Jude Fawley is thoroughly decent. He also wants to become learned and respected. But he has doom written all over his face, and much more stridently than had either Romeo or Juliet. He is at first seduced and then conned into marriage by Arabella Donn. Arabella is anything but decent. She is a tart who shoots through. Jude then falls for his cousin, Sue Bridehead. There are at least two problems – his marriage to Arabella, and the family relationship. And Sue. What is she about? That is what the book is about. Throughout my reading of this novel, a song my parents loved, I think sung by Eddie Cantor, kept on resurfacing.
If you knew Susie, like I know Susie,
Oh, Oh, what a gal!
There’s none so classy
As this fair lassie…..
You can see Thomas Hardy as the link between George Eliot and D H Lawrence. There are also many times when this novel reads like Days of Our Lives. And toward the end, a mordant slice of Wozzek hits you smack in the face from nowhere. At times I wondered if the author’s mind was too fast for his pen. The changes of tempi for the various star-crossed lovers can be very unsettling. There are times, too, when you think that you may be watching a puppet show predestined by the coolest Calvinist. Is Jude too innocent and vulnerable? Is Arabella too predictably devious? And will the mercurial Sue ever find peace? And then there are times when the book just sounds alarmingly modern – and worlds way from Dickens
This is the start of Jude’s problems.
That night he went out alone, and walked in the dark self-communing. He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honourable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences. For his own soothing he kept up a factitious belief in her. His idea of her was the thing of most consequence, not Arabella herself, he sometimes said laconically.
When Hardy spoke of Sue – and he should have known her – he referred to ‘the elusiveness of her curious double nature.’ She says she loves Jude but she has a hang-up about sex – or men generally. Consequently, the two ‘lovers’ devote time and love to each other – without getting it off. If Jude was bloody frustrated, so was I. Sue was in mortal danger of being branded a teaser, but the strain on our credulity, or patience, can be severe.
You may often think that this was a book just written for Bette Davis – who made all those films that left you wondering why people wanted to torture themselves over ‘love’- with oodles of exclamation marks.
‘Yes… But Sue—my wife, as you are!’ he burst out; ‘my old reproach to you was, after all, a true one. You have never loved me as I love you—never—never! Yours is not a passionate heart—your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite—not a woman!’
Jude has a philosophical disposition; in another life he may have been right into bondage. And not many stonemasons can reel off Aeschylus.
‘Nothing can be done,’ he replied. ‘Things are as they are, and will be brought to their destined issue.’
She paused. ‘Yes! Who said that?’ she asked heavily.
‘It comes in the chorus of the Agamemnon. It has been in my mind continually since this happened.’
‘My poor Jude—how you’ve missed everything!—you more than I, for I did get you! To think you should know that by your unassisted reading, and yet be in poverty and despair!’
After such momentary diversions her grief would return in a wave.
(The ‘this’ is the Wozzek interlude.)
In the Preface, Hardy said that a German reviewer had said that the heroine – Sue Bridehead –
…..was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year – the woman of the feminist movement – the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who does not recognise the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises. (Emphasis added.)
The novel came out in 1894 – to uproar – but that absolute blinder of a line was written in 1912:….‘because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.’ That was when women were trying to come out – amid the blood and guts of a fearful partition. And that I think is why the story of Sue Bridehead is so hard and chancy. She was some sort of assault pioneer, and that sort of soldier takes heavy casualties. Coming out, like breaking up, is hard to do. Had a woman written this book, it may have been called Sue the Obscure.
For all its problems – especially for a bloke in this century – this book is an engrossing read. And I have a soft spot for it for another reason. It was the favourite book of the late John Arlott, a cricket commentator whose voice could be recognised instantly across the oceans, and who loved to get very deep with a bottle of red in his hand.