The Murder That Inspired Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’

In Victorian England a woman was hanged for killing her husband

Gemma Arterton in a BBC presentation. ‘Tess’ has been made into a movie eight times.

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the title character possesses the kind of beauty that draws a certain sort of attention: “A small minority, mainly strangers, would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again: but to almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and nothing more.”

But that attention leads to tragedy for Tess, who, after being abused and mistreated by the man whom she lives with, finally murders him. At the end of the novel, Tess is hanged in the “city of Wintoncester, that fine old city.” The reader is spared the details of this execution, only being told that a black flag slowly moves up the staff after the execution is finished.

It was otherwise for Thomas Hardy, author of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, who when he was 16 years old witnessed the public hanging of a woman charged with murdering her husband. Martha Brown became the last woman to be hanged in Dorset when in 1856, aged 44, she was found guilty of murdering her violent husband after he had beaten her with a whip during an argument.

Original cover of Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Elizabeth Martha Brown was a servant, an ordinary woman who married a younger man, John Brown, a fellow servant. But she had a little saved, for it was said that he married her for her money as well as for her looks. She was quite attractive.

After Martha discovered him in bed with another woman, they quarreled, he beat her, and she retaliated by hitting him in the head with an ax. Afterward, she insisted that his head wound was caused by a horse kicking him.

Martha was found guilty at trial, and the sentence of hanging was mandatory. There was some sympathy for the abuse she’d suffered, but the Home Secretary refused to mitigate the death sentence because she persisted with her horse story.

In fact, in her cell, after being condemned, Martha admitted her guilt. She said in her confession: “I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his supper warm, and with it (the hatchet) I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many.”

1891 illustration by Joseph Syddall for Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

But apparently, this admission came too late for her death sentence to be changed. Several thousand people witnessed her hanging. “She was incredibly brave in the face of death,” according to capitalpunishmentuk.org.

At the time, a newspaper writer said, “On her way to the scaffold her demeanour was extraordinary. The attendants on either side were entirely overcome, whilst she bore her awful position with the greatest resignation and composure.”

Martha Brown is one of 47 people who’ve been buried at Dorchester Prison in Dorset. The jail was closed in 2013, and the property sold for development of houses. In 2017, news broke that bodies were buried there.

The developer nonetheless wanted to build more than 100 houses over the remains of dead prisoners until writer and director Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park intervened. Fellowes wrote to the Bishop of Salisbury urging the church to “do the decent thing” and take care of all the bodies buried at the prison.

In late March 2018, ecclesiastical authorities “ruled the bodies will be interred in a common grave at nearby Poundbury Cemetery, with a suitable service of Christian committal.”

Fellowes, who is the president of the Hardy Society, says he would like Martha Brown’s remains to be identified with DNA obtained from a living descendant, and then buried in the village church where Thomas Hardy’s heart is interred.

The Bishop of Salisbury has given developer City and Country consent to remove bodies buried on consecrated land at HMP Dorchester. But so far Martha Brown’s remains have not been singled out.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Salisbury said any recovered bodies would be given “a proper Christian reinternment” at Poundbury Cemetery.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is a 1913 American silent drama film based upon the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name and was one of the first feature films made.

Witnessing the hanging of Martha Brown had a profound impact on Hardy. Seventy years later, in a letter, it was still with him, and he admitted to feeling shame over his presence in the crowd.

Hardy wrote: “I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black silk set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.”

Hardy was struggling with challenges as a teenager. He was an outstanding student, but his family didn’t have the money for a university education. His formal education ended at sixteen, when he became apprenticed to a local architect.

Nonetheless, he was writing novels by the time he was 25. Tess of the d’Urbervilles was Hardy’s second to last novel, published in 1891. Some consider Tess his masterpiece, but he had a difficult time having it published because Tess was a “fallen woman” depicted with sympathy. There were censorship issues to overcome.

Hardy refused to back down and gave the novel the subtitle “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented” so no one could ever doubt his intent and his feelings.

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘Dreamland’ www.nancybilyeau.com

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