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 The Woodlanders, 1913 and Return Of The Native, 1921, not least, it is claimed, because of her 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? Or does she, in some sense, represent all women?
[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 he would use such language carelessly. It seems as if Hardy had a mild obsession with eyes.
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.]