An English Teacher as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

Gemma Arterton as Tess

It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel in which I encounter myself as directly as I did in Lily King’s The English Teacher (2005). I’ll be writing on it for the next two or three days and, as I will be including spoilers, I suggest that you skip the blog posts if there’s any chance that you’ll read it. You can always return to my essays later. Middle and high school English teachers will especially love this book.

I identify deeply with Vida Avery Belou, the English teacher of the title, because of the way that she lives her life through literature. She regularly teaches Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), and as English Teacher unfolds, we come to realize that her own life lines up with that of Tess. This explains her ambivalent feelings about the novel. In today’s post, I lay out the ways in which their lives run parallel.

We learn early on that Vida has come to resent teaching Tess but feels wedded to it because her classes on it have become legendary:

She hated teaching Tess, though for years she had been told it was her signature book. The expectations of reading Tess with Mrs. Avery sophomore year was reenacted in skits and referred to in yearbooks. It lived on in countless mentions by reminiscing alumni in the tri-annual bulletin. But for Vida, the book was a torture. She had never cared about that overly naïve, peony-mouthed girl who is buffeted by a series of impossible coincidences from one gloomy town to another and across four hundred and sixteen pages before she gets her just deserts at the scaffold.

That last sentence stopped me in my tracks and not just because I had to check whether King spells “deserts” correctly (she does). Few readers see Tess’s end as in any way deserved.

Vida’s students certainly don’t. In fact, many are drawn to the book because they feel the need to defend Tess against their teacher. The passage continues on:

She did have an appreciation for Hardy’s descriptions and his worries about the effects of the Industrial Age on the land and its people. She used to believe it was her discussions of this “ache of modernism” that made the book meaningful to her students, but she had come to realize that it was her own lack of sympathy for the girl that galvanized them. By the end their attachment to Tess herself was fierce, and their devastation at her demise profound.

Kudos to Vida for figuring out why her students respond as they do. Even with this understanding, however, she continues to attack Tess, especially for getting pregnant. This, of course, was what made the book controversial to Victorian readers. Or rather, those readers were scandalized that Hardy subtitled his novel A Pure Woman after having such a scene occur. The problem is whether the sex is consensual and, even if it is not, why Tess stays with Alex for “some few weeks subsequent.” If you don’t know the book or if you need reminding, here’s the relevant passage:

“Tess!” said d’Urberville.

There was no answer. The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

As Tess’s own people down in those retreats are never tired of saying among each other in their fatalistic way: “It was to be.” There lay the pity of it. An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine’s personality thereafter from that previous self of hers who stepped from her mother’s door to try her fortune at Trantridge poultry-farm. 

On a humorous note, King has the teacher’s son entirely miss that sexual intercourse has occurred:

He hated Tess of the d’Urbervilles. There were so many words and so few of them were interesting. He wished for once they could read something pertinent to the life of a teenager in the twentieth century. He quickly fell behind in the assignments, and on the third day of class with his mother, he learned that Tess had had a baby. He searched for the scene of conception but found nothing. A kid next to him told him it happened with Alec d’Urberville in the woods at the end of chapter eleven. He read the pages, but all he could find was that they were lost in the dark, and Alec made a pile of leaves for her to sit on while he went to look for a landmark. Birds were roosting and rabbits hopping, and Tess was asleep when he returned. Peter waited for someone braver, someone whose mother was not teaching the class, whose crush of four years was not two seats diagonally to the left, to ask exactly what had happened. But no one did.

Other students argue with his mother, however. I quote at length because these are the kinds of classroom discussions I dream of:

“What name does he give the baby?” his mother asked. She looked around for other hands, then called on Helen, who had all the answers. She always did; even back in first grade [Peter] remembered her lone arm in the air.

“Sorrow,” Helen said. And without waiting for his mother to ask why, she continued, “Because he was the result of her rape.”

His mother narrowed her eyes and tipped her head. He knew the gesture well, and so did Helen.

“She was raped. Alec raped her that night in the woods,” Helen insisted.

“A statement like that is insulting to my intelligence.”

