March 21, 2016

Diggers discover Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess’, Martha Brown


Read by almost every high school student, as well as being made into at least one movie, it seems to me that most people would be familiar with this novel.

On a drizzly day in 1856, Martha Brown swung from a prison scaffold — the last woman to be hanged in Dorset. Years later, one of the crowd near the gallows would recall “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back”.

For Brown, convicted of killing her husband after he attacked her with a whip, it was the end. But 40 years later that 16-year-old onlooker who admired her figure would give her new life as the tragic heroine in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Now archeologists believe they may have found Brown’s body.

Hardy was deeply affected by Brown’s death. Even 70 years later, he wrote of his shame at the behaviour of his younger self in being among the crowd that turned out to watch her die. However, he found redemption of sorts by writing Tess. In the novel, she murders her violent partner so she can be with the man she loves but is caught and executed.

Now, beneath the grounds of the old prison in Dorchester that housed Brown in her last days, archeologists say they may have found her body.

The prison closed in 2013 and was sold to developers, who are building 190 homes on its site. As part of the project, archeologists were brought in to search for anything of historical significance. While digging a trench they came across human remains, at a place that coincides with the burial place for executed prisoners.

Since records show just eight prisoners ended up in the plot, only one of them a woman, Brown should be easy to identify. The developers say they would like her to be left undisturbed, but some historians and Hardy enthusiasts want a proper burial.

In his novel, Hardy spared Tess the indignity of a public hanging: the spectacle is seen only at second hand, from afar.

“A few minutes after the hour had struck, something moved slowly up the staff and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag,” Hardy wrote. “ ‘Justice’ was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.”

With many thanks to The Australian
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