Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) illustrates late-Victorian agricultural history in vivid detail, from the Durbeyfields’ forced migration to Tess’s itinerant work tending fowl, gleaning root crops, and dairying. Hardy summons a pastoral mode during Tess’s employment as a dairymaid in the lush Froom Valley, but its imagery is curiously grotesque. This essay argues that the aesthetic strangeness of Hardy’s pastoral exaggerates idyllic fecundity in order to critique the effects of industrial agriculture on the rural experience of modernity. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, decades of rural depression led to the dramatic restructuring of British agriculture. When they embraced an industrial logic of surplus production to supply growing urban demand, traditionally small-scale or mixed-use farms were more likely to survive the otherwise widespread deterioration of domestic food production. Especially in Hardy’s Dorset, dairying was one of the rare food industries that thrived in spite of economic hardship by shipping fresh milk along the railways to London. But the strangeness of nature at Talbothays Dairy, through Hardy’s figuration of this industry, suggests his preoccupation with consequences of prioritizing economic surplus over ecological renewal. His use of pastoralism contends that, as farms integrate the logic of the factory, a retreat into idyllic fantasy is increasingly untenable. Neither the natural world nor the figuration that draws from it can remain untroubled by the pressure to exceed its carrying capacity.
The Dorset Dairy, the Pastoral, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Jessica Martell, a Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is currently working on her dissertation, “‘In Formlessness and Appetite’: Modernist Forms and the British Foodscape, 1890–1922.” Her coauthored essay “Reading the Forms of History: Plantation Ledgers and Modernist Experimentation in William Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’” is forthcoming in the collection Fifty Years after Faulkner (University of Mississippi Press, 2014).
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Jessica Martell; The Dorset Dairy, the Pastoral, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Nineteenth-Century Literature 1 June 2013; 68 (1): 64–89. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncl.2013.68.1.64
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