There are some novels that it is always so difficult to sit down and write about – their stature as works of literature almost speaking for itself. Hardy’s final novel is quite simply utterly brilliant. Yes it is bleak, famously so, but in that very bleakness there is great beauty, Hardy tugs at the heartstrings as only he can. In this novel Hardy explores themes of educational inequality, marriage and religion, his cynicism at these social institutions seems particularly brutal in his story of Jude and Sue. Hardy was only in his mid-fifties when he completed this novel, and yet he lived until he was eighty eight; spending his remaining years dedicated to poetry. In this novel, it is possible to see echoes of Hardy’s own religious scepticism and the difficulties that had arisen in his marriage to his first wife Emma. It is not surprising that this novel was enormously controversial when it first appeared, and that apparently Emma Hardy didn’t like it at all.
“But his dreams were as gigantic as his surroundings were small.”
As the novel opens Jude Fawley a young orphan, is living in the hamlet of Marygreen with his Great Aunt Drusilla. The school master Mr Phillotson is leaving and it is about him that young Jude has developed a kind of hero worshiping attitude. Mr Phillotson is off to Christminster (Oxford) and the idea of learning and the colleges of Christminster becomes a firmly fixed goal for Jude – and he determines to follow the school master’s example one day. Jude is not a school boy – living with his aunt helping out in her small bakery – and trying unsuccessfully to earn a small amount of money by scaring the rooks in a farmer’s field – he takes to teaching himself Latin and Greek in his spare moments. His ambitions become well known locally and are treated as a bit of an eccentricity.
When sex rears its ugly head – it is the beginning of the end for Jude’s continuing study, though not quite for his lofty ambitions – he continues to dream of attending the university at Christminster. Jude marries Arabella, a young woman determined to snare herself a husband – she is a totally unsuitable spouse, and Jude quickly realises his mistake, and the entrapment that was deployed by his conniving wife. Within a year or two Jude has been abandoned by his young wife, and is working as a stone mason, eventually set off for Christminster to ply his trade, still hoping to make it to the university one day. It is in Christminster that Jude first meets his cousin Sue Bridehead, of whom he has heard from his Great Aunt.
On the very day that Jude first meets Sue, he looks up Mr Phillotson, and introduces Sue to him. Phillotson has abandoned his studies, and is again working as a village schoolmaster. As Jude is not free to marry, Sue marries Mr Phillotson, planning to work alongside him in his school. Sue and Jude promise to be no more than good friends, the stories of their families’ history of tragic and unlucky unions introducing a terrible superstition to their minds. Sue quickly comes to regret her marriage, physically repulsed by her husband, even jumping out of a window to get away from him; and soon leaves him for Jude. Although initially the two live together platonically, eventually their relationship moves to the next stage – Jude’s son from his marriage with Arabella nicknamed Little Father Time – comes to live with them, and Jude and Sue have two more children. Life is hard for the couple, as they move from place to place, Jude’s health breaks down and he starts to find it difficult to get work, how far away his dreams of Christminster University seem now. Despite both Jude and Sue obtaining divorces Jude and Sue remain unmarried – although living as husband and wife, convinced that the tragedies of their ancestors can only bring them misfortune. However tragedy lurks closer to home, as the couple find themselves back at Christminster – the city of Jude’s original dreams. I won’t say any more about what happens – the bleakness of Jude’s story is probably well known – but I don’t want to be responsible for too many spoilers.
“I have been looking at the marriage service and it seems to me very humiliating that a giver-away should be required at all. According to the ceremony as printed, my bridegroom chooses me of his own will and pleasure; but I don’t choose him. Somebody gives me to him, like a she-ass or she-goat or any other domestic animal.”
As a character Sue Bridehead is slightly confusing, certainly she is every bit as memorable as Tess or Bethsheba, although not quite as powerful a character as either of them, although I feel she should have been. Sue appears to be an intelligent, modern forward thinking young woman, at the beginning of the novel she is a religious sceptic. Yet although she rails against the necessities of women tying themselves to men by marriage – and the practise of being given away by a man during the marriage ceremony – she is superstitious and sexually repressed. Allowing herself to become brain-washed by religious conventions – Sue is the instigator of her own continuing misery. Jude whose ambitions are thwarted by poverty and indifference is a man who is fairly passive; he is dominated rather by the women in his life, although he is hugely likeable.