Wednesday 19 May 2010

In which we learn that Our Vicar is usually right...

Please note... I accidentally scheduled two posts to come out in the space of half a day... don't miss my thoughts on Matty and the Dearingroydes by Richmal Crompton, if you fancy some indulgent middlebrow reading!

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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. I absolutely loved this book when I read it many years ago...for my 'A' Levels! I may just reread it now!

  2. I love Hardy though I haven't read all of his novels. Tess is my favourite as well as Far From the Madding Crowd. I have yet to read Jude the Obscure. Check out The Withered Arm, a short story by Hardy that's just brilliant.

  3. Yaay! "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" next for you lad :)

  4. I love this book and I love all the additional ones you suggested too! Victorian Literature is the best for a depressing yet edifying read.

  5. Oops, this post wasn't supposed to appear until tonight - oh well!

    And apologies for the huge gap in the middle before, I'm afraid I had to delete the picture to get rid of it... silly Blogger.

    Catherine - do reread!

    Mrs. B - thanks for the tip

    Alison - done that one already!

    Rachel - 'depressing yet edifying' - what a great recipe!

  6. Ah, I have some Hardy waiting on me when I get home from my travels. BTW, it's past the half-way mark in may and I don't see a #10 yet in the 24. Congrats to you for stickin' to your guns and keeping to your goal! :) Oh, and I "crossed the Thames River" last week -- alas that it was in New London, CT when I did it. It made me think of all of you Brit Bloggers that I love to follow. :)

  7. Oh Susan, you spoke too soon! No.10 arrived in the post this morning... I'll be writing about it next Tuesday, so hadn't changed the number yet. But maybe I should...

  8. Lovely post Simon - thank you. Have you read The Woodlanders? It is not one of his best known novels but I really love it - I think (eek - I find it most stressful making these kind of predictions but here goes:) that you would too.


  9. Hmm, you do make a good case for Hardy. I've always put him in the category of 'not for me' but then I do like the Victorians... and I do like that quote you included. I had just always heard about the bad ending in Jude and wasn't sure if I was up for that.

  10. I first came across Jude when I heard it described as an "immoral" book. That was in a radio documentary about twenty years ago, and it was a reference to the opinions of a nun teaching in a convent school about half a century earlier than that. Like many things that were denounced a century ago, it no longer seems particularly shocking though it does retain its power. I have to admit, though, that personally I do find Hardy a bit on the gloomy side. Even before 1914, Hardy seemed to typify the despair that underlay so much art and literature following the First World War.

  11. Hi - I can't remember whether I read Jude the Obscure - I think I did but memory obscured by Robert Powell as Jude (long ago) who I fancied, and by the events at the end. I do like Hardy though, and have read Tess.. and Far From the Madding Crowd- which I loved. Also loved film with Julie Christie Terence Stamp and Alan Bates who were all young and v fanciable at the time! Beautiful Dorset scenes eg on old hill-fort. Must read more of Hardy. His poems are meant to be great too. Read 'The History Boys' where one recites a Hardy poem.

  12. Janells - Robert Powell is on the cover of the copy I read! And I did read The History Boys a couple of years ago, and loved it, but had forgotten the Hardy poem was in it!

  13. We did Hardy at school but never read this one as my teacher said that she literally could not bear to put herself through it again!

    I still haven't tackled it...

  14. I'm glad to see that you liked this! I am a complete nut for Thomas Hardy. I've read all of his most well-known books (some of them multiple times) and have plans to read the rest. Tess is probably my favorite, but now that I'm right smack in the middle of a reread of Jude (my second, I'm realizing how utterly gorgeous and rich it is. Jude and Sue have layers upon layers to them.

  15. We had to read Tess for school when I was fourteen, an experience which almost ruined Hardy for me. It wasn't until I studied Hardy as a poet rather than a novelist that I returned to read his other books and to appreciate how beautifully he wrote. Jude is magnificent and overwhelming and absolutely broke my heart. I'm still don't enjoy Tess, but I love The Mayor of Casterbridge.

  16. Never read any Hardy, although I do know something about him and his works of course. I have read a number of novels by Dickens and pretty much find him unreadable. I do think that his books can adapt well for serialisation on TV; not surprising given the way many were published.

    If I have time, and inclination, then perhaps I'll give Jude the Obscure a go - let's see if I can get past 20 pages.

  17. You can't stop there, Peter, you'll have to explain what you found unreadable about Dickens!

  18. Fair enough Simon!

    One of the things I found challenging (what I mean here is the payoff didn't make up for the effort) is Dickens' desire for a multiplicity of characters, plus the fact that some of them are grotesque "for the hell of it" (I can't think of a beter way to put it). There is also a mawkishness which sits uneasily with me and the humor is too dated for me to find even faintly amusing - Pickwick Papers vies with Diary of a Nobody as the least funny book in English, although it has other redeeming aspects!

  19. Love Our Mutual Friend! It might be my favorite Dickens. If you haven't read Little Dorrit, you really must. There are some nice similarites to Our Mutual Friend, and I found it interesting to consider Arthur as a precursor to Eugene.

  20. Hannah - I haven't, but I'll add it to the list!

    Carolyn - I think Hardy does often get a bad press, but I encourage you to give him a go! I need to try more Victorians myself...

    David - it must have been quite shocking in 1895. I still find some of their morals dubious (like bigamy!)

    tea lady - oo, do try! You'll be surprised.

    Teresa - they are such complex characters, aren't they? I'm not a Hardy nut (yet!) - he does seem to inspire absolute loathing or absolute devotion, so we'll see if I'm heading that way...

    Claire - you remind me that I must finish Mayor of Casterbridge. Or, more likely, start it again - since it's been about seven years since I started it...(!)

    Peter - thanks for eludicating - at least I now know why we disagree! Humour is such a tricky spot - impossible to explain why I find something funny if someone else doesn't, but I think Dickens is so very funny - because of his grotesques etc., rather than despite.

    Jo - Right, Little Dorrit might be my next Victorian read!


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