Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) illustrates late-Victorian agricultural history in vivid detail, from the Durbeyfields’ forced migration to Tess’s itinerant work tending fowl, gleaning root crops, and dairying. Hardy summons a pastoral mode during Tess’s employment as a dairymaid in the lush Froom Valley, but its imagery is curiously grotesque. This essay argues that the aesthetic strangeness of Hardy’s pastoral exaggerates idyllic fecundity in order to critique the effects of industrial agriculture on the rural experience of modernity. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, decades of rural depression led to the dramatic restructuring of British agriculture. When they embraced an industrial logic of surplus production to supply growing urban demand, traditionally small-scale or mixed-use farms were more likely to survive the otherwise widespread deterioration of domestic food production. Especially in Hardy’s Dorset, dairying was one of the rare food industries that thrived in spite of economic hardship by shipping fresh milk along the railways to London. But the strangeness of nature at Talbothays Dairy, through Hardy’s figuration of this industry, suggests his preoccupation with consequences of prioritizing economic surplus over ecological renewal. His use of pastoralism contends that, as farms integrate the logic of the factory, a retreat into idyllic fantasy is increasingly untenable. Neither the natural world nor the figuration that draws from it can remain untroubled by the pressure to exceed its carrying capacity.
- © 2013 by The Regents of the University of California