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October 24, 2017

Judging Jude and Hardy

On this day in 1895, Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure was published. Having been decried as immoral by some reviewers of Tess of the D'Urbervilles four years earlier, Hardy opted to preface Jude with the following head-'em-off-at-the-pass:
    For a novel addressed by a man to men and women of full age; which attempts to deal unaffectedly with the fret and fever, derision and disaster, that may press in the wake of the strongest passion known to humanity, and to point, without a mincing of words, the tragedy of unfulfilled aims, I am not aware that there is anything in the handling to which exception can be taken.
This forestalling was spectacularly unsuccessful. "Jude the Obscene" was "a shameful nightmare" that left the reader "stunned with a sense of the hollowness of existence." "Hardy the Degenerate" was an author with "a curious mania for exploiting sewers," the agnostic, free-loving leader of an "Anti-Marriage League." What "Swinburne planteth, Hardy watereth and Satan giveth the increase," said one; "What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at the Creator?" asked another. The Bishop of Wakefield advertised that he burnt his copy; a copycat American reader mailed Hardy the ashes of his. Even Hardy's wife railed at the book, and at all "Jude-ites." Hardy's farming neighbors pointed out that the earthy Arabella was hardly one of their folk, that they would no sooner wed her than they would the uppity Sue Bridehead, and that in Wessex people did not generally court each other with the slap of a pig's pizzle.

After his experience with Tess, Hardy wrote in his diary, "Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at." After Jude, he made good on this, turning exclusively to poetry and drama for his last thirty years:
    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.
Many of those later poems also seem to shake a fist at the Creator, and are hardly sunny. These are the last stanzas of "In Tenebris":
    Leaves freeze to dun;
    But friends cannot turn cold
    This season as of old
    For him with none.

    Tempests may scath;
    But love cannot make smart
    Again this year his heart
    Who no heart hath.

    Black is night's cope;
    But death will not appal
    One, who past doubtings all,
    Waits in unhope.
But by being poetry and therefore not much read, or by definition silly, Hardy thought them likely to provoke "merely a shake of the head" from the madding crowd, rather than "make them sneer, or foam, and set all the literary contortionists upon me."

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