A new BBC Radio 4 series of adaptations, Hardy’s Women (28 February, 3pm), seeks to take “a fresh look at some of the novels of Thomas Hardy through the eyes of his female protagonists”, which seems an odd ambition in reappraising his work. Can Hardy’s novels really be considered lacking in the female perspective – particularly the novel that comes first in this series, Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Though Hardy’s foreboding, God-like narration often seems aware of things that Tess is not, much of the novel’s lasting power lies in its depictions of Tess’s anger, despair, self-loathing and resignation.
In this three-part adaptation, Tess (Faye Marsay) relates her own story in a series of first-person monologues that bookend and regularly interrupt the drama. Each episode begins and ends with an imprisoned Tess ominously wondering how she ended up in a small, dark cell awaiting her own death. She muses on her fate, casting back to narrate the events of her life, searching for the moments that set her on her tragic course.
Katie Him’s script streamlines the story, and makes the language accessible, without fully modernising it. The adaptation has a compelling lightness and immediacy: qualities essential for a good radio abridgement of a hefty Victorian novel, especially in the Sunday afternoon slot. But Tess’s impassioned addresses can serve to dial up the theatrics of what is already a fairly melodramatic novel. (The similarities in accents and sound design also make them at times unfortunately reminiscent of The Archers’ controversial 2020 Ambridge monologues.)
The radio drama works best when translating the book’s liveliest scenes: the May dance that opens the novel; the sequences featuring a gaggle of milkmaids lusting after Angel Clare with a feverish intensity, pushing each other out of the way to stare at him through a window, or kissing his shadow; the flooding of a path that Angel carries Tess across.
Later instalments in the series will turn to slightly less familiar works from Hardy’s canon including The Woodlanders, The Hand of Ethelberta and Two on a Tower. In these novels, a perspective shift might offer more valuable insights.
Hardy’s Women: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks