The next post will be on or before Wednesday June 28th


‘Oh they never look at anything that folks like we can understand. On’y foreign tongues used in the days of the Tower of Babel, when no two families spoke alike. They read that sort of thing as fast as a night hawk will whir…Yes ’tis a serious-minded place. Not but there’s wenches in the streets o’ nights…You know I suppose that they raise pa’sons there like radishes in a bed?’

Jude The Obscure                            

Thus speaks the carter to the young boy Jude Fawley who is obsessed with Christminster (aka Oxford), hallowed seat of learning and Anglicanism. It is worth noting the irony that the carter had never actually been there and is only giving hearsay or should we say in scholarly terms, is using secondary sources. Jude is the hero of Jude The Obscure (1895), one of the finest novels by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) which I have just read for the third time in 40 years. It created a considerable scandal when it was published as it has a principal female character orating eloquently about the torment that marriage and convention can bring upon an independent woman. It also has one of the most notoriously grotesque and harrowing scenes in 19th century fiction where a child murders his younger siblings and then commits suicide inside a wardrobe. Hardy in later forewords wrote drily of the castigation and humiliation he received, and cites one interesting lady who while incendiary in her criticism, added that she would also quite like to get to know him.

In imaginative prose terms, the most endearing thing is the pungent dialogue of the sly and sharp old Wessex (= Dorset) peasants as in the carter above, as well as the impressively loveless candour of the nagging great-aunt who reluctantly brings up Jude. Below she is berating her charge for being sacked from his job as a human scarecrow because of course he has been daydreaming about ending up in Christminster and becoming a Classics scholar and a parson himself.

‘If you can’t skeer birds what can you do? There! Don’t ye look so deedy! Farmer Troutham is not so much better than myself come to that. But tis as Job said, “Now they that are younger than I have me in derision, whose fathers I would have disdained to have set with the dogs of my flock.” His father was my father’s journeyman anyhow, and I must have been a fool to let ’ee go an work an work for ’n, which I shouldn’t ha’ done but to keep ’ee out of mischty.’

Note the timeless semantic power of ‘skeer’ and ‘mischty’ and also that the peasant can be as enthusiastic a snob as anyone else. In all his childhood, his great-aunt never says a single kind word to him, which perhaps explains Jude’s wish as he becomes a man to transcend himself and his unsentimental class by mugging up Greek and Latin in the fond hope of becoming a Christminster scholar one day. Meanwhile he has to earn his bread as an apprentice stonemason and he further alienates himself by becoming ensnared by a wonderfully vulgar Wessex femme fatale known as Arabella, who blatantly ensnares him into wedlock. It is a hopeless marriage and eventually she decamps to Australia, and thus gives rise to a familiar Hardyesque tragic impasse. He cannot divorce her and as he is still a married man he cannot have the woman he really wants who happens to be his cousin Sue Bridehead. Guessing his devious intentions his great-aunt had early cautioned him that the Fawleys and the Brideheads were always hopelessly bad at marriage, and to steer well clear of her if he valued his sanity.

Sue is a brilliant creation for she is independent minded, a natural scholar and a romantic purist inasmuch as she believes in living by rational and liberating principles rather than timeworn convention. However, she needs a job to survive as an independent woman and this is provided by Phillotson, first teacher and mentor to Jude the child. He agrees to help her through training college and then have her as teacher assistant in his school but on one predictable condition: that she will eventually marry him, this fastidious and innocent bachelor who is some 25 years older. She accepts the deal much to Jude’s dismay as he knows Sue loves him as devotedly as he loves her. But the reality is that Sue is radically torn, and keeps fatally frustrating herself at every opportunity. Thus, because she misses a last train when out with Jude she stays out overnight from the training college and is rusticated as a consequence. Likewise, before her marriage she stays over in Jude’s lodging and though nothing intimate happens between them, the scandal is a public one. Worse still in her obsessive way she tortures her cousin by asking him to give her away (he is her only family) when she marries the old teacher. Even when with Phillotson’s anguished blessing she leaves her marriage and goes to Jude she will still not concede any intimacy easily and Jude becomes ever more desperate as a result.

What is unique and infinitely shocking for the time is that here we have an established male author and he writes a novel where the only intelligent and subtle orator is a rebellious and confrontational young woman. Jude to be sure is intelligent and capable of logic and irony but he makes no radical nor nuanced speeches and if anything can make only a plodding sense of Sue and her volatile mind.  Here is Sue on the maelstrom known as a broken marriage.

‘But I haven’t the courage of my views, as I said before. I didn’t marry him altogether because of the scandal. But sometimes a woman’s love of being loved gets the better of her conscience, and though she is agonised at the thought of treating a man cruelly, she encourages him to love her when she doesn’t love him at all. Then when she sees him suffering her remorse sets in, and she does what she can to repair the wrong’.

Then 2 minutes later as Jude berates her she becomes a great deal less of a vocal rationalist.

‘I am very bad and unprincipled – I know you think that!’ she said, trying to blink away her tears.

The only complaint I have with the masterpiece that is Jude the Obscure is that I can’t really believe in the hero’s perennial dream of becoming a parson, a spiritual man, which is one of the central threads of the plot. As an orphaned child, he wants glory and some notion of love, given how his great-aunt has given him none. As a young man, he loves his cousin to tender distraction while aware of the prohibitions with regard to close relatives. We are told he spends his leisure hours swotting at New Testament Greek with Griesbach’s variorum readings and the like, not to speak of praying during his endless romantic trials. That kind of arid autodidact devotion is credible in Phillotson’s case as he woefully consoles himself over Sue’s desertion by indulging his ‘hobby’ of Roman Antiquities. But Jude is so moved by his heart and his infatuation at every turn that his spartan lucubrations appear contrived and perfunctory and it seems more like a case of handy plot convenience.

And while we are at it and I’m thankfully no expert in these appalling matters, I wonder if any child anywhere in the world would murder two younger children, and then hang himself in a wardrobe? I’m glad to say I doubt it and I hope very much that I’m right.



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