Will the real Tess d’Urberville please stand up

zAgatha Thorny (Augusta Bugler flanked by her daughters Norrie and Gertrude)_Bigger

I enjoyed the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time this week – a discussion of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. A point made was that Hardy is said to have claimed that Tess’s appearance was based on Lady Agatha Thornycroft (nee Cox) – wife of the famous Victorian sculptor, Sir Hamo Thornycroft. However, there is a rival claimant. Augusta Bugler, a local milkmaid. Supposedly Hardy met her in 1890 – and cast her daughter, Gertrude, in local plays for his theatrical group, The Hardy Players. Gertrude appeared in Hardy’s theatrical version of The Woodlanders, 1913 and Return Of The Native, 1921 – and it is said that the great man did so because of her (Gertrude’s) physical similarity to her mother. Will the real Tess please stand up. I don’t think it matters – I suppose that fictional characters will usually be a blend of people that a writer has met, plus an element of pure invention.

It is usually assumed that Tess’s appearance sets her apart from other women – but is this actually the case?

[Her eyes are] neither black nor blue nor gray nor violet; rather all those shades together, and a hundred others, which could be seen if one looked into their irises—shade behind shade—tint beyond tint—round depths that had no bottom

It is hard to believe that Hardy would use such language carelessly. Does Tess, in some sense, represent all women?

Talking of eyes. It seems as if Hardy had a mild obsession with them.

Number of references to eyes in Hardy’s works*:

  • A Pair of Blue Eyes – 176
  • The Return of the Native – 171
  • The Mayor of Casterbridge – 131
  • Tess of the d’Urbervilles – 190
  • Jude the Obscure – 158
  • Hardy’s poetry – 246

[* Source: Thomas Hardy’s Eye Imagery by George O. Marshall, Jr. Colby Library Quarterly, series 7, no.6, June 1966, p.264-268 – available online – link opens PDF.]


2 thoughts on “Will the real Tess d’Urberville please stand up

Add yours

    1. That is a very good question, I wish I had an equally good answer. Nothing I can see in the research helps provide an exact answer – and 50 years later I don’t think I’d get a reply to an email. My hunch is that it is both men and women (though mostly women). In the research it says that sometimes inanimate objects are described as “eyes” – so probably that gets into the number count, as well. Such as when Jude the Obscure goes into Christminster and the lights of that city:

      “.. winked their yellow eyes at him dubiously, and as if, though they had been awaiting him all these years in disappointment at his tarrying, they did not much want him now.”

      Hardy’s beautiful descriptions – especially of the countryside and farming methods – are wonderful to read – it’s what gets me through some of the gloomiest bits in his books – and there are a few of them!

      I hadn’t thought about a contact page (I made one for the Tumblr blog). I can’t see a widget or easy way to do it on my WordPress theme. I notice that you have one on your blog – useful. I may look into it.


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