Adapting much-loved classical gems of literature as dramas is no easy task, but Katie Hims’ fresh, lively radio dramatisation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a sparkling gem all in its own right.
In the series Hardy’s Women tales are told entirely through the eyes of the main female character. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles this is attractive, poor country girl Tess Durbyfield, an innocent, good-hearted 16-year-old who is all too soon cruelly used and let down by two men and by fate itself. From the start, the twists, turns and unavoidable choices in her life, and even the weather, constantly work against her through no fault of her own, setting off trains of events that make it inevitable that true happiness will never be hers and that she’ll meet a sad and sorry end. Indeed, the tale (unlike the book) begins with Tess in her prison cell waiting to be hung. How she ended up there is intriguingly revealed as Tess recalls and reflects upon her whole life, the best and worst together, savouring it like a last meal.
The 1870s were a time when poor folks’ lives, like that of the Durbyfield family, largely revolved around farm and agricultural work but were gradually to become more dominated by machinery and industrial processes, run by the wealthy. It’s also a time when hypocrisy and injustice were very much part and parcel of strict Victorian views on morality, purity and the guilt of “fallen” women, seen always as sinful temptresses. Even Tess’s true love, Angel Clare, sadly, is not exempt, while Tess herself shoulders all blame where no blame lies with her at all.
In three episodes, events, characters and relationships involve and enthrall as we weave our way through this intriguing, moving tale. As Tess, expressive Faye Marsay engages beautifully with the other characters in vividly enacted scenes and also in her role of the story’s earnest narrator. Robert Emms as Tess’s “seducer” Alec D’Urberville is no loud, melodramatic, moustache-twirling villain but reflects more realistically the attitudes and actions of a dominating male of the day who saw “seduction” (violation) as a right.
The works of Dorset-dweller Hardy portray vividly the whole world of Wessex life, telling the stories from the various viewpoints of his very real characters while weaving lively dialogue, often in dialect, into richly worded narrative and picture-perfect descriptions of nature and rural life settings. Nowadays, even students of English, used to a modern world of pruned vocabulary, pruned sentences and short thought processes, can find the longer, more rambling sentences and intricate paragraphs of the likes of Dickens, and even Hardy, too much like hard work. Listening to this intimate, fabulously crafted, wonderfully enacted dramatisation might inspire diffident readers to dive in with easier understanding and fuller enjoyment.
Whether listeners are long-standing Hardy fans or have never met Hardy and Tess at all, the tragic tale told here is at every moment immediate and emotionally gripping.
Eileen Caiger Gray
The three episodes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles are part of the series Hardy’s Women, available on BBC Sounds. Next to be broadcast at 3.00pm on March 8th on Radio 4 will be The Hand of Ethelberta, adapted by Katherine Jakeways. You can listen by following this link.