The Merest Stray Phenomenon

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


Tess was the merest stray phenomenon to Angel Clare as yet — a rosy, warming apparition which had only just acquired the attribute of persistence in his consciousness. So he allowed his mind to be occupied with her, deeming his preoccupation to be no more than a philosopher’s regard of an exceedingly novel, fresh, and interesting specimen of womankind.

They met continually; they could not help it. They met daily in that strange and solemn interval, the twilight of the morning, in the violet or pink dawn; for it was necessary to rise early, so very early, here. Milking was done betimes; and before the milking came the skimming, which began at a little past three. It usually fell to the lot of some one or other of them to wake the rest, the first being aroused by an alarm-clock; and, as Tess was the latest arrival, and they soon discovered that she could be depended upon not to sleep though the alarm as others did, this task was thrust most frequently upon her. No sooner had the hour of three struck and whizzed, than she left her room and ran to the dairyman’s door; then up the ladder to Angel’s, calling him in a loud whisper; then woke her fellow-milkmaids. By the time that Tess was dressed Clare was downstairs and out in the humid air. The remaining maids and the dairyman usually gave themselves another turn on the pillow, and did not appear till a quarter of an hour later.

The gray half-tones of daybreak are not the gray half-tones of the day’s close, though the degree of their shade may be the same. In the twilight of the morning, light seems active, darkness passive; in the twilight of evening it is the darkness which is active and crescent, and the light which is the drowsy reverse.

Being so often — possibly not always by chance — the first two persons to get up at the dairy-house, they seemed to themselves the first persons up of all the world. In these early days of her residence here Tess did not skim, but went out of doors at once after rising, where he was generally awaiting her. The spectral, half-compounded, aqueous light which pervaded the open mead impressed them with a feeling of isolation, as if they were Adam and Eve. At this dim inceptive stage of the day Tess seemed to Clare to exhibit a dignified largeness both of disposition and physique, an almost regnant power, possibly because he knew that at that preternatural time hardly any woman so well endowed in person as she was likely to be walking in the open air within the boundaries of his horizon; very few in all England. Fair women are usually asleep at mid-summer dawns. She was close at hand, and the rest were nowhere.

The mixed, singular, luminous gloom in which they walked along together to the spot where the cows lay often made him think of the Resurrection hour. He little thought that the Magdalen might be at his side. Whilst all the landscape was in neutral shade his companion’s face, which was the focus of his eyes, rising above the mist stratum, seemed to have a sort of phosphorescence upon it. She looked ghostly, as if she were merely a soul at large. In reality her face, without appearing to do so, had caught the cold gleam of day from the north-east; his own face, though he did not think of it, wore the same aspect to her.

It was then, as has been said, that she impressed him most deeply. She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman — a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them.

“Call me Tess,” she would say askance; and he did.

Then it would grow lighter, and her features would become simply feminine; they had changed from those of a divinity who could confer bliss to those of a being who craved it.

At these non-human hours they could get quite close to the waterfowl. Herons came, with a great bold noise as of opening doors and shutters, out of the boughs of a plantation which they frequented at the side of the mead; or, if already on the spot, hardily maintained their standing in the water as the pair walked by, watching them by moving their heads round in a slow, horizontal, passionless wheel, like the turn of puppets by clockwork.

They could then see the faint summer fogs in layers, woolly, level, and apparently no thicker than counterpanes, spread about the meadows in detached remnants of small extent. On the gray moisture of the grass were marks where the cows had lain through the night — dark-green islands of dry herbage the size of their carcasses, in the general sea of dew. From each island proceeded a serpentine trail, by which the cow had rambled away to feed after getting up, at the end of which trail they found her; the snoring puff from her nostrils, when she recognized them, making an intenser little fog of her own amid the prevailing one. Then they drove the animals back to the barton, or sat down to milk them on the spot, as the case might require.

Or perhaps the summer fog was more general, and the meadows lay like a white sea, out of which the scattered trees rose like dangerous rocks. Birds would soar through it into the upper radiance, and hang on the wing sunning themselves, or alight on the wet rails subdividing the mead, which now shone like glass rods. Minute diamonds of moisture from the mist hung, too, upon Tess’s eyelashes, and drops upon her hair, like seed pearls. When the day grew quite strong and commonplace these dried off her; moreover, Tess then lost her strange and ethereal beauty; her teeth, lips, and eyes scintillated in the sunbeams and she was again the dazzlingly fair dairymaid only, who had to hold her own against the other women of the world.

— Thomas Hardy

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Sex and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Merest Stray Phenomenon

  1. jjbees says:


    Liked by 1 person

  2. gwbled says:

    Indeed, T Hardy could definitely paint a picture with words:

    “Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?”
    “All like ours?”
    “I don’t know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound – a few blighted.”
    “Which do we live on – a splendid one or a blighted one?”
    “A blighted one.”
    ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles


  3. Faze says:

    Nice to see this on a blog where literary fiction as a genre isn’t usually held in high esteem.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      It’s interesting to think about what constitutes literary fiction. I suppose Hardy is part of that tradition in a broad sense. But the term “literary fiction,” at least as I tend to use it, applies to more modern works that are consciously set against traditional story-telling values. “Tess,” being indebted to Dickens, Eliot, and Flaubert, is too melodramatic and concerned with narrative for me to think of it as litfic in the strict sense. A lot of litfic seems to be competing with (or posed against) movies and television. Hardy often seems to me to be competing with painters. Whom do you take to be the first litfic writer?


      • JV says:

        “Whom do you take to be the first litfic writer?”

        Laurence Sterne? Cervantes? Ha. Could be a case for those. More probably someone like Joyce or Sherwood Anderson or Proust. It’s an interesting question, because I agree with you on writers like Hardy. He writes like a dream, but his books are also quite plot driven, as were the books of most writers of literary merit until the 1900s. And also, there’s a certain sensibility among proper “litfic” books. Full disclosure, I most read what you’d describe as litfic books. I’ve tried other genres and for whatever reasons, can’t get into them. I find the writing to be almost universally clunky and cliched, but hey, that’s most likely just my shortcoming. And of course, I say that only to deflect criticism of my point of view because I actually believe most of the stuff to be clunky and cliched, ha. Because it wasn’t always the case with plot-driven fiction. Thomas Hardy, case in point. Concern with poetic prose and plot seem to have diverged right around the time modernist fiction emerged, when all the writers with either the capacity and/or interest in poetic prose jumped on the modernist bandwagon? Maybe? I don’t know. I’ve run out of steam here, ha.


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