Tess of the D'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
Tess of the D'Urbervilles Memory and the Past Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
In those days, and till comparatively recent times, the country was densely wooded. Even now, traces of its earlier condition are to be found in the old oak copses and irregular belts of timber that yet survive on its slopes […] The forests have departed, but some old customs of their shades remain. Many, however, linger only in a metamorphosed or disguised form. The May-Day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or 'club-walking,' as it was there called. (2.4-5)
This passage shows the contrast between old and new that is so important to Hardy in this novel. Old customs might evolve and take on new names, but they still linger in some form. It's also interesting that he associates the old customs, like the May-Day dance, with the old forests of the area (the "old customs" came from the "shades" of the old forest). The forests are ancient, and seem to have an almost supernatural power (they were, after all, associated with the druids), and the origins of old, pseudo-pagan customs like the May-Day dance can be traced back to the days of the druids and the ancient, primeval forest. This description of Tess's club-walking ties the contemporary custom of dancing in the springtime with the older custom of the May-Dance, and traces both of those customs back to the ancient, primitive forest. It almost dissolves the distinction between the modern and the ancient.
The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still. (2.6)
The women's club in Marlott is a holdover from the ancient springtime rituals of the pagans – which is why Hardy references the "Cerealia," or festival to the Roman goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of the earth, agriculture, and all growing things. Yes, our word "cereal" comes from the name of the Roman goddess Ceres. Springtime festivals in honor of the earth goddess were the especial responsibility of women, because those festivals were all about new life and seeds, and nurturing – all things associated with femininity and motherhood. So Tess and her female friends are being associated with this long and ancient lineage of women that is even older than the D'Urberville connection on her father's side of the family. After all, the spring festival and the worship of the earth goddess go back way before 1066, the time of the first Sir Pagan D'Urberville. So again, this passage dissolves the distinction between the contemporary and the time-out-of-mind ancient.
Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style. (2.7)
The group of women participating in the spring club-walking in Marlott reinforces the contrast between old and new, past and present that Hardy suggested in the passage quoted above. Only here, it's the ages of the women's dresses that create the contrast. Some of the dresses are fresh and new, while others are yellowed and "cadaverous" – that particular word choice suggests dead bodies, or cadavers, which seems a rather incongruous description for a costume to be worn for a festival celebrating spring and new life.
Besides the contrasting color of the dresses, the styles create a contrast between past and present: some of them are of a "Georgian" style. The novel, as we know, takes place in the late Victorian period (Queen Victoria reigned between 1837-1901, and the novel was written in 1887-1890). A "Georgian"-style dress would be a dress made during the reign of George IV, who died in 1830. But there were three Georges who reigned before George IV – the first one became king in 1714. So a "Georgian" dress could be really old. After all, the description does suggest that those dresses had "lain by folded for many a year."