Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read - Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.
Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex. Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.
It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford). He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’
Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin. Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor. Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:
‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’
Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed! Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.
I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad. I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.
At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion. We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty? Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia. In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …
‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’
We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.
On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.
We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era. In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm. Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution. Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).
Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today. Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.
Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes. All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics