Posted: 12/26/2008


Tess of the D’urbervilles


by Del Harvey

Masterpiece Theatre serves up this delicious and heartbreaking adaptation of one of Thomas Hardy’s best novels. Sundays, January 4 and 11, 2009 at 9pm ET on PBS.

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Tess Durbyfield is the daughter of John Durbeyfield, wage worker and common man with a large family to feed. Life is good for the Durbeyfield’s, although it could always be better, but all in all, nothing to complain about. Until John comes across the local priest on a walk home from town. The priest always greets this common worker with the salutation, “Good day, Sir John.” This perplexes Durbeyfield until, one day, he stops the priest and asks him why he gives him a gentleman’s greeting. And that is the beginning of the Durbeyfield family’s misfortunes.

Turns out there was a very noble and wealthy family by the name of D’Urberville who lived not so far from the Durbeyfield family’s humble farmhouse. That well-established family was highly regarded in society and wealthy beyond compare. Unfortunately, they all died out. And to the old priest, who knows all the families in his parish, it stands to reason that the Durbeyfield name is the natural Anglicized variation, and that John’s ancestors must have been that great family. John can’t help himself; he imagines great wealth and status, and begins ignoring his work to satisfy his need for drink and to tell the people of his small world of his newfound fortune. When he is too drunk to deliver their goods to market, his eldest daughter, Tess, must go. But she is already exhausted, and an accident on the road to market results in having to put down their only horse, and their fortune is put down with the poor beast.

Both mother and father urge Tess to go to the D’Urberville estate and ask for work, not knowing who these people are or whether they are actually family relations. Tess goes, and meets the scoundrel son, Alex D’Urberville, who is immediately smitten with the young raven-haired beauty. Tess is given work, a horse and gifts are sent to her family’s home, and all the world seems wonderful. But after a night of drunken partying with the morally-challenged staff, Tess is given a ride home by Alec. Turns out his family “bought” the name D’Urberville and the status that came with it. And Alec is the dark sheep of the family, as he proves by raping poor Tess on the way home.

Tess’ troubles get worse and worse, even though she eventually meets the love of her life, a priest’s son and a hard-working young man with the unusual name of Angel Clare. But even though true romance finally seems possible, it is not to be, and life continues to become darker and even more difficult for our heroine.

Published in 1891, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles was a novel rare for its time in dealing with the pious elements of Victorian morality and the woman’s subservient place in a man’s world.. The book explored the dark side of family connections while questioning God’s existence, fairness among the different classes of society, and women remaining subservient or standing up and speaking out against a male-dominated culture. All of these heady topics are faithfully addressed in this wonderful adaptation that is not to be missed.

Presented in two parts on PBS, Sundays, January 4 and 11, 2009 at 9pm ET.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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