Tess, and they agree to meet her. His father also says he will give Angel the money saved for his university education to buy some land. Before Angel leaves, the Reverend James Clare tells him about his efforts to convert the local populace, and mentions his failure to tame a young miscreant named Alec d’Urberville.
Angel returns to Talbothays Dairy and asks Tess to marry him. This puts Tess in a painful dilemma. Angel obviously thinks she is a virgin and, although she does not want to deceive him, she shrinks from confessing lest she lose his love and admiration. Such is her passion for him that she finally agrees to the marriage, explaining that she hesitated because she had heard he hated old families and thought he would not approve of her d'Urberville ancestry. He is pleased by her mock confession, however, because he thinks it will make their match more suitable in the eyes of his family.
As the marriage approaches, Tess grows increasingly troubled. She writes to her mother for advice; Joan tells her to keep silent about her past. Her anxiety increases when a man from Trantridge recognises her while she is out shopping with Angel, and makes a remark about her sexual history. Angel overhears and flies into an uncharacteristic rage. Tess resolves to deceive him no more, and on the night before the wedding, she writes a letter describing her dealings with d'Urberville and slips it under his door. He greets her with the usual affection the next morning; however, she then discovers the letter under his carpet and realises he has not seen it. She destroys the letter.
The wedding goes smoothly. They spend their wedding night at the old d'Urberville family mansion, where Angel presents Tess with some beautiful diamonds that belonged to his godmother. Angel then confesses to an affair he had with an older woman in London; when she hears this, sure at last of his forgiveness, Tess finally tells him about her relationship with Alec.
Although Tess freely forgives Angel's past sexual indiscretion, he is so mortified by hers that he spends the wedding night on a sofa. Tess, although devastated, accepts the sudden estrangement as her just due. After a few awkward, awful days, she suggests that they separate, telling her husband she will return to her parents. Angel gives her some money and tells her he will try to reconcile himself to her past, but warns her not to try to join him until he sends for her. After a quick visit to his parents, he takes ship for Brazil to start a new life. Before he leaves, however, he encounters Izz Huett on the road and impulsively asks her to come to Brazil with him as his mistress. She accepts, but when he asks her how much she loves him, she admits "Nobody could love 'ee more than Tess did! She would have laid down her life for 'ee. I could do no more!" Hearing this, he abandons the whim, and Izz goes home weeping bitterly.
A very bleak period in Tess's young life now begins. She returns home for a time but, finding this unbearable, decides to join Marian and Izz at a starve-acre farm called Flintcombe-Ash. On the road, she is recognised and insulted by a farmer named Groby (the same man who slighted her in front of Angel); this man proves to be her new employer. At the farm, the three former milkmaids perform very hard physical labour over the winter months.
One day, Tess attempts to visit Angel’s family at the parsonage in Emminster. As she draws near her destination, she encounters his priggish older brothers and the woman his parents once hoped he would marry, Mercy Chant. They do not recognise her, but she overhears them discussing Angel’s unwise marriage; shamed, she turns back. On the way, she overhears a wandering preacher and is shocked to discover that he is Alec d’Urberville, who has been converted to Christianity under the Reverend James Clare's influence.
Alec and Tess are each shaken by their encounter, and Alec begs Tess never to tempt him again as they stand beside an ill-omened stone monument called the Cross-in-Hand. However, Alec soon comes to Flintcomb-Ash to ask Tess to marry him. She tells him she is already married. He returns at Candlemas and again in early spring when Tess is hard at work feeding a threshing machine. He tells her he is no longer a preacher and wants her to be with him. She slaps him when he insults Angel, drawing blood. Tess then learns from her sister, Liza-Lu, that her mother, Joan, is dying and her father very ill. Tess rushes home to look after them; her mother soon recovers, but her father unexpectedly dies.
The family is now evicted from their home as Durbeyfield had only a life lease on their cottage. Alec tells Tess her husband is never coming back, and offers to house the Durbeyfields on his estate and send the children to school. Tess refuses his assistance. Tess has previously written Angel a psalm-like letter, full of love, self-abasement, and pleas for mercy; now, however, she finally admits to herself that Angel has wronged her and scribbles a hasty note saying she will do all she can to forget him, since he has treated her so unjustly.
Next day, they load their belongings onto a hired cart and leave for Kingsbere, home of the d'Urbervilles, where Joan has reserved some rooms. When they arrive, the Durbeyfields, now all but destitute, find that their rooms have already been rented and are forced to take shelter in the churchyard, in a plot called 'd’Urberville Aisle'. Here, Alec reappears and importunes Tess again. In despair, she looks at the entrance to the d'Urberville vault and wonders aloud "Why am I on the wrong side of this door!"
In the meantime, Angel has been very ill in Brazil and, his farming venture having failed, he heads home for England. On the way, he confides his troubles to a stranger, who tells him that he was wrong to leave his wife; what she has been in the past should matter less than what she might become. The stranger dies of a fever soon afterward, and Angel, meditating on his words, begins to repent his treatment of Tess.
