The stories behind Tess

TESS of the d’Urbervilles is Thomas Hardy’s most famous novel, and considered by some also to be his best. But when it was published it provoked outrage among prudish and conventional readers, critics and even other writers.

A new exhibition in the study at Max Gate, Hardy’s house at Dorchester, reveals some of the stories behind Hardy’s controversial heroine and the writer’s fascination with his creation.

With Tess, Hardy deliberately challenged the norms and conventions of Victorian morality, and challenge it he certainly did. Initially published in 1891 as a serialisation in The Graphic magazine, the novel attracted some vitriolic reviews. The author Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu books I have yet to read.” Newspaper reviews said it threatened “the moral fibre of young readers.”

Feeling the need to defend Tess from his critics, when the novel was published in book form Hardy added the subtitle A Pure Woman, an act his biographer Claire Tomalin describes as “undoubtedly intended to be a red rag to the delicate-minded, and they complained bitterly.”

Hardy admitted to being obsessed with his heroine. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “I am so truly glad that Tess the woman has won your affections. I, too, lost my heart to her as I went on with her history.”

Hardy’s first wife Emma mentioned his obsession with Tess as a character in her letters, saying that “he understands only the women he invents – the others not at all.”

As well as discovering the stories and inspiration behind Tess, visitors will also be able to listen to sound recordings of excerpts from the novel.  Max Gate is open from Thursday to Sunday in the winter months.

Pictured: Hardy with his second wife Florence and his dog Wessex, at Max Gate. © Courtesy of Dorset County Museum