So I just finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I had read before but barely retained. I think I must've first read it when I was about 13, the time when I was just starting to acknowledge that "realistic fiction" could have its charms. (Prior to this, I basically read every fantasy book I could get my hands on, to the detriment of all else.) Still, Tess didn't do it for me. Not that I lacked the intelligence to understand it; I merely lacked the inclination, and found it dull. So I gave it another chance, now that I have fully gotten over my disdain for realistic fiction.
I don't know why I found it dull, since it really is a cracking melodrama. Yes, there are some moments where you know that Thomas Hardy is really stacking the deck against poor Tess--this girl has an absolute knack for running into the wrong people at the wrong time--but it works, and that's what matters.
As Steve Martin writes in Shopgirl, "[Mirabelle] does not read these [nineteenth-century novels] as a romantic lonelyhearts turning pages in the isolation of her room, not at all. She is instead an educated spirit with a sense of irony. She loves the gloom of these period novels, especially as kitsch, but beneath it all she finds that a part of her identifies with all that darkness." And that's how I feel about Tess of the D'Urbervilles. You can try to roll your eyes at Hardy's bleak and pessimistic view of life, or at the contrivances he uses to express this idea, but in the end, he's too persuasive.
Another thing I love about reading old novels is that details that went unremarked-upon at the time of the novel's publication can offer the most surprising insights. For instance, unlike Victorian audiences, modern readers don't find Tess's behavior shocking or believe she should be condemned--we fully sympathize with this ill-treated girl. However, what we now find shocking--and the Victorians accepted without a thought--is that the dairy where Tess works uses lead-lined pans! We're supposed to think that the dairy is the most idyllic and wholesome place in Tess's world--the fertile farm, the good fresh milk--but the realization that all the characters are going to die of lead poisoning puts a different spin (a Hardy-ish, pessimistic spin?) on things...
Or, you know the old stereotype that women are scared of mice, and will scream and stand on chairs whenever they see one? A short paragraph in Tess of the D'Urbervilles made me understand how this originated, and why it's not as misogynistic as I thought. Hardy writes:
[The rats] ran across the open ground in all directions, a loud shriek from the by this time half-tipsy Marian informing her companions that one of the rats had invaded her person--a terror which the rest of the women had guarded against by various schemes of skirt-tucking and self-elevation. The rat was at last dislodged...So, for modern women who wear pants or short-ish skirts, it's illogical to fear mice. But for a woman wearing a floor-length skirt plus several petticoats, it's easy to imagine a mouse getting trapped between the layers of fabric, scurrying around under your dress--and that is a rather disgusting/creepy prospect.
Image: Engraving of the next-to-last scene of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which accompanied the novel when it was first serialized.