Edmund Gosse, a writer and critic, was a close friend of Thomas Hardy’s, and probably best known as the author of Father and Son (1907), a memoir of his relationship with his evangelist father. In this letter, Hardy talks about the reviews for Tess of the d’Urbervilles. These were mixed, to the point of being almost polarised. The Quarterly (April 1892) described the book as ‘a clumsy sordid tale of boorish brutality and lust’, while other magazines praised the novel highly. A review in the Saturday Review of 16 January 1892 declared that there was ‘not one single touch of nature’ in any of the characters; that the ‘terrible dreariness’ of the whole tale was relieved only by ‘the few hours spent with cows’ and that Hardy had told an ‘unpleasant story in a very unpleasant way’.
Thomas Hardy and the reviews of Tess of the d’Urbervilles
At the end of the first paragraph of this letter Hardy complains that ‘an assertion in the book to the effect that the heroine looked more developed and marriageable than she was, is made to mean something indecent which I never thought of’. The text referred to here is:
She had an attribute which amounted to a disadvantage just now; and it was this that caused Alec D’Urberville’s eyes to rivet themselves upon her. It was a luxuriance of aspect; a fullness of growth, which made her appear more of a woman than she really was. She had inherited the feature from her mother without the quality it denoted.
This passage basically says that Tess has a large bust. The reviewer states: ‘It is these side suggestions that render Mr Hardy’s story so very disagreeable, and Tess is full of them’.
The review also complains about the impossibility of the characters – Clare is ‘a mere shadow’. In fact all of the characters are swept up in the statement that ‘all are stagey, and some are farcical’. The review specifically criticises the sexual aspect of the book: ‘This reminds us of those artists who have exhibitions of pictures open to the public, but who hang over an inner sanction containing their choicest works a placard marked “for gentlemen only”’.