Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented, was one of the first books that introduced me to literature at the tender age of 14. A life long reader, I had always read age appropriate fiction, Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitters Club, and anything by Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl. A combination of junk YA fiction and classic YA fiction, I devoured everything I could find. Then our new English teacher, Ms. Bird, took us to the school library and told us to pick a book to review. I don’t recall the parameters she set for the choice, but for some reason I picked Thomas Hardy’s penultimate novel. I read the first 30 or 40 pages, I did not like it. It was thick, it was dense and I couldn’t see the story for the language. I finished it, but with nothing nice to say I instead picked up Pride and Prejudice, and so was born a life long Jane Austen fan.
I encountered Tess again while sitting my A-levels when I was 17/18. Funnily enough, though I disliked my teacher, I no longer disliked Tess. I enjoyed reading the story, I still did not particularly care for Hardy’s style but I enjoyed the book. I did not enjoy the musical stage production we went to see in Stoke-on-Trent. I was satisfied with having conquered Tess and happily moved on with my then obsession with Alexandre Dumas.
To my surprise I was again asked to pick up Tess in my first year reading English at Keele University. It was one of the first texts we looked at, one of the first chances to flex my academic muscles. I did not merely skim it, using prior readings as an excuse to fake my way through the class, I read it, I researched it, I sat in front of Keele Hall and stepped once more into Wessex. This time, oh this time, I adored Tess, I was enthralled with her. Alec was no longer a one sided fiend, Angel no longer a mistimed Angel. Tess’s simplicity no longer stupidity. I moved on to re-read the long forgotten The Mill On The Floss, I had overcome my aversion to the heavy bated language of Hardy and began to revel in his words, to bask in his metaphor. The story and the language became one for me, and opened up a whole new way of looking at both favored and discarded texts.
What a wonderful opportunity I had at 14, to grow with a novel deemed socially unacceptable by so many at so many different points in time. When Tess first appeared it was serialized, as so many greats were, but it was also censored. That’s right, it’s original format was censored. One of the original reasons for censorship was that Hardy was breaking the sexual norms of his society, and challenging the sexual double standard that existed. He proclaimed to all that the rape of Tess, his epitome of nature, made her no less a good woman than those in “decent” society.
Tess is not currently a banned book, but you can still find it being disputed as an acceptable text by school boards and libraries. I remain thankful to Ms. Bird that she did not deem it inappropriate for me at 14, that my school librarian didn’t have it on a restricted shelf, that my school board let me choose to read it, and later endorsed a class covering it.