The second book in the ‘my favourite things’ series is another dark novel. Jude the Obscure created such a scandal when it was released in 1895 that Hardy, so affected by the critical reaction to the book, never wrote another, focusing instead on poetry for the rest of his career.
In brief, the story follows country boy Jude Fawley, his struggle to become an educated man and his struggle to maintain relationships with the women in his life. He is a romantic young man who dreams of becoming an academic and living in the city of Christminster but, (for reasons I don’t want to get into), finds himself married to Arabella and with little money or prospects. Later on he makes it to Christminster where he meets his cousin (and true love), the free spirited intellectual, Sue Bridehead. The remainder of the novel follows their ill-fated relationship and Jude’s failure to raise himself out of obscurity.
Yet this novel is so much more than pure plot. At its core the book is a scathing critique on the difficulties of the poor and underprivileged in accessing education and improving their place in society. Embedded within this is two further themes: the oppression of women in a patriarchal society (particularly with reference to the institution of marriage) and the powerful grip of the Church in England in the wake of the release of the Origin of Species.
I first read this novel when I was sixteen and imagine that some of my love for Hardy was fueled by my teenage angst. However, while my love of Nirvana and black nail polish has waned, my fondness for Hardy has not. It surprised me at the time that a novel I considered to be a classic and, therefore, old could speak so clearly of patriarchy and social oppression. To my mind, Hardy was appeared painfully self-aware of the worst elements of the times he lived in, long before the rise of post-war Keynesian economics in the 1940’s and long before the onset of the feminist movement in the 1970’s. In this sense, Jude might just be an anthem for anyone who has, at one time or another, felt that they just can’t catch a break.
In Hardy’s canon Tess of the d’Urbervilles tends to get all the glory. No doubt Tess is a wonderful novel but I feel there is plenty of room for Jude to bask in some of the credit too. In this light, I was happy to see Jude the Obscure rated number 29 in the guardian’s 100 best novels list.