From the four corners of the classroom the girls piped up in defense of Helen’s theory. “But she loathed Alec d’Urberville.”

“And she was asleep.”

“She wasn’t even conscious.”

“She never even wanted him to kiss her.”

“But she let him,” his mother said.

“That was only because he was making the horse go so fast and only said he’d stop if he could kiss her. And she wiped it off after.”

“She let him kiss her, regardless of the reason.”

“But Mrs. Belou,” Helen began, and Peter could hear in her voice how determined she was to make her point. She’d underlined practically a whole page and was holding it close to her face, her left fingers marking three different spots. “Listen to what it says here: ‘But, some might say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? where was the Providence of her simple faith?’ and then he says she was ‘doomed,’ that it was a ‘catastrophe,’ that her ancestors had probably ‘dealt the same measure’ toward some peasant girls.”

“And if you look two pages later you will find Tess herself admitting to Alec that she loathes herself for her ‘weakness.’ She says, ‘My eyes were dazed by you for a little, and that was all.’ And then, a few pages further on, the narrator says that she had been “stirred to confused surrender awhile.’” His mother hadn’t even taken her book out of her bag yet. She knew it all by heart.

Helen retaliated. “Then why does he say, ‘But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature, and it therefore does not mend the matter.’ He’s calling what Alec did a sin, the sin of rape.”

“Don’t you have to say no out loud for it to be rape?” Kristina asked. Her boyfriend, Brian Rossi, gave her a nudge and a proud smirk.

“She’s been saying no to Alec d’Urberville from the moment she met him!” Helen slammed the book on her desk.

“But she was just doing that thing that girls do,” the new kid, Kevin, said.

What thing?” several of the girls asked in the same indignant tone.

“You know,” Kevin continued, loving the sudden attention. “Saying no to get you to really want it from them.” Peter stole a glance at his mother, thinking she’d be ready to blow. But instead of getting ready to stop him, instead of even looking at Kevin, she was looking at Peter, as if he were the one who was talking. “I mean, how hard is it to avoid getting raped?” Kevin continued. “All you have to do is keep your clothes on. Any girl who gets raped secretly wanted it. She might think afterwards she didn’t, but at the time she did.”

Vica then does blow, but not for the reasons that Peter and we think she will. Instead she sounds like Camille Paglia and others who blame young women for their own rapes:

“I don’t want to hear another word on this subject,” she said. “Not another word. I am sick to death of you people coming here year after year and whining about what happens to Tess. A senseless nitwit of a girl in the woods at night with a proven lecher is not rape. It’s stupidity.”

Lindsey put up her hand. “But—“

“Goddammit. I don’t want to hear your buts. Get out of here. All of you. Right now.”

This is not recommended pedagogical practice but at least a couple of things go very well. First of all, the students engage in close textual reading, combing through the text to make their arguments. Second, the students have an investment in the discussion. It’s not like the class Vida imagines having on Hemingway with her senior class:

Her seniors came in, the boys with their size 12 feet, the girls in their mothers’ expensive blouses, slapping down their copies of The Sun also Rises on their desks. She was grateful for the shift to Hemingway, to Spain, to characters who would remain characters, silly drunken characters who mattered nothing to her.

Even if she has succeeded in generating a real discussion, however, Vida is not being the adult her students need. In fact, we come to learn that she is in the early stages of a major mental breakdown, prompted by years of repressing memories of her own rape. She herself is Tess.

Her desire to see Tess as responsible for her rape, then, is her need to believe that she herself was not powerless when she was raped, even though she was. She attacks Tess for embodying what she believes was her own weakness.

The breakdown is triggered by her marriage to a good man. The hardness that she has cultivated her entire life, including her hardness against Tess, is threatened by her new feelings of vulnerability. She senses this vulnerability in her new reading of Tess:

Her students rattled her in a way they didn’t used to. And the material, once so easily intellectualized, seemed to writhe under her inspection of it. Even Hardy, whose theories of Darwinism, religion, and social codes were as cold and straightforward as mathematics, was becoming a sensualist, with all those disgusting passages she’d never noticed before about the oozing fatness and rushing juices of summer, the dripping cheeses in the dairy where Tess takes refuge after her baby dies and meets Angel Clare.

