"Even as a novelist, then, Hardy was a poet, using image and metaphor to unify stories that he knew were deformed by pressure to get a sensational twist into each installment of the serial. So it makes sense that, after writing “Tess” and “Jude,” he would turn, or return, to verse. Those novels contained as much of his view of life as he could put into prose; to go any further into his dark places, he recognized, would mean leaving the novel-reading public behind.
Indeed, Hardy could not have written a novel as reckless of taboos, as defiantly uningratiating, as “Jude the Obscure” if he had not already begun to bid farewell, inwardly, to his novelist’s career. For more than twenty years, he had dutifully neutered his novels at the behest of editors like the Reverend Dr. Donald Macleod, who published “The Trumpet-Major” in Good Words, but only after warning Hardy to avoid “anything—direct or indirect—which a healthy Parson like myself would not care to read to his bairns at the fireside.” Even a sophisticated man of letters like Leslie Stephen, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, criticized Hardy for allowing his heroines to get involved with scoundrels. When Hardy pointed out that in fact women often do marry the wrong man, Stephen replied, “Not in magazines.”
In “Jude,” Hardy attacked this kind of repression and evasion with the fictional equivalent of a sledgehammer. Indeed, as Tomalin writes, “Reading Jude is like being hit in the face over and over again,” as we witness the slow death of each of Jude Fawley’s hopes and ideals. He studies hard for years, hoping to overcome poverty and work his way into Christminster, the novel’s version of Oxford, but he is casually rejected. He loses his rigid self-control only once, when he gives in to the village seductress Arabella, but this minor slip dooms him to marry a woman he has already begun to loathe. When Arabella leaves for Australia, Jude is free to pursue Sue Bridehead, his cousin and soul mate. But they harbor neuroses about sex and marriage too powerful to overcome, and their experiment in free love ends in horror. At every turn, the institutions of Victorian society—marriage, family, church, university—thwart human happiness, as if they had been designed by a misanthropic god.
It is no wonder that the Church of England’s newspaper called the book “a shameful nightmare, which one only wishes to forget as quickly and as completely as possible”; or that the public, inflamed by the scandal, made it a best-seller. For the cautious and private Hardy, notoriety of the kind that would have delighted Zola or Shaw was agonizing. He could see the funny side when an outraged Australian reader burned a copy of “Jude” and mailed him the ashes. But he was genuinely pained, Tomalin writes, to notice that “some of his acquaintances turned away rather than speak to him.” In 1896, a year after “Jude” was published, he noted, “Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinion—hard as a rock—which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting. . . . If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have let him alone.”
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