My campaign of self improvement and of reading books I should have read a long time ago continues. I have steered clear of Hardy previously largely due to prejudice – his poetry, which formed part of one of my school courses many years ago, felt sentimental and dull, and those of his novels that I had seen adapted for television or cinema were uninspiring pastoral pieces.
Having said that, I had read that Jude had been his last novel followed by a long silence filled only with the previously mentioned poetry. So I knew there was something which had scandalised some elements of late Victorian society, and my interest was pricked. Hardy deals with sexuality in a way that is immensely frustrating to the modern reader – the characters in the novel don’t seem to behave in a way recognisable to us, torn as they are between the strict conventions of the period and their own natural impulses. No one has what we would consider a healthy, “normal” attitude towards sex, and I found the scene where Sue forces herself to share a bed with her husband despite her profound disgust for what that implies – so strong that in one scene she junps out of her bedroom window to avoid him – quite disturbing. In some ways even the recognition of these issues, and especially of sex outside of wedlock, was shocking, and would not have featured in novels from just a few decades earlier in the century – no matter how impulsive and headstrong Heathcliff is (for example) he never oversteps this boundary. As such this novel is a bridge between the 19th century novels in which there is little or no suggestion of human sexuality – it was just taboo – and the more frank works of, say, Lawrence a few years later.
Having said that, I suspect that it was not the handling of sexuality that would have been really shocking to the Victorian reader – very little is explicit after all – but the deaths of the children towards the end of the novel, and the characters reactions to them, which really horrifies.
Other than the interest the novel carries in its treatment of these issues, what other features of the novel can recommend it? The description of country life in late Victorian England is well sketched, and the principal character’s frustrations with the lack of academic opportunities is of passing interest. Well, not really.
I was hoping that this introduction to Hardy’s novels would help me overcome my prejudice and inspire me to explore the rest of his works. Sadly that plan didn’t work – Jude was just too dull – but I haven’t given up on him yet!