There is something almost comforting in Hardy’s determinism, which absolves individuals of responsibility. Such fatalism, it’s worth noting, aids Tess’s family in absorbing life’s shocks, including the death of their horse and Tess’s pregnancy. But Vida appears to have learned a bad lesson from Tess: If her husband learns about her secret—her rape—some part of her fears that he will respond as Angel responds. After all, how could he love someone so unlovable?

Consequently, she begins to push him away the moment they are married. That way she won’t be so hurt when he leaves her.

If psychological projection were Vida’s only response to Tess, then Hardy’s novel wouldn’t be anything more than a mirror. While holding the mirror up to nature is something that literature does very well and we can gain important self-insight in viewing it as such, Tess has something else to impart. We learn about this in another class debate, this one about whether Tess should keep her rape a secret.

At one point, Vida acknowledges that one can grow in powerful ways from tragedy, and it is significant that she tells this to her son, the product of the rape. Again I quote at length from the discussion, which hits Vida at her core:

“I think she was so stupid to have told him. They could have gone to a different part of England and he never would have found out,” Kristina said.

“But it would always be there in her heart, eating away at her,” Helen said.

“I think it was selfish of her. She like ruined this guy’s wedding night.”

“He ruined it. He couldn’t forgive her.”

Vida interrupted the two girls. “You have to understand Angel’s point of view. Tess was a poor, uneducated, unreligious girl. Purity was her only asset, the only way he could justify her to his parents.”

“She wanted to start the marriage honestly, no secrets.”

Vida was sick of Helen’s whining. She looked to the back, careful to avoid Peter in the corner, who actually seemed to be paying attention…Caroline was beside him and hadn’t spoken in several days. She caught the girl’s eye. “What are your thoughts, Peter?” Peter? Had she truly said Peter?

Caroline, whose mouth had opened slightly in preparation, turned in relief to her left.

“I don’t think you can have a real relationship with someone without being truthful.”

“But Tess’s ‘truth’ isn’t true, Peter,” Vida said calmly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He glared at her, defiant.

“The subtitle of this book is A Pure Woman. Tess is no less pure in her encounter with Alex d’Urberville. In fact, it is what she learns from her experience with Alec and losing her baby that makes her so intriguing to Angel. He doesn’t love her for her innocence. He loves her for her depth of feeling and knowledge, which comes from her experiences. ‘Tess’s corporal blight was her mental harvest,’ Hardy writes.”

The rest of the discussion doesn’t go as well but Vida has hit on something. She too has picked up depth of feeling and knowledge from her experience. This depth is what makes her a great teacher and it is what draws her husband to her.

Vida is not home free yet, however. She cannot have a “real relationship” with either her husband or her son until she faces up to her rape. To do that, she must step outside of literature.

But in part because she has read Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Vida, unlike Tess, can see other options for herself. She visits a therapist and acknowledges her fears of losing her son over anger at his father. She begins to acknowledge that women can be victims and informs the school authorities that a predatory theatre teacher has been sleeping with students. (Earlier she had essentially decided that it was their fault and “none of her business.”) She begins writing her husband, whom she has left.

Ultimately, she is able to tell Peter the story of his conception, and she writes to Tom asking her to join her. (Her letters are healthier than the ones Tess writes to Angel.) The secret is out and, rather than costing her the relationships she longs for, acknowledging it saves them. Her reward is a non-Hardy ending:

She pressed her mouth to the warm stubble on the back of Tom’s neck. Desire rose easily. He’d waited, and had come when she asked. And yet she did not feel as Tess had felt when Angel finally came. Unlike Tess, her urge was not to die. This happiness was too much, Tess said. I have had enough. But Vida had not had near enough. Oh God, she thought, nearly unable to reckon with the vastness of the moment. This is it and I am right here. This is what there is.

Think of The English Teacher as Tess’s do-over.

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