It'd been a while since I read a truly magnificent book. My last "#1 in drama" held its position firmly for about 10 years (Het oog van de engel by Nelleke Noordervliet - in Dutch, that is), despite the fact that quite a few books have passed (most notably the books by Yoko Ogawa, unfortunately only translated in French). Douglas Adams' books, Catch 22 and Stephen Fry's The Liar were supreme, but in an entirely different category. But now there's Tess, which, as far a drama goes, is a non sequitur.
Of course there's the top layer of romantic/pastoral drama, but that's just the surface. The real bliss here lies in the fact that is doesn't classify as a classic story in the romantic tradition at all, a fact which expresses itself in the way the story is told. The switching between romantic musings suddenly shattered by harsh commentaries or switched to an almost documentary description of the surroundings keeps you alert to the story, which might be drawn out, but that's the point - you've got to live with Tess. That's the only way to get into her character, because Hardy simply never takes a stand, and that's one of the secrets of the book. Ok, difficult now to imagine people acting so stupid because of moral conventions, but that's the only hurdle to take (however - look around you). Despite the fact that there's this really romantic "back to nature" message in it all (which strangly does not convey itself in the depiction of the life of Tess, but rather, in de description of the Dorset countryside), there's simply no denying that Hardy's way of writing has one foot firmly in de industrial era, delivering a comment on it - attacking it with its own weapons, mixing his anger with his (o so clear between the lines) love for the main character, with her with qualities and her flaws. Don't miss out on this one.
Stupid that it's been waiting for me for more than a century. Hands down 5 stars.