Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Dreaming Holmberry-Lipped Tess: Aboriginal Reverie and Spectatorial Desire in Tess of the D'urbervilles

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Dreaming Holmberry-Lipped Tess: Aboriginal Reverie and Spectatorial Desire in Tess of the D'urbervilles

Article excerpt

"Well, if you look at it their way," he grinned, "the whole of bloody Australia's a sacred site."

"Explain," I said.

--The Songlines Bruce Chatwin(1)

You upset me baby Yeah you upset me baby Like being hit by a falling tree Woman what you do to me!

--"Upsetter Blues" B. B. King


A post-gallows autopsy of murderess and tragic heroine Tess Durbeyfield might, if performed, have begun by noting the presence of two extraordinarily well-developed pairs of body parts: lips and legs. Tess's lips--deep red, warm, kissable, defining features of a mouth Alec d'Urberville calls "maddening"--get her into repeated trouble by the simple fact of her being their possessor. "Poor Tess's sensual qualifications for the part of heroine," sniffed Mowbray Morris in an anonymous 1892 review of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, "are paraded over and over again with a persistence like that of a horse-dealer egging on some wavering customer to a deal, or a slave-dealer appraising his wares to some full blooded pasha."(2) Her legs are glimpsed as rarely as her lips are frequently (thanks to late Victorian hemlines), but they transport her over a remarkable quantity and variety of terrain in the course of the novel, much of it in an effort to avoid or ameliorate the heartache generated by her status as the most visually charismatic megafauna ever to roam the hills and dales of Wessex.(3) Surely no "passive" female protagonist has ever walked so many miles, milked so many cows, threshed so much wheat, harvested so many frozen beets, labored so hard--against the curse of spectacular good looks, above all.(4)

Yet the charge of passivity cannot simply be dismissed. Any character sketch of Tess which begins with lips and legs--unwillingly projected sensuality and wide-ranging bipedal mobility--must end by acknowledging a third defining mode: Tess as Dreamer, by night and day. "Tess is asleep, or in reverie," observes Penny Boumelha, "at almost every crucial turn of the plot: at Prince's death, at the time of her seduction by Alec, when the sleepwalking Angel Clare buries his image of her, at his return to find her at the Herons, and when the police take her at Stonehenge."(5) To these might be added: while floating across the Marlott landscape at dusk, while singing herself along the road to Talbothays Dairy, while wading through the garden towards the sounds of Angel's plucked harp, while harvesting frozen turnips and feeding the wheat-thresher at Flintcomb-Ash farm. NO JOB TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL, the sign on her back seems to read, FOR A MOMENT OF DOWN-TIME. "The incarnate state of Tess's soul," remarks Mary Jacobus, "appears to be as close to sleep--to unconsciousness--as is compatible with going about her work."(6) Feminist readers of Tess have generally been quick to mark such dreaminess as invidious, part of an ideological project through which Tess, with her "mobile peony mouth," is constructed as an instance of the natural--all skittering instinct and passive acquiescence and free--floating reverie, in contrast to Alec's focused willfulness and Angel's intellectual stringency. This politically retrograde "natural" Tess is both a sadistically exploited object of male scopic desire and a continually self-liquidating subject, the "charm[ing]" field-woman upon whose pulchritudinous form Hardy and his textual surrogates gaze with unseemly voyeuristic hunger.(7) "[T]hose of the other sex," remarks the narrator of Tess in an oft-cited passage,

   were the most interesting of this company of binders, by reason of the
   charm which is acquired by woman when she becomes part and parcel of
   outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein as at ordinary
   times. A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of
   the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her
   surrounding, and assimilated herself with it.(8)

Yet such reverie-in-nature--the field-woman's losing of "her own margin"--may be a form of spirit-work, a legitimate mode of defense, a variety of religious experience struggling against colonial enclosure or male scopic desire. …

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