Camellias, pheasants and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

This was going to be a post about Salvation City, the second Sigrid Nunez novel I’ve read recently (I posted on The Friend in September, HERE). I find that my Covid-era lethargy persists, however, and its setting in a near-future flu pandemic also puts me off for now. I’ll return to it another time.

As I returned from my daily walk yesterday I was passing the house and garden at the bottom of my road. There’s a large camellia that forms part of the garden border, hanging over the footpath next to it. This camellia produces beautiful pink flowers every December, and this year is no exception.

As I paused to admire them, one of them dropped off and fell with a soft thud onto the damp pavement at my feet. It looked perfectly healthy: it hadn’t blown or turned brown. I suppose it just gave up on blooming.

What happened next quite disturbed me. I recalled vividly the troublesome scene with the dying pheasants in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

It takes place when Tess has fled from the sinister, unwanted sexual attentions of Alec, found love with Angel, and then disaster strikes again when, soon after marrying him, he learns about her…dalliance with Alec. In a fit of moral outrage he rejects her and takes off to sulk in Brazil, leaving her penniless and vulnerable to the renewed sexual predation of Alec.

As she wanders the country, trying to figure out how to subsist, she turns aside to spend the night in a tree plantation. She sleeps fitfully in her ‘nest’ of leaves, under the branches, and is often disturbed by ‘strange noises’. She feels ‘wretched’ and that she’s wasted her life: ‘All was, alas, worse than vanity–injustice, punishment, exaction, death.’ She wishes she were dead. (It’s not the most cheerful of novels…) Here’s what follows  – extract from Phase the Fifth: The Woman Pays, ch. 41 (available at The Literature Page website – this is described there as the 1891 text):

In the midst of these whimsical fancies she heard a new strange sound among the leaves. It might be the wind; yet there was scarcely any wind. Sometimes it was a palpitation, sometimes a flutter; sometimes it was a sort of gasp or gurgle. Soon she was certain that the noises came from wild creatures of some kind, the more so when, originating in the boughs overhead, they were followed by the fall of a heavy body upon the ground. Had she been ensconced here under other and more pleasant conditions she would have become alarmed; but, outside humanity, she had at present no fear.

Day at length broke in the sky. When it had been day aloft for some little while it became day in the wood.

Directly the assuring and prosaic light of the world’s active hours had grown strong she crept from under her hillock of leaves, and looked around boldly. Then she perceived what had been going on to disturb her. The plantation wherein she had taken shelter ran down at this spot into a peak, which ended it hitherward, outside the hedge being arable ground. Under the trees several pheasants lay about, their rich plumage dabbled with blood; some were dead, some feebly twitching a wing, some staring up at the sky, some pulsating quickly, some contorted, some stretched out–all of them writhing in agony, except the fortunate ones whose tortures had ended during the night by the inability of nature to bear more.

Tess guessed at once the meaning of this. The birds had been driven down into this corner the day before by some shooting-party; and while those that had dropped dead under the shot, or had died before nightfall, had been searched for and carried off, many badly wounded birds had escaped and hidden themselves away, or risen among the thick boughs, where they had maintained their position till they grew weaker with loss of blood in the night-time, when they had fallen one by one as she had heard them.

Tess in the plantation

Tess in the plantation

Her response to this gruesome experience is interesting. She pities the maimed and dying birds that survived being shot, and ‘tenderly’ wrings their necks to end their suffering, tears running down her cheeks. The plight of these unfortunate pheasants causes her to snap out of her self-pity: their misery was far more severe than her own:

‘”I be not mangled, and I be not bleeding, and I have two hands to feed and clothe me.”‘ She was ashamed of herself for her gloom of the night, based on nothing more tangible than a sense of condemnation under an arbitrary law of society which had no foundation in Nature.

You can see, I hope, why the fall of the camellia and the flashing into my mind of this melodramatic scene in a novel not noted for its emotional restraint caused me such disturbance.

The camellia tree

I stopped to take these pictures of the lovely blooms that still flourish on the tree: maybe I should emulate Tess and refrain from gloomy thoughts.

