The Making Of Tess
Annie Mullee began writing Tess, a new musical with an old story during the heart of the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic. The dark indie-folk music she listened to brought up imagery of bleary-eyed, flushed women walking through a field in Victorian dresses. When she contemplated which story would best accompany her own music style, Mullee immediately thought of the book she read her sophomore year of high school, the one she stayed up until one in the morning reading past the assigned pages: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Though this project was inspired by a love of music and storytelling, Mullee quickly found avenues to meaningfully adapt the source material into something totally reimagined: A story about an assault survivor by an assault survivor. Using her experiences and perspective to interpret this classic novel, Mullee gives Tess Durbeyfield the voice Hardy never could and the friendships the characters deserve. Though the story’s lack of justice disappoints, this adaptation’s central question leaves audience members with a purpose and hope: rape has been ruining lives for centuries; what will we do about it?
Historical Context for Tess
by Micaela Mullee
Tess, and its source novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, are set in the Southwest of England in the 1830s, a transitional period for English history and its monarchy. Queen Victoria has been on the throne for less than a decade and is the head of a firmly conservative government. The Corn Laws have enforced taxes on all imported staple grains since 1815, meaning those outside the aristocracy and wealthy elite put most of their income toward food rather than any indulgences. Even the growing middle class feels they are underrepresented by gerrymandered Parliamentary districts, and support is growing for the hotly-contested Reform Bills. The Industrial Revolution is well underway, and though Southwest England remains relatively rural and agricultural, the anxieties of a changing world are a key concern to anybody with access to a newspaper.
And that is more people than ever before: after hundreds of years where an English person could expect to die within 10 miles of their birthplace, more people can read and travel. In an empire at the height of its power, the English people are aware of the social unrest resulting from the Corn Laws, resistance to industrialization, and the lingering tensions after twenty years of war with the (smaller) republican French. There is a larger world- they both fear it and want to join it.
The tension between modernization and conservatism are shown in England's laws, many of which still trace back to the Elizabethan codes, implemented mainly by a select number of magistrates, civil officers with limited legal powers. While a magistracy is not an inherited role, it tends to pass within local wealthy families and does not require any legal training or education. Some crimes, including rape, cannot be judged by a magistrate, but professional judges are limited. A judge may not pass through a town or region more than once every few months.
Prosecution of a sexual assault remains a herculean effort to this day, but the society Tess inhabited was harsher. While many working class women went to the altar with a several-month belly, this was largely in situations where a woman could marry the father of her child or another man of her class. A child born in wedlock, no matter how soon after the wedding, had far more rights than an illegitimate child.
Aristocratic and even rich men could act with relative impunity towards women below their class. Not only was the magistrate likely someone the man knew, but that woman’s family would not have the social power to force the man to the altar, which was considered the ideal outcome for a woman whose reputation is called into question. When Tess is assaulted, she cannot call upon her social network even if she wants to. Not only is she miles away from home, but her standing within her community is unfavorable as the daughter of impoverished parents who are held responsible for their own poverty, despite their long residence in the region.
The world of Tess is a clear predecessor to ours, with different contexts but many of the same concerns. People needed to eat, feel secure, and perhaps love and be loved. Many forces preventing those things are ones modern audiences can recognize.
Further Reading & Resources
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D’Urbervilles. 1891
Miller, Madeline. Circe. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2018.
Rape and Justice in Victorian England, Caroline Conley, Victorian Studies Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer, 1986), pp. 519-536 (18 pages) https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828543
May Day Celebrations, Historic UK https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/May-Day-Celebrations/
The world of women, Writers In Context
BBC 4: In Our Time Podcast - The Corn Laws
History Extra, Corn Laws 1815-1846 https://www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/corn-laws-guide-what-impact-why-repealed-benefit/
National Archives, Reform Bill of 1832