Ilustration of Tess on hilly pink terrain with trees and clouds in the background

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy as the percursor to late 20th century Romance novels: What do you thinK?

Thomas Hardy, specifically in Tess of the d'Ubervilles, is the precursor to late 20th century Romance novel writers: What say you?

The major characteristics of this Romance sub-genre are all present in Tess:

  • An elevated heroine with fallen or conflicted circumstances.
  • The heroine flees the past for life begun anew.
  • Keen sensibilities and moral awareness characterize the heroine; hence her conflicted state.
  • A handsome and admirable hero
  • The hero is equally in reduced circumstances that are redeemed by the heroine, however reluctantly as a result of amassed conflict.
  • A dramatic antihero who opposes the beloved hero.
  • The heroine's emotions and emotional response described in repeated detail.
  • Hope blossoming yet being forever smothered by reality produced by past failings and present conflicts.

I am here describing Tess of the d'Ubervilles yet enunciating in paraphrase Romance genre writing guidelines (of the mild divisions, not the heated, graphic divisions, which have different guidelines altogether!).


What do you think? Hardy the precursor to the Romance novel writer? [Of course I do not speak of the Romance genre of Stevenson, Kipling, Doyle, Haggard, etc., whose writing was concurrent with Hardy's career and whose stories contemporary readers think of as adventures: e.g., Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Light That Failed.]

Interesting? Yes? No?

Expert Answers

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Would you say that Hardy was writing in response to other Romantic novels of the era that immediately preceded his work?

Maybe we can argue that Hardy is part of an extended history of Romantic novel writing that includes Hawthorne and which runs counter-point to writers like Conrad working at the same time.

The 20th century writers that come to mind as Romantic writers (under the criteria you've listed) are Robert Penn Warren and James Baldwin, two writers whose work was often explicitly and heavily symbolic and concerned with social issues expressed as part(s) of a "love story". 


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I don't know much about modern romance novels, I will admit.  I read Tess of the d'Ubervilles in high school.  I didn't like it, and it kind of surprised me because I loved Victorian novels.  I preferred Dickens and Austen.

From what I know of romance novels, I think that paragraphs like this are definite precursors.

As everybody knows, fine feathers make fine birds; a peasant girl but very moderately prepossessing to the casual observer in her simple condition and attire will bloom as an amazing beauty if clothed as a woman of fashion with the aids that Art can render… (ch 34, p. 146)


To me, a romance novel is all about description.  That’s the point, right?  In the time the book was written, the descriptions had to have layers of meaning because it would not have been considered proper to be too bold about it.

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