Some Reflections on Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure
One evening not long ago I happened to sit down on the Tube next to a woman who was reading Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure. Since I had been thinking about reading another book of his for a while – after picking up a collection of hardbacks from a charity shop for eight quid one day – I asked her what she thought and we had a nice chat.
She was reading Jude with her book club and was clearly quite moved by it. Since I like a bit of serendipity and my choices being made up for me sometimes, Jude was the volume I plucked off my bookshelves when I got home.
It is, particularly in its tumultuous second half, a remarkable book – with Hardy’s characteristically rich and lively writing allied to a keen sense for how human life and social convention wrap themselves around another with sometimes troubling consequences.
Originally published in book form in 1895, Jude also speaks to a time of rapid social change, which often makes itself evident as the book reaches towards its climax – even though rural Wessex stands relatively untouched by the Industrial Revolution.
One thing that stood out for me in reading the book is Hardy’s prescience towards the social changes to come in the 20th Century.
Against convention, his hero Jude Fawley and heroine Sue Bridehead come to live together and have children without being married. They struggle against social disapproval, which affects their income among other things, but maintain that they have done no harm by living as they do.
Jude says towards the end of the book:
“’As for Sue and me when we were at our own best, long ago – when our minds were clear, and our love of truth fearless – the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us. And so the resistance they met with brought reaction in her, and recklessness and ruin on me!’”
Earlier on, Jude speaks to Sue on marriage:
“'The intention of the contract is good, and right for many, no doubt; but in our case it may defeat its own ends because we are the queer sort of people we are – folk in whom domestic ties of a forced kind snuff out cordiality and spontaneousness.’Sue still held that there was not much queer or exceptional in them: that all were so. ‘Everybody is getting to feel as we do. We are a little beforehand, that’s all. In fifty, a hundred, years the descendents of these two [children] will act and feel worse than we. They will see weltering humanity still more vividly than we do now, as‘Shapes like our own selves hideously multiplied,’And will be afraid to reproduce them.’”
Sue’s more drastic anticipations are probably not unrelated to her squeamishness about sex, but there might be some prescience in them. However the first reflection of Jude’s seems uncannily prescient given the social changes that swept Britain and the world since the Second World War (and particularly in the 1960s), when marriage seriously started to lose its pre-eminent place regulating relations between men and women.
In a passage in which she asks release from her unloved husband, Sue quotes John Stuart Mill, the great liberal philosopher who as a Member of Parliament in 1866 tried to secure women the vote.
'She, or he, “who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation”. J. S. Mill’s words, those are. I have been reading it up. Why can’t you act upon them? I wish to, always.'
Mill’s doctrines of individual freedom course through Jude like a stream of fresh water.
Mill said, in 'On Liberty', "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Jude and Sue embody and express that principle in their lives, but the society around them does not share it.
Their characters as written by Hardy were right that they were living too early to enjoy the freedoms that Mill’s doctrines would have allowed to them.
This and much else make for a poignant story. However the reaction of most reviewers at the time was vituperative. As Norman Page has documented, critics called it among other things ‘a stream of indecency’, ‘a moral monstrosity’, a work ‘steeped in sex’, ‘dabbling in beastliness and putrefaction’ that was subverting ‘all the obligations and relations of life which most people hold sacred’ and undermining ‘the fundamental institutions of our society’.
In a postscript written in 1912, Hardy said of these attacks (from both sides of the Atlantic) that “the only effect of it on human conduct that I could discover being its effect on myself – the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing.” (He never wrote another novel despite living more than thirty years longer, sticking to poetry).
The book was burnt by a bishop: “probably in his despair at not being able to burn me”, Hardy said. Meanwhile the reviews “practically ignored” the greater part of the story, “that which presented the shattered ideals of the two chief characters”.
He adds: “Then somebody discovered that Jude was a moral work – austere in its treatment of a difficult subject –as if the writer had not all the time said in the Preface that it was meant to be so. Thereupon many uncursed me, and the matter ended.”
We can be thankful he went through all that. For us, now, it was surely worthwhile.