The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy
Jude the Obscure is the last novel written by Thomas Hardy, an author whose work reflects both his personal life and the intellectual trends of nineteenth-century England. Thomas Hardy was born June 2, 1840 in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, England. He was the eldest of four children. His father started a successful building and contracting business with an initial stake of only fourteen pounds. His mother was Jemima Hand, who worked as a maidservant and also received pauper relief, a sort of welfare program. Thomas Hardy had a complicated attitude toward his family origins. He had a particular interest, common to many born into humble circumstances, in being accepted by upper-class society. Hardy was also convinced that his ancestors had formerly been successful and important but had recently come down in the world.
The young Thomas was a delicate child who learned to read at about three years of age. He played with the local peasant children as a young boy, but his parents forbade him to use their rural dialect. His mother arranged for his education and tutoring, first at the village school and later at Dorchester Day School.
His childhood was reasonably happy. Long hours were spent roaming the countryside on his own. His parents encouraged his interests in music and reading. As an adolescent, he became acquainted with the poet William Barnes, who lived in Dorset. Barnes was to have a strong influence on Hardy.
As a teenager, Hardy taught himself Greek and began to write poetry. He wanted to become a member of the clergy, but his formal education was never advanced enough to qualify him for such a profession. Despite his eventual accomplishments, he felt ashamed of his relative lack of schooling his entire life. Religion also played an important role in Hardy’s early life. Like most of the rural middle class, the Hardys were Anglicans.
At sixteen, Hardy was apprenticed to a Dorchester architect, John Hicks. In 1862 he left Dorchester for London to work as assistant to the architect Arthur Blomfield. While in London, he developed his intellectual tastes by attending the opera, theatres, and museums, and by reading progressive and skeptical authors such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and T.H. Huxley, among others.
He never attended university, but was tutored during his apprenticeship by a Cambridge student named Horace Moule. Moule’s early death caused Hardy great sadness. Hardy’s lack of a degree always caused him some remorse, though it did not particularly limit his life. He was to meet some of the great intellectual figures of his day, including George Meredith, the novelist who would give him advice on publication.
In 1867 Hardy returned to Higher Bockhampton, and though his initial writing attempts were poems, his prolific writing career really began with The Poor Man and the Lady, now lost. The Poor Man and the Lady is a story contrasting London and the countryside, which Hardy completed in 1868 at age twenty eight while working for John Hicks. The influential critic and author George Meredith advised Hardy not to publish the book but encouraged him to write another. The Poor Man and the Lady was rejected by publishers as being too satiric in tone. His second attempt at a novel, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871 by William Tinsley to mixed reviews.
Hardy soon decided to concentrate in his novels on what he knew and loved best, the social life of rural southern England. After two moderately successful novels, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), were published anonymously, Hardy scored a significant success in 1874 with Far from the Madding Crowd. After his triumph, he married Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he had met several years earlier.
Hardy continued writing novels of “Wessex,” the historical, Anglo-Saxon name he gave in fiction to his native Dorset, from this time until 1895. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, published in 1891, was immediately popular with the reading public. But it also caused controversy: Victorian moralists and ecclesiastics were scandalized by the author’s contention that his heroine was, in the words of the novel’s subtitle, a morally pure woman. Some readers were outraged by the book’s pessimism, by the unrelieved picture of torment and misery Hardy presented. Orthodox believers in God were scandalized by his suggestions that the beneficent warm God of Christianity seemed absent from the world Hardy depicted.
After the bitter denunciation of the sexual double standard in Tess, Hardy expanded his satiric attack in his next novel, Jude the Obscure (1895), which criticized the institutions of marriage, the Church, and England’s class system. Again Hardy was savaged by critics who could not countenance his subversiveness. He was attacked in the press as decadent, indecent, and degenerate. Among those offended was his wife, who took the novel as anti-religious, and thus a blow to the devoutness she believed she shared with her husband. Distressed by such small-mindedness, Hardy, now financially secure, vowed to give up novel-writing and return to the composition of poetry, his first literary love, which he felt would afford him greater artistic and intellectual freedom. From 1898 on Hardy published mainly poetry. He became one of the few English authors to produce a significant body of poetry as well as novels.
Hardy had no children but his marriages were extremely significant factors in his life and can be seen as having a strong effect on his work. He was in love several times and engaged once to a maid named Eliza Nicholls before meeting his first wife. In 1870, he met Emma Gifford on a trip to Cornwall, and married her in 1874. Her family disapproved of the marriage and considered Hardy beneath Emma. Though Hardy loved Emma, the marriage became unhappy, but continued until her death in 1912. Later, Hardy looked back on her with affection.
