A little over a year ago (3 May 2023) I wrote a post about two short novels by Ian McEwan. Though different in theme and tone, both novels featured main characters who were deeply involved with music: a composer in Amsterdam and the founder/leader of a string quartet in On Chesil Beach. I said at the time that I might write about The Children Act, another of McEwan’s novels in which music features prominently, “before too long”. It took longer than I expected, but I’ve just posted something about music in The Children Act on my personal site.

Towards the end of her time at the “starve-acre” farm at Flintcomb-Ash, Tess Durbeyfield plays a pivotal role in the threshing of Farmer Groby’s wheat. Groby has hired for the day a threshing machine and the self-described “engineer” (Ch. XLVII, p. 316) who owns and operates it. The machine itself is brightly coloured, “the red tyrant that the women had come to serve” (Ch. XLVII, p. 314), while nearby is the hissing, smoky, black engine which drives it. Taken together, as Hardy describes them, they suggest an infernal contraption, one that could plausibly be seen as demanding sacrifice.

The wheat is stacked in an enormous rick which the farm labourers take apart, before passing the sheaves along to be fed into the machine. On Groby’s instruction, Tess takes up her position on the machine itself, where she unties the sheaf and feeds the wheat into the machine.

For some probably economical reason it was usually a woman who was chosen for this particular duty, and Groby gave as his motive in selecting Tess that she was one of those who best combined strength with quickness in untying, and both with staying power; and this may have been true. (Ch. XLVII, p. 317)

Groby has previously acted vindictively towards Tess, having once been punched in the face by Angel Clare on her account, but he is not the kind of man to pursue a grudge at the expense of his economic interests, and he makes it clear that he expects the threshing to be completed in a single day: even if he had been prepared to rent the machinery for a second day, it is already booked elsewhere. In the event, his assessment of Tess’s suitability is borne out: she ends the day close to total collapse but having completed the task.

That task was to be the connection between the agricultural labour and the industrial process, the point at which the irregular, naturally fluctuating output of the former was transformed into the the steady, constant, unvarying input relentlessly required by the latter. Of the engineer, Hardy writes:

He was in the agricultural world, but not of it. He served fire and smoke; these denizens of the field served vegetation, weather, frost and sun. (Ch. XLVII, p. 315)

Tess is, at least during that one long day’s threshing, the bridge between these two worlds. When I first read Tess of the d’Urbervilles almost 30 years ago, I wondered whether, by placing his heroine in that role, Hardy was to some extent approving of the advent of heavy industry and its developing role in the rural economy of those counties. But that idea won’t stand up to examination. Hardy unequivocally sees the decline of the agricultural economy as highly regrettable. He regularly comments unfavourably on modernity, industrialization and the disappearance of established traditions. In locating Tess between the farmworkers and the machine, as the link between them, Hardy is doing something quite different from bestowing her benison on the latter.

It’s another (perhaps the most noticeable) example of something he does several times in the novel: he is putting her in two incompatible time periods or positions at once, so that she seems to combine elements of both. On the threshing machine, she spans the divide between the preindustrial age and the industrial one. Similarly, when she goes to work at Crick’s dairy farm, she becomes a “dairymaid”, though not a maid. (It is Groby’s averment — accurate though impertinent — that she is “no maid” that earns him a punch from Angel Clare.) She slips easily between being an uneducated peasant girl and the descendant of decayed aristocrats, with firm opinions and a determined will. Having first been the victim of Alec d’Urberville’s seduction, she becomes the agent who argues him out of his spurious conversion.

On first meeting her at the dairy farm, Angel is at a loss what to make of the apparent contradiction:

He was surprised to find this young woman — who though but a milkmaid had just that touch of rarity about her which might make her the envied of her housemates — shaping such sad imaginings. She was expressing in her own native phrases — assisted a little by her sixth-standard training — feelings which might almost have been called those of the age — the ache of modernism. (Ch. XIX, pp. 128–9)

When, immediately after their marriage, Tess tells Angel her great secret, that she is not a “maid”, but has had a child who died, she is taken aback at his inability or unwillingness to forgive her.

“O Tess, forgiveness does not apply to the case. You were one person: now you are another. My God — how can forgiveness meet such a grotesque — prestdigitation as that!” (Ch. XXXV, p. 226)

He underlines his conviction that she had never been who he thought her to be:

“… Here was I thinking you a new-sprung child of nature: there were you, the belated seeding of an effete aristocracy!” (Ch. XXV, pp. 229–30)

Of course, she is not wholly either: she can’t be, as she includes elements of both. Angel much later — too late — admits that he was wrong about that.

Her ancestors were not what they appeared to be. A succession of male heads of the family, each with a “Sir” prefixed to his forename, looks like a baronetcy, but the d’Urbervilles never became one. A baronetcy isn’t a “title” (i.e. a title of nobility, like Baron, Earl, Viscount or Duke). It’s roughly equivalent to knighthood, the difference being that a baronetcy is hereditary. Only one new baronetcy has been created since Harold Wilson’s first government took office in 1964. That was conferred on Sir Denis Thatcher, husband of the former Prime Minister, and was inherited by their son, Mark Thatcher, on Sir Denis’s death.

