Tess of the Whole Milkmaids

This week marks the beginning of a 19th-century literature class I’ll be teaching at a local senior living development (center? resort?), and one of the books we’ll be discussing is Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.


If you’ve never read any Hardy, there are two main things to know about him:

  1. His tragedies are Tragedies, with a capital T. They’re not just a little sad; they’re over the top sad/awful. And,

  2. Writing toward the end of the 19th century, he recorded the decline of pastoral, rural England at the hands of the Industrial Revolution and the railroads.

Anyhow, in Tess, the eponymous heroine travels a ways from her hometown to get away from her shady past. She ends up working at a dairy called Talbothays, which Hardy describes in Edenic terms. It’s summer. It’s green. It’s lush. She falls in love with a fellow named Angel.

And in this little Eden they milk cows and skim cream and make cheese for the folks in London, having this conversation when they drop the goods at the train station:

Tess: Londoners will drink it at their breakfasts tomorrow, won’t they? Strange people that we have never seen.

Angel: Yes, I suppose they will. Though not as we send it. When its strength has been lowered, so that it may not get up into their heads.

Tess: Noble men and noble women, ambassadors and centurions, ladies and tradeswomen, and babies who have never seen a cow.

Angel: Well, yes; perhaps; particularly centurions.

Angel is laughing at Tess’s inclusion of “centurions,” but there are two jabs at us urban folk here: we can’t handle full-strength dairy products and need them watered down, and most of us have never seen a cow up close and personal.

Tess at Talbothays, from the 1891 edition

Tess at Talbothays, from the 1891 edition

Clearly, urban nervousness around full-fat, unpasteurized dairy has a long history. It’s as if Hardy anticipated the lowfat, nonfat era which, thankfully, is passing. Not only does full-fat dairy taste a lot better, as Tess and her fellow dairy workers knew, but one of the fatty acids present in full-fat dairy might help prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke. Those late 19th century Londoners might have appreciated some pasteurization, however, considering this other scene from the book, where the dairy owner lights into one of his workers:

For Heaven's sake, pop thy hands under the pump, Deb! Upon my soul, if the London folk only knowed of thee and thy slovenly ways, they'd swaller their milk and butter more mincing than they do a'ready; and that's saying a good deal.

Or maybe not, now that the cleanliness of our surroundings has given us wimpier immune systems. Certainly 19th-century Londoners never imagined there could ever come a time when people were not exposed to enough dirt!

Cheesemaking and -mongering is no easy way to make a living nowadays, competing against vast, industrialized outfits (ever visited the Tillamook factory?). And the numbers and varieties of dairy providers at the Bellevue Farmers Market have changed over the years, but re-reading Tess made me think those small outfits should bolster revenues with weekend dairyman/maid retreats in the summers. Up at 3 a.m., milking, skimming, poring over the fields for stray wild garlic, afternoon naps, hearty meals, and then home again with some fresh whole milk. Sign me up! Or—at least—sign up my kids!

We’ll never know how much full-fat dairy products would have benefited Tess in the long run because—spoiler—it’s a Hardy novel, and Tess doesn’t have a long run, but clearly diet and an active lifestyle kept her healthy and strong enough for cross-country escapes and some parkour at Stonehenge. I’ll say no more.

Do read the book. It’s wonderful.