For once I’m doing a singleton review, not really for any reason other than the fact that I’ve got two pairs of Viragoes and two non-fiction books coming up, and this one really belongs to the Month of Re-Reading. I’ve talked about how I felt the month went on my last post: it was enjoyable and I did have some real highlights, although I was disappointed to find one author did not bear re-reading (then again, I now have an attractive patch of empty bookshelf to fill) and another was not as I’d remembered.
This one, however, was also not how I’d remembered … but in a good way!
Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure”
(not sure when I acquired this: it’s a Penguin Classic but a bit more battered and faded than I’d assume from the fact that I’ve only read it once before. No date written inside. Let’s just call it a mystery.)
I was slightly dreading reading this one, but I had read all of the other books in Ali’s Thomas Hardy project, so it seemed right that I attempted it. I don’t think I was avoiding it by leaving it to the last in my Month of Re-Reading pile: each book in the Hardy project has two months allotted to it, so I knew it was OK to let it spill into February. Anyway, I recalled it as being relentlessly miserable, with one scene in particular sticking in my mind (OK, one scene, total. I don’t think I’ve read this since I was about 19, mind. There have been a lot of books under the bridge since then).
In fact, of course, there’s much to enjoy in this tale of a man struggling against his class, family background and education and failing in his self-imposed task about being a self-made man. The epigraph of this book could be “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, actually, as Jude is maybe given ideas he can’t ever fulfil by his reading, and his Sue is full of half-digested readings and understandings which make her get in ever such a muddle. Is that patronising? I don’t know. But this book is full of ideas about one’s station, as well as about the changing society of the time at which it’s set. Actually, I’m very glad that I was reading this for pleasure and not for study, as my Eng-Lit-trained mind kept noticing echoes and predictions, but I was able to bat them away to a large extent and just enjoy my read.
It’s a fairly hefty novel, but a page-turner. In addition, the descriptions of both the North Wessex countryside and the great city of Oxford are beautifully done. Instead of the rustic chorus of the earlier, entirely rural, novels, the chorus here is of ladies of doubtful reputation and working men who frequent pubs, and they fill just enough of the background not to irritate.
The story is a good one, although to me, Jude seems sometimes to be something of a cipher, a figure full of meaning and metaphor, but curiously passive, inertly succumbing to the wills of the more assertive females in the book, even to the last. The weird child, Father Time, as the introduction to my copy of the book confirms, is not particularly believable and just has to be swallowed, like the more unlikely events in a Restoration Tragedy: I found his character and actions almost Dickensian, or maybe he feels like he belongs in one of the short stories, which can be darker and more odd than the novels.
But Hardy has too many things to say about the restrictions that marriage and convention impose on love and, particularly, women (I did like the part where they fled the Register Office owing to its dismal aspect), and on women’s right to independence, as well as progress and the ‘modern’ world to be spoiled by a peculiar plot device, and so I can forgive him for it. I also found Jude an attractive character, but must admit more of a regard for Arabella than for the over-thinking Sue, a lesser woman, I feel, than the magnificent Tess or other Hardy heroines.
All in all, I’m very glad that I re-read this novel. I couldn’t, in the end, put it down, even when breakfast and work were calling me – the mark of a good book, indeed.
Currently reading: I’m reading the excellent “Rip it up and Start Again”, an exhaustive study of the history of post-punk music, and having a slight Virago-fest, brought on by (finally) reaching the rich seam of dark green spines put in place in July with our holiday in the Lake District.