Friday, 10 August 2012

Modern Tess

We live in strange times. When I came across a link on Frank Wilson's indispensable Books, Inq. blog labelled 'Thomas Browne, 17th-Century Author, Draws New Interest', my first thought was that - like Thomas Tallis - Sir Thos had had a mention in Fifty Shades Of Grey, and suddenly the Religio Medici was walking off the shelves and they couldn't print Hydriotaphias fast enough to satisfy the vast army of 'mummy porn' aficionadas ('Mummy is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for Balsams...'). But no - it turned out, happily, that this was a far more innocent and firmly grounded revival of interest in the works of Sir Thomas Browne.
 However, one literary author who has benefited from the Fifty Shades effect is Thomas Hardy, whose Tess of the D'Urbervilles is (in its first edition - three volumes, set you back a few grand) the first gift given by the ghastly Mr Grey to his unfortunate female victim, Lord knows why (and I've no intention of finding out). Sales of Tess have, by all accounts, tripled as a result of Mr Grey's endorsement, and I have lately been noticing young women reading it on train and Tube. Heaven knows what they will make of it - but then Heaven knows what I make of it really, after rather more readings than is entirely healthy (I studied it for A-level). I think Deeply Flawed Masterpiece about sums it up. Certainly, for all its beauties, its great set pieces and emotional power, it is marred by some pretty awful writing. But if you've got through Fifty Shades that is probably no impediment at all.


  1. Deeply Flawed Masterpiece it certainly is. Two particularly crass lines spring to mind. One occurs when, on their wedding night, Tess tells Angel the awful truth: 'My God! how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque prestidigitation as that.' It's just the sort of phrase that pops out in moments of great anguish, I find. The other is during their flight with the police in hot pursuit: 'They had proceeded thus gropingly for two or three miles further when on a sudden Clare became conscious of some vast erection close in his front.' The erection in quesion is, of course, Stonehenge. On the other hand, the novel contains the sexiest bit of writing in Victorian fiction. Go to Chapter XIX and read the two paragraphs starting 'Tess had heard those notes...' Talk about the sap rising!

  2. If 'Grey' encourages the reading of Hardy's Tess great, one of the aforementioned is nowhere near the status of masterpiece yet alone flawed.

    I would also humbly suggest that the revival of interest in Sir T.B. in the 21st century is due to W.G. Sebald's 'Rings of Saturn' and myself in the past 16 years !

    It often seems as if there's a much greater interest in Dr.Browne in America ( best scholars of Browne in 20th c. USA's J.S.Finch, Huntley, Endicott also tract 12 makes some interesting predictions on the nation) than in Norwich, the city where he lived the greater part of his life.

  3. Are any of Hardy's books not flawed? I've certainly yet to enjoy a single one of them properly due to the mangled plotting