As a boy, Thomas Hardy relished William Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘Old Saint Paul’s’ (1841), a Gothic romance featuring a disguised noblewoman, a pair of grave robbers, and a seduced heroine who is first duped into a false marriage by a villainous aristocrat and then dies of the plague.
The mature Thomas Hardy declared Ainsworth’s shamelessly sensational novel to be “the most powerful literary influence of his boyhood.” As an adult, Thomas Hardy evinced a deep interest in the supernatural, the macabre, and the grotesque that shadowed both his reading and his writing. The former includes ‘Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1818), Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), and Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851),3 while the latter encompasses not only a large corpus of Gothic short stories but also ‘Desperate Remedies’ (1871), a work that may be described as a “mixture of the sensation-novel […] and the older form of Gothic romance” whose “effects of melodramatic horror, especially those derived from the situations of physically or psychologically threatened heroines,” hark back to William Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’ (1860).
While some reviewers in Thomas Hardy’s own time were genuinely disturbed by the darker elements of his fiction, contemporary critics typically view these features with condescension and seek to marginalise them. Drawing a firm distinction in Thomas Hardy’s writing between “hard truth and wild Gothic poetry,” David Cecil argues that in “his greatest work this streak of the grotesque does not dominate his imagination. The other strain in it, the sincere, truthful strain, keeps it in check.” Likewise, Samuel Chew deplores Thomas Hardy’s “sensationalism” and claims that “[s]uch [sensational] scenes are admissible in novels of another sort, but in general they are out of accord with the austere control exhibited by Thomas Hardy in other respects.” Even James Scott, a self-styled apologist for Thomas Hardy’s use of the macabre, limits himself to “identifying the Gothic elements in [Thomas] Hardy’s minor fiction” and carefully qualifies his appreciation for Hardyan Gothic. “When [Thomas] Hardy too sedulously adheres to the precedent of the Gothic romances,” James Scott observes, “his perception is dulled, and his imagination revels in a superfluity of incidents, which remain trivial even though they are exciting and captivating.” Among those few who have explored Thomas Hardy’s Gothic sensibility, only Brigitte Hervoche-Bertho maintains that “[t]he Gothic is indeed a vital part of [Thomas] Hardy’s artistic vision” throughout his oeuvre.
Thomas Hardy would have had difficulty recognising himself in the portrait most scholars paint of a novelist whose essentially realistic vision of life occasionally loses focus and degenerates into Gothic myopia. The author, who considered novel-writing to be a species of sorcery and imagined himself as a spellbinding Ancient Mariner-like figure, summed up his feelings on the fantastic in 1901: “My interest lies largely in non-rationalistic subjects since non-rationality seems […] to be the principle of the Universe.” This is the Thomas Hardy for whom I want to argue — the Thomas Hardy who believed that “[a] story dealing with the supernatural should never be explained away in the unfortunate manner of Mrs [Ann] Radcliffe,” the Thomas Hardy who, in defense of the grotesqueries of ‘Barbara of the House of Grebe,’ invoked Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’ (1796) and declared in the Pall Mall Gazette that “[a] good horror has its place in art.” Contrary to critical consensus, I believe the Gothic elements in Thomas Hardy’s major novels are neither superfluous nor simplistic. They are, in fact, both absolutely essential and richly overdetermined. I will ground my case for the centrality and artistry of the Gothic in Thomas Hardy’s novels by offering a fresh interpretation of his masterwork, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ (1891), considering it not as a story with (unnecessary) Gothic elements but rather as a Gothic novel per se. A tenebrous allegory of death and sexual repression, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ is as much a part of the late-Victorian Gothic renaissance as ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886), ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891), and ‘Dracula’ (1897). Thomas Hardy’s novel rightfully belongs alongside these works as one of a series of dark masterpieces produced in relation to the sexual anxieties of the fin de siècle.
If I am to read ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ as a Gothic novel proper, I must posit some viable definition of the rather slippery term “Gothic.” The task is daunting, for “Gothic” has acquired a multitude of meanings since ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1765) appeared. The most widely accepted formulation of the Gothic centers on a nexus of topoi: a maiden in flight from a satanic, sexually predatory villain; a heroic rescuer; revelations about ancestry and bloodlines; sexual aberrations (rape, incest, necrophilia); shadowy ruins; forbidding castles, abbeys, or prisons; gloomy crypts or graveyards; (possibly) supernatural figures and occurrences. While the Gothic cannot be satisfactorily defined solely in terms of its topoi, they do offer us a place to begin working with Tess of the d’Urbervilles’.
