Most of the books I write about on Stuck-in-a-Book are either new(ish) novels, or older ones which are a little more obscure. In those cases it's fine to assume that the blog reader starts off not knowing a huge amount about the book in question, and it's also fine for me to lay down my opinion - for better or worse. That's not quite the same with Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. In fact, even writing 'by Thomas Hardy' makes me feel a little patronising, because of course you all know that it's by Thomas Hardy. You also probably know a lot about it, even if you haven't read it - and it can be taken for granted that the novel is well written, can't it? So where to go from here...
We can have a lesson in how Our Vicar is usually right. He's off in Cornwall at the moment, on holiday with Our Vicar's Wife and a couple who are friends of the family (and saved Colin's life once or twice, incidentally!) so he won't see this for a while, but... he's been recommending Thomas Hardy to me most of my life. The same story happened with Oxford by Jan Morris, which he gave me (or possibly lent me, I should find out...) when I went to university, and which I finally read last year. It's great, by the way. And, although I did read Tess of the D'Ubervilles back in 2003 or thereabouts, and started The Mayor of Casterbridge once upon a time, I had never really turned my attention Hardywards.
But it really is a rather brilliant novel. And, despite my misgivings, very readable as well. I always think of the Victorians as wordy and difficult, but I more or less raced through Jude the Obscure. I suppose, with a publication date of 1895, it is on the edge of the Victorian period - but still. My misconceptions were put right.
For those who have been happily oblivious to the work of Dorset's finest, Jude the Obscure is about a country lad with big ambitions. Those ambitions centre around getting to Christminster University - i.e. Oxford under a thin disguise. It's all getting a little Oxford-centric, following on from Trapido's novel the other day, but my favourite section of the novel was this first part. Especially poignant is the scene where Jude looks out over the misty fields to Christminster, with all his aspirations and hopes intact. I'm not usually affected by visual description, but Hardy really knows his onions. Cue long and rather beautiful extract:
In the course of ten or fifteen minutes the thinning mist dissolved altogether from the northern horizon, as it had already done elsewhere, and about a quarter of an hour before the time of sunset the westward clouds parted, the sun's position being partially uncovered, and the beams streaming out in visible lines between two bars of slaty cloud. The boy immediately looked back in the old direction.Isn't that some spectacular writing? But, as I hinted, his ambitions don't stay long intact. Hardy's reputation for being all a bit tragic isn't misplaced. This is, after all, a novel including characters who say: "All is trouble, adversity and suffering!" and "Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can't get out of it if we would!" Warms the cockles, doesn't it? And of course things start to go wrong for Jude - not least owing to the women in his life, Arabella and Sue. The back-and-forth qualities of the relationships in the novel led to one inspired comment by a member of my book group, that it was all a bit like Abba.
Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.
The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras.
But I don't find Hardy gratuitously gloomy. Jude the Obscure is definitely driven by more than tragedy - I think Sue and Jude are incredibly complex characters, especially Sue. She is spontaneous, but often regrets it or changes her mind afterwards; selfish but caring; passionate but fickle; headstrong but self-doubting - so many believable contradictions go into the make-up of her character.
For those who have been hesitant about approaching Hardy, I really encourage you to give Jude the Obscure a read. Although it will never be a bedtime story or beloved companion, it's one of the most impressive, complex, and well-written novels I've read for a while.
Books to get Stuck into:
I can't think of anything like Jude the Obscure, so instead I'll recommend some of my favourite Victorian novels. I haven't actually reviewed any on here, because I read them six or seven years ago, but...
Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë: by the most neglected Brontë sister, and my personal favourite. This doesn't have the power of Wuthering Heights, but it's infinitely more likeable - and, in its neat structure, practically the perfect novel.
Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell: We all loved the TV series, and Gaskell's novel is a delight. A bit disjointed, because the first few chapters were initially supposed to be the whole thing, but we can forgive her that when she gives us such wonderful characters and amusing incidents.
Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens: don't be scared of Dickens. This rambling novel has dozens of characters, but they're all brilliantly drawn, and I always find Dickens absolutely hilarious.