Jack Durbeyfield’s forebears never became baronets partly because they were too early: the honour didn’t exist until the beginning of the seventeenth century when it was created by James I of England. Jack slightly misunderstands what the antiquarian Parson Tringham tells him:

“… Aye, there have been generations of Sir Johns among you, and if knighthood were hereditary like a baronetcy — as it practically was in old times, when men were knighted from father to son — you would be Sir John now.” (Ch. I, p. 14)

The “old times” that the parson refers to were those before baronetcies were instituted. The d’Urbervilles might have expected to be be granted one after the Restoration, but for the fact that they had “declined a little during Oliver Cromwell’s time, but to no serious extent” (p. 14).

Baronetcies have occasionally been useful to novelists wishing to show the changing economic importance of land ownership. I’ve previously mentioned Jane Austen’s use of Sir Thomas Bertram and Sir Walter Elliot in Mansfield Park and Persuasion respectively. Both get into financial difficulties, Sir Walter through his own irresponsibility and wastefulness, the prudent Sir Thomas through the activities of his elder son, Tom.

More than a century after Austen wrote, D H Lawrence’s Sir Clifford Chatterley represents more or less the end of the line for baronets. Clifford is a younger son, and succeeds to the baronetcy because his elder brother has been killed in the First World War. He himself has been paralysed from the waist down in the same war, and knows that he’s not going to have any children. On his death, the Chatterley baronetcy will come to an end.

As you’d expect, Sir Clifford’s estate, Wragby, has in the past been agricultural land, but for many decades it has been the home of Tevershall pit, in which Clifford eventually begins to take an interest, having first tried to develop a public reputation as a writer. Rather like Gerald Crich in Lawrence’s earlier novel, Women in Love, Clifford is an example of the adjustment of the landowning class — the aristocracy and gentry — to changing economic circumstances and their cooption into industrial capitalism. In Clifford’s case, the assimilation culminates in the extinction of a hereditary honour which had for centuries been associated with land ownership as the main source of wealth in the English economy.

Instead of depicting the extinction of a baronetcy, Hardy shows us two different optical illusions: things that might look like baronetcies but are really something different. Jack Durbeyfield likes to be known as “Sir John” but, as we’ve seen, the style was never hereditary and is now a historical irrelevance. The attempt by the Stoke family to set up a new d’Urberville dynasty, based on an accumulation of wealth from commercial activity, lasts barely two generations: Alec d’Urberville dies young and without an heir.

Angel’s father tells him that the original d’Urberville line “decayed and disappeared sixty or eighty years ago” (Ch. XXVI, p. 168), meaning that three generations are quite long enough for Jack’s ancestry to have become obscured from himself and everyone around him. That’s how it’s possible for Tess to appear (if not actually to be) alternately “a new-sprung child of nature” and “the belated seeding of an effete aristocracy”.

Hardy presents Tess to us as a distinct, vividly drawn individual, while nevertheless implying that she belongs to all periods and social positions throughout the history of the region. As we’ve seen, she has a place in the agricultural and industrial eras; she’s an unsophisticated village-dweller and a descendant of aristocrats, and a mother who seems to resume the role of maid after the death of her child. She stoically accepts indignities and injuries heaped on her by Groby, her stubborn husband and fate, but finally takes a bloody revenge on the seducer who lied to her about her husband’s return.

She ends up — well, she ends up on the gallows in Wintoncester prison but her last voluntary act takes place at Stonehenge, a site that Angel tells her is “Older than the centuries; older than the d’Urbervilles!” (Ch. LVIII, p. 379). She has gone back to the beginning, or at least to prehistory. There, she stretches out on “an oblong slab” of stone, “sheltered from the wind by a pillar” (p. 379). Angel tells her that he thinks she’s lying on an altar. I’ve seen some commentary suggesting that this makes her a sacrifice, and it’s true that she will shortly be put to death. But I couldn’t help thinking that she seems at least as much an officiating or presiding figure, perhaps a priestess.

“I like very much to be here,” she murmured. “It is so solemn and lonely — after my great happiness — with nothing but the sky above my face …” (Ch. LVIII, p. 380)

I thought that in making this one character represent so much, Hardy had been putting the general (or universal) into the particular. That sounded close enough to Empson’s “putting the complex into the simple” to make me dig out my copy of Some Versions of Pastoral to make sure I hadn’t been unconsciously regurgitating something Empson had already said long ago. It seems not, I’m relieved to say. Anyway I was glad to learn in writing this post one thing that I hadn’t realized before: Tess of the d’Urbervilles is, in Empson’s terms, a version of pastoral.

Edition: Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ed. Juliet Grindle and Simon Gatrell, Oxford World Classics, 1988; as usual ellipses are added.