Thomas Hardy's dramatic and controversial novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles is considered by literary scholars to be his life's masterwork.
Set within Hardy's fictional county of Wessex in the 1870s, the narrative tells the life's story of Tess Durbeyfield. Her loss of innocence as she begins associating with Alec, a man devoid of moral conscience. Finding herself pregnant after it is implied Alec rapes her, Tess is forced to quickly mature and confront life's troubles. The standards by which Tess are held for losing her virginity prior to marriage is Hardy's example of a double standard: despite her tragedies, the author believed his protagonist to be a truly good person.
Over the lengthy novel's seven parts, named 'phases', we witness the different lines of work and people Tess meets. The novel is vivid in describing country life, and the various class distinctions which were definitive of Victorian culture. At times emotional and heated, and at others aesthetic and sensuous, the novel's varied tone is one of its most lauded traits.
Richly interpreted for its allusions between mankind and the natural world, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is praised for striking a balance between social commentary, human tragedy, and the beauty of nature. We find Tess at her strongest when peacefully tending to the animals of the country, and at her weakest when up against the stifling, judgemental conventions and persons of her era.
Anna Bentinck ratchets up the melodrama for this full-blooded reading of Hardy's classic a staple of high-school English classes everywhere. Students desperate to penetrate Hardy's notoriously slow masterpiece should turn to Bentinck, who gives it an intense emotional coloring. She makes Hardy sound like a brother to the Bront sisters: passionate and brooding. Bentinck alternates between a crisp, precise narrative voice that sounds like Helen Mirren, and Tess's own voice, quavering, shallow and meek. Bentinck retains her composure throughout, and her assured performance may be a welcome rescue for struggling 11th graders across the country.