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In retrospect chosen by Kevin Padian

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

(1891)

Thomas Hardy was 19 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and it profoundly affected his view of the relationship of humans to nature. He endured criticism throughout his life for his fatalistic plots and the tragic ends of his characters. But these devices didn't reflect Darwin's influence. Like Darwin, Hardy saw nature as morally neutral, despite its constant destruction of life. Only humans, with their heartless social systems, can show malice and hurt others wantonly. And as Darwin taught us, sexual selection, more than natural selection, drives human evolution.

Hardy recognized intuitively that Darwin's magnum opus was not only about the population processes of heredity and selection, but about evolutionary legacy and deep time. From the opening page of Tess to its closing paragraph, evolution is the breath of the novel.

It begins as Tess's father, the labourer, John Durbeyfield, is informed by the parson, an amateur genealogist, that he is descended from noble blood (the ancient D'Urbervilles ). Tess is sent to the local manor to see her ‘cousins’ in the hope of a handout, but the true D'Urbervilles are long extinct; the ancient title has been purchased by a parvenu tycoon, and Tess's false cousin ultimately rapes her.

As the novel develops, we find that Tess's perseverance comes not only from her peasant strength but also from an atavistic ferocity inherited from her remote ancestors, knavish, pugnacious aristocrats who mistreated the local girls in their own times. By contrast, Tess's false ‘cousin’ Alec fails at everything in life partly because he has no genetic reserves to draw upon.

Evolutionary scales in Tess run from the genetic to the geological. Fertility, the basis of genetic change, permeates the novel; it is, after all, the business of rural communities. The fields and glens that Hardy describes are always buzzing with bees and butterflies, exploding with pollen- and nectar-laced flowers, vitalized by rains and streams:

“The season developed and matured. Another year's instalment of flowers, leaves, nightingales, thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.”

Traditions of fertility also extend to cultural legacy. When we first meet Tess, she is participating in the annual May Day walk of the last women's club in England to preserve the tradition (note the harbinger of extinction). The women wear virginal white gowns, but the traditions, like the whiteness of their dresses, have degenerated to the point that aged matrons long past their fertile years walk with the young girls. They carry a willow wand in one hand and flowers in the other, dual symbols of male and female fertility on a day celebrating fertility itself. But the women have no consciousness of the irony of these symbols because their associations have been forgotten.

Time — in the sense of John MacPhee's ‘deep time’, numberless, incomprehensible eons — shapes everything in the present, at one scale or another. Hardy is constantly moving among these scales, here pointing out a Gothic church, there reminding us of the ancient age of the stones used to build it.

Hardy often begins his stories with a road, along which travellers are making their way. But before the story proceeds, the road is transformed into a Roman way, or a far more ancient path or track, or it passes a pre-Christian burial mound, or cuts through Palaeozoic strata that impassively regard the traveller's progress. These forms are ancient, traditional and beyond human memory. Hardy reminds us that we are individually ephemeral; yet the actions of groups of humans, like geological processes, gradually shape the landscape, construct farms, fields, towns, cultures, laws, history itself. It is as if Hardy were tending a cosmic ant-farm.

Tess, however, is no ordinary ant, but a heroine of grand and tragic dimensions rooted in evolutionary constraint and genetic possibility. Her ancestors are buried like fossils in Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill (King's-bier-below-green-hill), as fitting a locality for a crypt as one could ask. Yet Tess carries the D'Urberville legacy in her flashing temper, her determination and her unwavering devotion to a middle-class husband.

In the end, Tess mortally wounds her false cousin Alec for his deceits, and flees with her husband Angel across the moor until they wind up, exhausted, at Stonehenge (where else?). The ancient geological sarsens stand over her like sentinels, as she sleeps like a Druid priestess on an altar-like stone until the police arrive.

The novel closes as an offstage bell tolls notice of Tess's hanging. There is one final evolutionary irony as Angel walks off with Tess's sister, who of course carries more genetic similarity to Tess than anyone in the world. Victorian laws would have prevented their union; but if we know one thing about Hardy's characters, it is that they seldom applied the wisdom of the animal husbandry they knew so well to their own breeding habits.

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Padian, K. In retrospect chosen by Kevin Padian. Nature 390, 460 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/37277

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