Her mother bore Tess no ill-will for leaving the house-work to her singlehanded efforts for so long; indeed, Joan seldom upbraided her thereon at any time, feeling but slightly the lack of Tess’s assistance whilst her instinctive plan for relieving herself of her labours lay in postponing them. To-night, however, she was even in a blither mood than usual. There was a dreaminess, a preoccupation, an exaltation, in the maternal look which the girl could not understand.
As the narrator introduces Joan Durbeyfield, readers get a sense of a detached woman who does not pay particular attention to her children’s comings and goings. Even though she relies mainly on Tess to help her with the housework, Joan does not care whether the housework gets done in Tess’s absence. On this particular occasion, the news of their family’s relation to an illustrious lineage transports Joan into dreams of new possibilities.
Well, ‘tis a chance for the maid—Still, if ‘twere the doing again, I wouldn’t let her go till I had found out whether the gentleman is really a good-hearted young man and choice over her as his kinswoman.
Joan tells her husband that she has doubts about sending Tess to the d’Urberville estate, and she now wishes she had looked into Alec’s character before letting Tess go. Joan shows clear awareness of the dangers of the world, but she lacks the forethought to take measures to protect Tess. Her failure of maternal oversight leaves Tess vulnerable to Alec’s ability to take advantage of her daughter.
But her mother heard, and Joan’s simple vanity, having been denied the hope of a dashing marriage, fed itself as well as it could upon the sensation of a dashing flirtation.
When Tess returns home from the d’Urberville estate, the other girls are fascinated by her story and speculate that her pretty dress was a gift from Alec. Here, the narrator explains that Joan overhears the girls’ assumption and does not wish to correct them, as she takes pride in the fact that her daughter caught the interest of someone of Alec’s social status. Readers can see Joan’s vanity and shallowness in the fact that she values compliments more than her daughter’s safety.
But with respect to your question, Tess, [I] say between ourselves, quite private but very strong, that on no account do you say a word of your Bygone Trouble to him.
When Tess agrees to marry Angel, she writes home to her mother, asking if she should tell him about her past. Joan strongly discourages her from telling him on the basis that other women have had the same experience, and if they did not tell their husbands then why should Tess? Joan clearly does not have the same moral compass as her daughter, and seems more focused on climbing the social ladder than encouraging her daughter to speak her truth and enter a relationship without secrets.
That haunting episode of bygone days was to her mother but a passing accident.
Tess reflects on the response from her mother telling her to not bring up with Angel her child with Alec. Tess realizes that her mother does not see that time in Tess’s life the same way Tess does. Joan regards Tess’s trauma as a conventional problem that was dealt with, while Tess views her past as a large part of her identity. Joan’s simple-mindedness and lack of empathy make it impossible for her to understand the ordeal Tess experienced.