I am looking at Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels (2013, Frances Lincoln Limited) by J. B. Bullen, an English Professor at Royal Holloway University of London. Looking at much more than reading, since the book features many images, mostly Bullen’s own photos showing the correspondences between Hardy’s fantasy world and what for the sake of argument I will call the real world. For example, here is the real Cross-in-Hand pillar, “desolate and silent,” “the site of a miracle, or murder, or both” (Ch. 44), from a public photo, not Bullen’s. An essential book for planning your walking tour of Wessex. Don’t lose your boots.
Much of Tess of the d’Urbervilles chapter is spent on a different kind of image, as Bullen works through references to a number of J. M. W. Turner paintings; some are speculation, some are sure things. It is all tied into the sun theme. I knew it. I noticed the sun motif too late.
Tess is full of paintings. In a comment, Trednyas Days points to a good example:
Walking among the sleeping birds in the hedges, watching the skipping rabbits on a moonlit warren, or standing under a pheasant-laden bough, she looked upon herself as a figure of Guilt intruding into the haunts of Innocence. (Ch. 13)
Those are some calm pheasants. Hardy could be inventing the entire scene, but its explicitly allegorical nature makes me suspect he has a painting in mind. Perhaps something he saw in Belgium.
I noticed the narrator twice referring to Belgian painters, a surprising theme. In Chapter 16, he describes the Valley of the Dairies as “speckled as thickly with them [cows] as a canvas by Van Alsloot or Sallaert with burghers,” and in Chapter 39, in one of the oddest lines in the novel, the disillusionment of Angel Clare is described in terms of painting:
“Ghastly” is an interesting word to trace through Tess, but I’ll stick with the paintings. Antoine Wiertz, judging by his most famous painting, was the greatest painter of the 19th century, but do not be too hasty – he was more typically terrible. I have pulled a detail from the mammoth The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus which may be the kind of thing on Hardy’s mind. The harmless Jan van Beers (“a minor Belgian painter,” the Norton editor deadpans in a footnote) is more of a puzzle. Maybe this is a leer?
Angel Clare’s understanding of Italian art is pretty narrow, I’ll say that.
What puzzles me most about the explicit use (Turner is never named) of the Flemish and Belgian painters is what readers of Tess made of them. Were Van Alsloot and Van Beers commonly understood references? Did readers think “Oh, like Wiertz, what a shocking view of life”? I know that today’s readers, the ones who love Tess, have looked up these artists and can answer my questions about them. But how about the late Victorian readers? I need another book.