Throughout his life, Hardy became infatuated with seemingly unattainable women. While Emma was still alive, he carried on an intense correspondence with Mrs. Florence Henniker, a writer who lived in Dublin. She was to have a great influence on Hardy. Meanwhile, Emma had become fanatically religious and nearly insane. After Emma’s death he married Florence Dugdale, who had been his secretary and literary aide for several years. The second marriage proved happier. Florence Hardy wrote a biography of her husband, part of which was dictated by Hardy himself.
Hardy and Emma lived at Newton from 1875 until 1878, when they moved to Upper Tooting. While living in Newton, Hardy wrote The Return of the Native (1878). In 1885, Hardy and Emma moved to Dorset. There he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), and finally, Jude the Obscure, which was published in 1896. This was to be his last novel.
In 1898, Thomas Hardy published Wessex Poems. On the whole, his poetry is not nearly so well regarded as his novels, but is still considered to have merit.
After the turn of the century, he worked on The Dynasts, an epic-drama in verse of the Napoleonic wars, published in three volumes from 1903 to 1908. In 1910 he was awarded the Order of Merit and in 1912 he finished revising all his novels, rendering them exactly as he wanted them. In November of 1912, Emma Hardy died after a long illness, through which her husband did not give her very much aid.
An aspect of Hardy’s childhood which is of more importance in Jude the Obscure than in all of his other novels is that of religion. Hardy had abandoned Christianity while in London, but returned to his faith later on. Though Jude the Obscure portrays a world in which God appears to be absent, the characters are constantly reacting to religious teaching.
Important themes common to many of the novels include questioning the institution of marriage, the interaction between man and nature, class conflict, and the role of women in nineteenth century society. In addition to Wessex, he assigned fictional names to other real locations. Thus Marygreen is Fawley, Christminster is Oxford, etc. This simultaneously lends a realism to the work, while giving Hardy license to shape his fictional world. One strong similarity between the real and fictional world, however, is the tension between London and the countryside. On the one hand, modern influences were sought after by the country people and on the other, they were resented and seen as threatening. Hardy frequently writes in dialect, showing the different speech patterns of various classes. Though he was essentially of a middle-class background, he treats his working class characters sympathetically.
Hardy’s attitude toward his characters, particularly his female characters, is extraordinarily complex. His most famous female characters include Sue Bridehead of Jude the Obscure, Bathsheba Everdene of Far from the Madding Crowd, and Tess from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. They portray great strength, but are also prone to great weakness. Of these, Sue Bridehead is probably the most complex. Jude the Obscure was written while Hardy’s first wife, Emma, was still alive. It is not difficult to see a dissatisfaction with marriage evident in the novel, which presumably reflects his marital problems. Sue Bridehead can be seen as a sort of romantic fantasy, someone Hardy wished he had married. The fact that the relationship between Sue and Jude fails reflects not just Hardy’s pessimism, but his unwillingness to make an adulterous relationship successful. No actual adultery on his part was ever proved.
Certainly, there are other parallels between Hardy’s own life and the portrayal of Jude, though it was far from autobiographical. Hardy himself was apprenticed to an architect, Jude a stone mason who does church reconstruction, like Hardy’s father. Hardy studied Greek on his own, as Jude does. Finally, at age twenty-six, Hardy was in love with his cousin, Tryphena Sparks who, at sixteen was studying to become a teacher. It is difficult not to believe that this was the source for the character of Sue Bridehead, although she is also said to be based on Florence Henniker. It is clear that Hardy preferred to write about the world of his childhood and adolescence rather than the more sophisticated world in which he moved as an adult. In none of his novels, and particularly not in Jude, was the Wessex countryside overly sentimentalized. Though he saw its beauty, he also saw its dark side.
Hardy’s last two novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, were his most controversial. Jude the Obscure, like many novels of the time, was published serially both in England and the United States. The American version was “cleaned up” so as to be suitable for all ages. References to extramarital relations were deleted, as were the gruesome deaths.
Hardy continued to receive honors and degrees in the first decades of the 1900s, including honorary degrees in literature from Cambridge University in 1913 and Oxford University in 1920. On January 11, 1928, Thomas Hardy died. His biography was published posthumously the same year. His ashes were placed in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His heart was buried in his first wife’s grave at Stinsford next to the grave of his parents.