Alec is the convert. He has found Christianity and turned his back on his former life. However, his faith unravels when he meets Tess again. (It is interesting to remember that Angel’s father oversaw Alec’s conversion.)
Tess is emotionally exhausted by this point. Angel has not contacted her, and she is living in abject poverty at Flintcombe Ash. The straw which breaks the camel’s back is the death of her father, and her family’s eviction from their house. Tess, in desperation, gives in to Alec, partly to save her family, and partly because her spirit is completely broken by events since Angel’s rejection.
It is easy to suggest this. She always puts her family’s needs before her own. However, this was not an unusual attitude amongst the poor during this period. Tess could not act entirely independently as she knew that to do so would condemn her brothers and sisters to poverty. It may resemble self-sacrifice, but it is probably more accurate to say she feels compelled to look after those who cannot look after themselves – no matter the cost.
Tess is rarely in control of her destiny (in fact, we only see her take control in the final phase). She is a young, working class girl – immediately, she has fewer rights than most. She must work, not only for herself but also for her family. It is pure fantasy to suggest that she could have not worked because to do so would have been a death sentence. At this time, the only economically independent women were those who had inherited a fortune. Very few women had this luxury. Socially, Tess was expected to conform to a certain kind of behavior: docile and obedient to her “superiors” (most of whom were men). To break out of this role would have been near impossible, though she does try to seek happiness on her own terms. All working class girls were sexually vulnerable in this period, and Tess is cursed by her beauty – she is more of a target to the men around her. She eventually resents her appearance and the grief it has brought her to such a degree that she cuts off her eyebrows in order to seem less attractive. Reported rapes by working class women in this period were scandalously few and far between – most accepted it as part of their world. Grim, I know.
This is a very bizarre episode (and I think likely reveals that Hardy was working to a deadline and trying to tie up some loose ends in the plot). Tess, the woman Angel loves to distraction, and his own parents, are unable to persuade Angel to resolve the situation with Tess, and yet he is persuaded by a conversation with a complete stranger?
However, Angel’s behavior after returning from Brazil is much more consistent, so it seems plausible that he really does love Tess.
It is a peculiar episode.