‘the time was not ripe for us!’: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Two weeks ago at the fascinating, wide-ranging and provocative ‘Writing the Australian Landscape‘ conference at the National Library of Australia, Murray Bail said a rather surprising thing (many surprising things, actually) in his Kenneth Binns Lecture. He said that concern with landscape was the symptom of cultural adolescence, that in Britain and Germany, Russia and Scandinavia, landscape is as distinctive as Australia’s, but it’s been there so long it has settled, moved to the back of minds, writers don’t need to worry about it. ‘There is hardly a blade of grass, let alone a flower or a tree, described in all of Jane Austen.’ And with this Bail dismissed the idea that English novelists had ever been concerned with writing landscape.

This seems an excellent moment to bring Thomas Hardy into the room. An English novelist so consumed by his landscape that his name is linked with the entire region of southwest England, which he named Wessex.


Hardy once observed that while in a poem he could question the nature of God – ‘the Supreme Mover or Movers, the Prime Force or Forces’ – without provoking the outrage of readers, when he did the same thing in a novel it made them ‘sneer, or foam, and set all the literary contortionists jumping upon me, a harmless agnostic, as if I were a glamorous atheist, which in their crass illiteracy they seem to think is the same thing’.

jude-the-obscure-190x300The response of the literary contortionists to Jude the Obscure was so vicious that although Hardy lived another 33 years after its publication, it was the last novel he ever wrote. The Bishop of Wakefield went so far as to burn his copy of the book – ‘probably in his despair at not being able to burn me’, Hardy remarked.

Jude the Obscure was so violently attacked on its publication in 1895 that it ‘completely cur[ed]’ Hardy of further interest in novel writing, as he put it in his 1912 postscript to the novel, and he thereafter devoted his energies to his original passion, poetry. What so angered his critics was that through his story of Jude Fawley, the village boy who dreams of university and a career in the Church, Hardy exposed the soul-crushing rigidity of the laws that bound Victorian society: laws of class, wealth, marriage and religion.

Hardy was born in Dorset in 1840, the eldest of four children of Thomas Hardy Snr, a stonemason, master builder and violinist, and his wife Jemima; and he grew up in a small cottage bordered by wild heathland. His mother encouraged his precocious intellect and passion for learning, his father taught him the violin, and he received a good grounding in Latin, French and mathematics at school in the nearby town of Dorchester. Although he longed to go to university, he followed his father’s trade and was apprenticed to a local architect. At 21 Hardy went to work in London as a draftsman with a leading ecclesiastical architect, where he remained until illness drove him back to Dorset in 1867.

Hardy's cottage

Hardy’s cottage

Three years later his architectural work took him to an isolated church in Cornwall, where he met the lively Emma Lavinia Gifford. Against the wishes of both families – Hardy’s ambitious mother advised her children never to marry and Emma’s family thought Hardy beneath her – they were married in 1874, eventually settling in Dorset in 1883 where Hardy designed ‘Max Gate’, the rambling house in which he lived until his death aged 87.

Max Gate

Max Gate

After selling his novel based on his romance with Emma (A Pair of Blue Eyes) to Tinsley’s Magazine in 1872, Hardy gave up architecture to devote himself completely to writing. The brilliant editor Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) was struck by Hardy’s talent and asked him to write a novel for his prestigious Cornhill Magazine. Hardy responded by writing Far From the Madding Crowd. He worked with such manic energy that he wrote on anything, even dead leaves, wood chips and stone fragments when he could find no more paper. Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874 and made Hardy rich and famous.

By the time he came to write Jude the Obscure, from scribbled notes in 1887 to its completion in 1894, Hardy was one of the most feted writers in England and had long before left behind his humble origins as the son of a stonemason. As a young aspiring writer with one rejected manuscript and desperate to be published, Hardy had followed the advice of novelist George Meredith on how to tailor his work to suit the reading public. Almost 30 years later, as an established writer weathering the storms of outrage that had greeted Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891, Hardy could write what he wanted. Jude the Obscure seethes with Hardy’s long-nursed outrage at the hypocrisy of Victorian England.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy

Like Hardy, Jude Fawley is a country boy determined to move beyond the stifling confines of village life to the university town on the horizon, ‘city of light and love’. But although Victorian society was overlaid by visions of progress and industry, many like Jude who attempted to progress beyond the circumstances of their birth were thwarted on their path, damned from the start by their poverty. Hardy himself lived out the Victorian ideal of self-improvement, rising from poor country boy to celebrated, wealthy writer through diligence, hard work and perseverance, virtues expounded by Samuel Smiles in his bestselling book Self-Help published in 1859. Self-help groups flourished in Victorian England, like Jude’s ‘Artisans’ Mutual Improvement Society’, which assists young men to ‘enlarge their minds’.