Thomas Hardy’s famous landscapes abound in supernatural phenomena. Like the Carpathian Mountains of Dracula, Blackmoor Vale is located at the centre of a provincial “imaginative whirlpool.” “The harts that had been hunted [there], the witches that had been pricked and ducked, the green-spangled fairies that ‘whickered’ at you as you passed; — the place [teems] with beliefs in them […]” The world of Tess is one in which the natural and the supernatural commingle; it is a world of conjurors, a world where witchcraft and love are believed to affect the production of milk and butter, a world where the prick of a thorn and a cock’s untimely crow foreshadow disaster. Traveling through Thomas Hardy’s haunted countryside, we encounter the standard Gothic locales: “[t]he house [ . . . ] overrun with ivy, its chimney being enlarged by the boughs of the parasite to the aspect of a ruined tower”; the fog-shrouded forest ruled by “[d]arkness and silence”; “the mouldy old habitation,” complete with sinister “life-size portraits” that “haunt the beholder afterwards in his dreams”; “the well-known ruins of the Cistercian abbey”; “the green foundations that showed where the d’Urberville mansion once had stood”; the ages-old “ancestral sepulchre”. Like many Gothic novelists before him, Thomas Hardy studied Edmund Burke’s treatise on the psychology of aesthetics, and these settings are “sublime” in Edmund Burke’s sense insofar as they generate awe and unease in the novel’s characters and readers alike. Fittingly, at the climax of Tess, we confront the most sublime site/sight in all England: Stonehenge.
The Gothic mise en scène in Tess is unmistakable. And as the actors of Thomas Hardy’s tragedy assemble on his gloomy stage, we audience members recognise that the parts they play are typical of Gothic melodrama. The first player to make her entrance is Tess, “our heroine”, who is typecast and advertised as “The Maiden” even before her appearance. Her maidenhood, beauty, sensibility, and susceptibility to both internal and external demons identify her as a bona fide Gothic heroine in the traditional mode. Tess, a “daughter of Nature”, shares with Ann Radcliffe’s imperilled maidens a dramatically heightened awareness of and appreciation for nature’s sublimity. A “structure of sensations” and “a sheaf of susceptibilities”, Tess embodies sensibility to a truly extraordinary degree. Playing the villain to her virgin is Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, the familiar satanic antagonist whose recreation consists of torturing and debauching an innocent and whose precursors include Montoni of ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho,’ Ambrosio of ‘The Monk,’ and Manfred of ‘The Castle of Otranto.’ Like the Devil himself, Alec comes from the North, and his estate is to the North. He cries, “Well, I’m damned!”, rides “like the deuce”, and swears upon his “lost soul”. He compares himself to Milton’s Satan (339), and he is “the serpent” who comes “creepingly forward” to eavesdrop and seduce. Alec’s “full lips” mark him as sensuous, while his “bold rolling eye” and the “touches of barbarism in his contours” indicate a man who gratifies his lusts — sadistically, if possible. His “well-groomed black moustache with curled points” confirms both his vanity and his villainy. Like the moustache-twirling scoundrel in a Victorian thriller, Alec “keep[s] on putting his hand up to his mistarshers”.
Devendra Varma notes that “Gothic novels present no restful human shades of grey: the characters are mostly either endowed with sombre, diabolical villainy or pure, angelic virtue,” and his observation holds true for the black-and-white characterisations of Tess. In Thomas Hardy’s moral chiaroscuro, if Alec — the conqueror of women, the “swarthy Alexander” — represents the dark side of gallantry, then Angel illustrates chivalry-as- light. Angel’s love for Tess is a courtly love; he loves her “dearly, though perhaps rather ideally and fancifully”. Possessing a “scrupulous heart”, Angel has “himself well in hand, and [is] singularly free from grossness”; thus, “on the point of kissing [Tess’s] too tempting mouth […] he [checks] himself, for tender conscience’ [sic] sake”. More than Tess’s white knight, Angel is her “Apollo”, a sun god marked by “the abundance of his illuminations” whose luminous love for her is like “too burning a sun”. While “sunning herself in his eyes” and basking in the protective magic circle of his “circumscribing light”, Tess is temporarily able to “[keep] back the gloomy spectres” of her dark past with Alec. If Alec is satanic, then Angel is “godlike”; if Alec—who calls Tess his “Beauty”, behaves like a beast, and (the better to devour her with) possesses “large white centre-teeth” — is wolfish, then Angel is “more spiritual than animal”. Tess, who “had not known that men could be so disinterested, chivalrous, protective, in their love for women as [Angel]”, certainly views him as her hero, her rescuer.
Thus in Tess-as- Gothic-melodrama Tess plays the heroine, Alec the villain, and Angel, the hero. The action of the plot takes place against an appropriately sublime backdrop, and the set pieces (the sleepwalking scene, the scene in the crypt) could have been lifted from the works of Ann Radcliffe, Lewis, Clara Reeve, or Charlotte Smith. As per the standard Gothic formula, when the mystery of our heroine’s ancestry is solved her bloodline turns out to be as noble as her heart and soul. The sexual elements of the Gothic appear prominently in Tess; in fact, an act of rape (or at least an aggressive form of seduction bordering on rape) forms the cornerstone of the narrative. Yet while Tess contains all the primary topoi of the Gothic, these features do not establish it as a Gothic novel, as opposed to a realistic novel with Gothic aspects — or shortcomings. Indeed, J. T. Laird characterizes “the more melodramatic later incidents” in Tess as “artistic flaws,” and Elliott Gose speaks for the majority when he advises that while “[r]eading [Tess], we must forget the sensationalism and melodrama […]. ”My best defence against such criticism is to distinguish between a Gothic novel per se and a novel with Gothic features. I can then argue for Tess as a masterwork whose Gothicism is not a detraction from but rather a necessary contribution to its artistry. This approach requires a more nuanced definition of the Gothic than the one I have thus far advanced.