On his return to his family home, Angel receives two letters: Tess's angry note and a few cryptic lines from 'two well-wishers' (Izz and Marian), warning him to protect his wife from "an enemy in the shape of a friend." He sets out to find Tess and eventually locates Joan, now well-dressed and living in a pleasant cottage. After responding evasively to his inquiries, she finally tells him her daughter has gone to live in Sandbourne, a fashionable seaside resort. There, he tracks Tess down to an expensive boarding house called The Herons, where she is living under the name "Mrs. d'Urberville." He asks for her; she comes downstairs, startling him with her elegant attire, and stands aloof. He tenderly asks her forgiveness; Tess, in anguish, tells him he has come too late — that, thinking he would never return, she yielded at last to Alec d'Urberville's persuasion and has become his mistress. She gently asks Angel to leave and never come back. He departs, and Tess returns to her apartment, where she falls to her knees and begins a lamentation. When Alec asks her what's wrong, she tells him about Angel's visit and wails that now she has lost him forever because she believed his lies — that her husband would never come back for her.
The landlady, Mrs. Brooks, overhears Tess through the keyhole but withdraws hastily when Alec speaks angrily and Tess responds by jumping to her feet. Later, she sees Tess leave the house, then notices a spreading red spot on the ceiling that resembles a bloodstain in the shape of an ace of hearts. She summons help, and Alec is soon found stabbed to death in his bed — Tess having finally taken revenge for Alec's attack on her "younger self" which had so blighted her life.
Tess hurries after Angel and tells him that she has just killed Alec, saying now she hopes she has won his forgiveness by murdering the man who spoiled both their lives. Angel doesn't believe her at first, but grants his forgiveness — as she is in such a fevered state — and tells her that he loves her. Rather than head for the coast, they walk inland, vaguely planning to hide somewhere until the search for Tess is ended and they can escape abroad from a port. They find an empty mansion and stay there for five days in blissful happiness until their presence is discovered one day by the cleaning woman.
They leave at once and arrive that evening at Stonehenge. Tess lies down to rest on an ancient altar. Before she falls asleep, she asks Angel to look after her younger sister, Liza-Lu, saying she hopes Angel will marry her after she is dead. At dawn, Angel sees that they are surrounded; policemen are moving in from all sides. He finally realises that Tess really has committed murder, and asks the men in a whisper to let her awaken naturally before they arrest her. When she opens her eyes and sees the police, she tells Angel she is "almost glad" because "now I shall not live for you to despise me".
Tess is escorted to Wintoncester (Winchester) prison. The novel closes with Angel and Liza-Lu watching from a nearby hill as the black flag signalling Tess’s execution is raised over the prison. They then join hands and go on their way.
Another important theme of the novel is the sexual double standard to which Tess falls victim - despite being, in Hardy's view, a truly good woman, she is despised by society after losing her virginity before marriage. Hardy plays the role of Tess's only true friend and advocate, pointedly subtitling the book "a pure woman faithfully presented" and prefacing it with Shakespeare's words "Poor wounded name! My bosom as a bed/ Shall lodge thee." However, although Hardy clearly means to criticise Victorian notions of female purity, the double standard also makes the heroine's tragedy possible, and thus serves as a mechanism of Tess's broader fate. Hardy variously hints that Tess must suffer either to atone for the misdeeds of her ancestors, or to provide temporary amusement for the gods, or because she possesses some small but lethal character flaw inherited from the ancient clan.
From numerous pagan and neo-Biblical references made about her, Tess can be viewed variously as an Earth goddess or as a sacrificial victim. Early in the novel, she participates in a festival for Ceres, the goddess of the harvest, and when she performs a baptism she chooses a passage from Genesis, the book of creation, over more traditional New Testament verses. At the end, when Tess and Angel come to Stonehenge, commonly believed in Hardy's time to be a pagan temple, she willingly lies down on an altar, thus fulfilling her destiny as a human sacrifice.
This symbolism may help explain Tess as a personification of nature–lovely, fecund, and exploitable–while animal imagery throughout the novel strengthens the association. Examples are numerous: Tess's misfortunes begin when she falls asleep while driving Prince to market, thus causing the horse's death; at Trantridge, she becomes a poultry-keeper; she and Angel fall in love amidst cows in the fertile Froom valley; and on the road to Flintcombe-Ashe, she compassionately kills some wounded pheasants to end their suffering.
An Italian operatic version written by Frederic d'Erlanger was first performed in Naples in 1906, but the run was cut short by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When the opera came to London three years later, Hardy himself attended the premier, at the age of 69.
The book has also lent itself to no less than three adaptations for film and and two for TV. The first two films were both silent, the 'lost' 1913 version, mentioned above, starring Minnie Maddern Fiske as Tess and Scots-born David Torrence as Alec and an extant version made in 1924 with Blanche Sweet (Tess), Stuart Holmes (Alec) and Conrad Nagel (Angel). More recently has been Roman Polanski's 1979 movie Tess with Nastassja Kinski (Tess), Leigh Lawson (Alec) and Peter Firth (Angel), and London Weekend Television's 1998 3-hour mini-series Tess of the D'Urbervilles, directed by Ian Sharp and starring Justine Waddell (Tess), Jason Flemyng (Alec) and Oliver Milburn (Angel), the latter himself Dorset-born.
A 4-part BBC adaptation, written by David Nicholls, aired in the UK in September and October 2008, with a cast including Gemma Arterton as Tess, Hans Matheson as Alec, Eddie Redmayne as Angel, Ruth Jones as Joan, Anna Massey as Mrs d'Urberville and Kenneth Cranham as Rev James Clare.