But through Jude, Hardy launched a furious attack on the self-help philosophy, exposing its terrible flaws. Jude the Obscure is a devastating portrait of love, marriage and poverty, of aspirations crushed by lack of material resources, in which the poor of industrial England are like the modern Indian peasants in Rohintan Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995) – trapped in an endless cycle of circumstances beyond their control, with an overwhelming sense of doom hanging over their every effort to better themselves. As Jude despairs, ‘I’m an outsider to the end of my days!’ His tragedy is born of a conflict between his aspirations, the pressures of poverty, his illicit sexual passions and the bonds of marriage.

In response to his critics, who attacked his book for its treatment of marriage and the religion that sanctifies it, Hardy wrote that contemporary marriage laws – ‘the forced adaptation of human instincts to rusty and irksome moulds that do not fit them’ (which he knew from personal experience, as his own marriage was deeply troubled) – seemed to him ‘a good foundation for the fable of a tragedy’. Jude and his cousin and soul-mate Sue Bridehead, a ‘New Woman’, come from a family cursed to marry unhappily and so they attempt to live outside its suffocating laws.

Kate Winslet as Sue and Christopher Eccleston as Jude in the film 'Jude'

Kate Winslet as Sue and Christopher Eccleston as Jude in the film ‘Jude’

Sue, who sees a bride’s flowers as ‘sadly like a garland which decked the heifers of sacrifice in old times’, goes further, by attempting to live outside the comfort of the Church, and finding solace in pagan symbols and literature. Instead of reading the Bible before bed, she reads the contemporary poet Swinburne, quoting from his ‘Hymn to Proserpine’, the lament of a 4th century pagan Roman on the advent of Christianity as state religion, which outlawed his own beloved gods:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean:
The world has grown grey from thy breath!

When Jude suggests they sit in the cathedral to find peace and shelter, Sue responds that she’d rather sit in a railway station, now the centre of town life: ‘The Cathedral was a very good place four or five centuries ago; but it is played out now.’ Although the world Jude and Sue have been born into is rapidly changing, it is not ready for their new thinking – ‘the time was not ripe for us! Our ideas were fifty years too soon to be any good to us.’

Jude the Obscure also reveals the inexorable tide of material progress that is senselessly destroying the world of Hardy’s childhood, the English countryside and hamlets with their ancient sacred grounds. New churches rise up in modern Gothic design, ‘unfamiliar to English eyes’, while the ruined site of an ‘ancient temple to the Christian divinities was not even recorded on the green and level grass plot that had immemorially been the churchyard’. The composer of a hymn so beautiful that Jude is haunted by it for days decides to give up music entirely, telling Jude: ‘You must go into trade if you want to make money nowadays. The wine business is what I am thinking of.’


And yet the hierarchies of university and Church that serve the upper classes remain as inaccessible to Jude as ‘planets across an object glass’. This is typical of Hardy’s metaphors, which draw extensively on his vast reading of contemporary writers, including scientists Charles Darwin, TE Huxley (grandfather of Aldous) and Herbert Spencer (who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’). The language Hardy uses to apprehend nature reflects their theories of evolution and the apparent absence of God or any beneficent pattern in the world. Jude considers ‘the wilfulness of Nature’, its ‘inexorable laws’, and sees ‘with more and more frequency, the scorn of Nature for man’s finer emotions and her lack of interest in his aspirations.’

Of Hardy’s generation of poets, Ford Madox Ford called Hardy ‘the most passionate and the most learned of them all’. The same might be said of Hardy the novelist.

The gravestone of Hardy's heart

The gravestone of Hardy’s heart

At Hardy’s instruction, his two volumes of autobiography were published under the name of his second wife, Florence Hardy, his longtime secretary whom he married after Emma’s death. On his own death, Hardy was cremated and his ashes now lie next to those of Charles Dickens in Westminster Abbey. But, fittingly, Hardy’s heart lies buried in the soil of his country parish.

DH Lawrence wrote a long essay on Hardy, ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, which was published posthumously in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of DH Lawrence (1936). In a letter written in 1916, while he was working on his study, Lawrence dismissed the great European novelists in favour of one American and one Englishman: ‘They are all – Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Flaubert – so very obvious and coarse, beside the lovely, mature and sensitive art of Fenimore Cooper or Hardy.’

Jude, a film adaptation of Jude the Obscure starring Kate Winslet as Sue Bridehead and Christopher Eccleston as Jude, was released in 1996.

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5 Responses to ‘the time was not ripe for us!’: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

  1. Renee says:

    This Jim Crace interview may be of interest to you

  2. Thanks so much, Renee. Brilliant interview which interests me very much. 🙂

  3. Anu says:

    Interesting post and thanks for the link Renee.

  4. Thanks Anu. (I’ve always wanted to go to Lyme Regis too, thanks to Austen, Persuasion – but haven’t got there yet.)

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