Although Christmas for most of us this year will be different from what we might have hoped, Tess’s response reminds us that nature always has the capacity to restore and renew.

[Illustration of Tess in the plantation is by Joseph Syddall – plate 22 from the monthly serialisation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Originally published in monthly parts (with censored text) in the London Graphic magazine, 1891, in three volumes in book form the same year, and in one volume in 1892. Image from The Victorian Web site HERE]Camellia flower

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14 thoughts on “Camellias, pheasants and Tess of the D’Urbervilles

  1. Isn’t it strange, the connections our minds make, from the reading we do? Something like this burrows up from long ago, and has an impact that could never have been imagined.

  2. I do hope 2021 is better for you. Like Lisa said it is interesting how the mind can tie events to previous text we have read. Perhaps the camelia simply wanted to share its beauty with you to give you hope. (That’s from reading all those happily ever after childhood books in the past). All the best.

  3. ‘Ah Tess, I have carried three Leahs for one Rachel.’

    Perhaps my favorite of all books. Thanks for your blog and I hope it will always continue. A different book which I’ve just discovered:
    The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the year 1764-1765 by Magdalen King-Hall. Perhaps you know it?

  4. Well, here’s another funny one – a few hours ago, as I ran along the canal, thump, and a dead pigeon fell out of a tree just behind me. Claire: Urgh, don’t look. Me: There might be a hawk! There wasn’t. Anyway, there you go.

    I don’t blame you keeping away from a pandemic book. I was a bit upset reading the novel Love in Lockdown, which was Too Soon. Back to other topics now.

    Hope you’ve had a bearable Christmas and been able to see your loved ones in some format, analogue or digital!

    • Your dead pigeon is even more disturbing than my camellia! If it had been a fallen sparrow that might have seemed a bit more…biblical. I do intend posting on the Nunez novel some time soon. Probably. Thanks for the kind thought, Liz: yes, we did keep up with family and friends via video links over Christmas. Thank goodness we have that technology now – a phone call alone just isn’t the same. I hope you had the same capacity for keeping in touch with your loved ones. Happy new year – it should be a little better than this one, surely…

  5. Lovely post Simon — perhaps that fallen camelia, like the Japanese cherry blossom, is to remind us that life is beautiful but brief. Certainly a bit more elegant than all those dying pheasants that poor Tess stumbled upon. Speaking of Hardy, he’s always been a difficult read for me; I managed two novels & actually liked both (Tess & Madding Crowd) but the others have remained stubbornly resistant to my attempts (I’ve tried Jude at least twice).
    I do hope you’re up to the Nunez review; she’s an author I’ve sort of followed for years through reviews but haven’t actually read anything she’s written (I’m afraid this is fairly frequently the case with me!). I just read and enjoyed your review of The Friend, a novel I had avoided because I was afraid something bad would happen to the dog! (I had to laugh at that part of the review).
    I do hope you manage to shed your covid induced lethargy. I’m working on that myself, these days.

    • Janakay: thanks- I’m glad you liked the post. I can see why you might struggle with Jude – maybe try the short stories. The next Nunez post is coming; now Britain is back in lockdown there should be time. But the reasons for lockdown are alarming and not conducive to reading or writing, I find. Not so much lethargy as anxiety.

      • Simon: it really is hard to concentrate, isn’t it? I’m afraid my own method the last few months has been a wholesale retreat into comfort reads. The news regarding the new strain is only beginning to trickle down in my own part of the U.S., where restrictions are mostly voluntary and many seem to have decided the worst of the pandemic is over. Right now I have my fingers crossed about the vaccine, although the distribution efforts are clearly running into major problems.
        Thanks for the tip about Hardy’s short stories. I think of him almost exclusively as a novelist and had forgotten I actually have a Melville House novella somewhere about.
        I look forward to your Nunez post — no pressure, of course!

        • Cases are rising here in the UK alarmingly quickly- but the vaccination process has finally started, so we hope the virus will be checked some time this year. Hardy is always interesting to read, but the quality varies a lot. You may have seen that I posted briefly on Nunez earlier today!

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