Classics Month I, or, Well of course this is good!

by TheLitCritGuy


Well here it is people! The second theme month from myself and for the next few weeks it’s all about classic literature; now for some of you that may have produced tears of boredom as this was a realm of literature full of books that you should have read when you were in school, never got round to, and now really have no need to try to plow your way through. I get it, I do – classics, for some, are a sort of literary Chinese water torture, both in the attempt to get through them in the first place and the nagging feeling that this is SOMETHING YOU SHOULD HAVE READ and, if you haven’t, you are somehow a literary Luddite. All in all, I’m beginning to think that my choice may have been a little more problematic than I originally thought, as on top of all of these problems there is a new issue tied up in the act of reviewing.

You see,  most  of the things that have come under scrutiny here have had to address the question of whether or not they are actually any good and on what  basis ‘good’ is achieved or missed. With classics though, that question has usually been answered by the labelling of it, as well, classic! Even if the book isn’t that good it seems that the fact it appears in the swanky black jacket, or in the classics section of your local bookstore, it is usually pretty hard to argue with the idea that these books are being given cultural weight by a force bigger than just me. In short, trying to argue that these books were anything but good would be kind of impossible.

But still, I have chosen this month’s theme and a combination of stubbornness and being too lazy to think of a different one right now means that Classics Month is going to be a little different. So instead of trying to decide what books and what film versions are good and which ones are bad, this is going to be my attempt to try to de-mystify and explain classics a little better. If you go away thinking that maybe, just maybe, these books might be worth checking out again then I’ll have done Classics Month proud. If on the other hand, you go away convinced to never enter another book shop again, a small blog series was never really going to change things for you. So with that in mind, let’s turn to the first in Classics Month – Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

First published in 1891 in serial form in the now defunct paper The Graphic, it met with decidedly mixed reviews, even though today it is considered with pretty much universal acclaim as its themes of lost love, bad men, a good woman, rape and finally murder were considered scandalous for good writing to deal with. The key to the novel rests in the alternative title that Hardy gave it of ‘A Pure Woman.’ The main character of Tess is unmistakably a good woman, even by the somewhat hypocritical standards and mores of the time, she is a good person who systematically gets screwed over by the people and the systems that seek to control her.

For any interested parties I’ll try to give a run down on the plot that avoids any major spoilers. Set in rural Wessex during a long recession the story follows the impoverished Durbeyville family and focuses on the young daughter Tess, famed for her beauty. As her only hope of escaping the grinding existence of rural poverty is through marriage and here is where the book’s plot really starts to move things forward.

Men, by and large, do not come off well in this novel, the two main male characters coming off as either a rapacious pain in the ass or as someone utterly well-meaning but also completely useless. The characters are all so well drawn, balancing both dramatic twists and consistency of character that at various times in the novel, you find yourself utterly enraged and frustrated at the way that Tess is treated but it all flows seamlessly from the novels presentation of reality. The plot of the novel is based around Tess and her interactions and doomed loved with the good hearted Angel St Clare and the rakish Alec d’Urbeville and how these two men loose and love the titular character.

The treatment that Tess goes through leads horrifically to her downfall but throughout all the novel the emphasis on her moral integrity and basic human decency shows the reasoning as to why Tess has become such a literary archetype.

As with most adaptations this novel has been through several different versions and as brevity and time means I can only do one, I eventually settled on the 1979 film Tess, directed by Roman Polanski. Surprisingly this is a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation, changing only a few plots points and perhaps giving more emphasis to elements in the book that the morality of the time meant that the author was forced to play down. The action is based in Dorset, the Durbeyville noble connection is a historical curiosity and the supposed nobility of the character of Alec is made out to be even more tenuous. Simply put this is a very good adaptation and if the book was too heavy going or you don’t fancy making the cognitive effort to really engage with the book then this is a great film version.

However, for those of you who have read the book and wanted a little more depth to this weeks blog, then you may want to read on. Firstly, in keeping with the somewhat tragic themes of the novel there is a little story here that directly links this film adaptation to the cult leader and murderer, Charles Manson. The clue is at the beginning of the film in the simple dedication ‘For Sharon.’ For anyone who doesn’t have the time to spend two minutes on Google, the Sharon in question is Polanski’s former wife, the actress Sharon Tate and the most famous of Manson’s victims. The last thing that Polanski received from his wife before she was murdered was a copy of the classic tale of doomed romance, Tess of the D’Urbeville’s. Now, this isn’t meant as a lurid little side-note as I feel it adds another layer of pathos to the way that Polanski chooses to tell the story here. Not only is Tess as a character the one we empathise with, but this contextual knowledge bears some resemblance to the story. I won’t dwell anymore on this aspect of the film’s existence because it could well get a little macabre and frankly, Manson doesn’t deserve it.

Reviews of the time were a little mixed, with some rather really nastily drawing attention to the element of seduction of a younger woman by an older man and drawing some parallels between the plot and it’s director, but, frankly, let’s not be surprised by the levels that some in the press will sink to and say this in conclusion…

This is an essentially Victorian England story, one of power, class, fate and the power of society to destroy good people. Considering the rest of Polanski’s work this film is really quite unique as at many moments the film reminds me of the great British cinema produced by directors like David Lean, (if you haven’t seen Brief Encounter you cannot call yourself a film fan!) and that is really impressive.

So there you go, it’s the first one of Classics Month and I hope I’ve whetted your appetite and maybe made the book seem a little more approachable. If you have a suggestion, feedback or your own point-of-view tweet me @jgreenaway3 with the hashtag #ClassicMonth.

Or, you could always use the comment section below….