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CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE

Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

THE eighteenth century is the great period of the English
novel. Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Sterne, and
Jane Austen initiated or carried towards perfection nearly
every variety of fiction ; they had few or no rivals throughout
Europe. Scott, with his incomparable genius for romance,
was left to complete the evolutionary process.

Yet it was Scott, as we too often forget, who marred everything and
threw the English novel into disorganization from which it has not even
to-day recovered. Those jerry-built, pseudo-mediæval structures which he
raised so rapidly and so easily, still retain, I hope, some of the fascination
which they possessed for us when we were children ; they certainly retain
it for a few of those children of a larger growth whom we call men of genius.
But Scott’s prodigious facility and the conventional unreality of his view of
life ruined the English novel. By means of his enormous reputation he was
enabled to debase the intellectual and moral currency in this department of
literature to the lowest possible limit. It is a curious illustration of our
attitude towards these things that Scott’s method of paying off his debts by
feverish literary production seems only to arouse our unqualified admiration.
The commercial instinct in our British breasts is so highly developed that we
glory in the sight of a great man prostituting his fame to make money,
especially in a good cause. If he had paid off his debts at the gaming table,
or even at the stock exchange, perhaps we should have been shocked. As he
only flung his own genius and art on to the table to play against a credulous
public his virtue remains immaculate. But a fate works through these things,
however opaque the veil of insular self-satisfaction over our eyes. Scott, the
earlier Scott, was a European influence, manifested in Manzoni, down through
Ilendrik Conscience to the drivel of Paul Féval. Since Scott no English
novelist has been a force in European literature.

This may seem too stringent a judgment of so copious a branch of
literature. But it is because the literature of fiction is so copious that we
need a stringent clue to guide us through its mazes. A man cannot be too

36                              THE SAVOY

keen in grasping at the things that concern himself, too relentless in flinging
aside those things that for him at least have no concern. For myself, at all
events, I find now little in nineteenth-century English fiction that concerns
me, least of all in popular fiction. I am well content to read and ponder the
novels that seem to me assuredly great. In the next century, perhaps, I shall
have time to consider whether it were well to read “Robert Elsmere” or “The
Heavenly Twins,” but as yet the question is scarcely pressing.

If that is the case, I may be asked, why read Thomas Hardy? And I
must confess that that question occurred to me—long a devout admirer of
Mr. Hardy’s work—some fourteen years ago, and I found it unanswerable.¹
For while he still seemed to me a fine artist, I scarcely regarded him as a
great artist in the sense in which I so regarded some English novelists of the
last century, and some French and Russian novelists of this century. More-
over, Mr. Hardy was becoming a popular novelist. For it may be a foolish
fancy, but I do not like drinking at those pools which are turbid from the
hoofs of my fellow creatures ; when I cannot get there before the others I
like to wait until a considerable time after they have left. I could not read
my Catullus in peace if I had an uneasy sense that thousands of my fellow
creatures were writing to the newspapers to say what a nice girl Lesbia was,
and how horrid a person Gellius, condescending to approve the poet’s fraternal
sentiments, lamenting the unwholesome tone of his Atys. It is my felicity
that the railroad that skirts the Lago di Garda still sets but few persons down
for Sermione. Nor am I alone in this. The unequalled rapture of Lamb’s
joy in the Elizabethan dramatists was due to the immensity of the solitude in
which at that moment they lay enfolded. Indeed this attitude of mind is
ancient and well-rooted. The saviours of mankind, with what at first sight
seems an unkindly delight, have emphasized the fact that salvation belongs to
the few. Yet not only is religion a sacred mystery, but love also, and art.
When the profane are no longer warned away from the threshold it is a
reasonable suspicion that no mystery is there.—So it was that I ceased to
read Mr. Hardy’s novels.

But since then things have somewhat changed. The crowd thickened,
indeed, especially when “Tess” appeared, for that book chanced to illustrate
a fashionable sentimental moral. But last year, suddenly, on the appearance
of Mr. Hardy’s latest book, a great stampede was heard in the land. Noisy
bands of the novelist’s readers were fleeing in every direction. Although it

       ¹ I may here mention that, in 1883, I published in the “Westminster Review” a some-
what detailed study of the whole of Mr. Hardy’s work up to that date.

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          37

was still clearly premature to say that peace reigned in the Warsaw of
“Tess’s” admirers, I detected at least an interesting matter for investigation.
—Thus I returned to Mr. Hardy’s work.

That work is now very considerable, remembering the brief space of
twenty-five years over which it is spread. The damnosa hæreditas of Scott
still afflicts nearly all our novelists with a fatal productiveness. The bigger the
burden you lay on the back of Posterity the sooner he is certain to throw it off.
And the creature’s instinct is right ; no man, not even a Goethe, is immortally
wise in fifty volumes. There are few novelists who can afford to write much.
Even Balzac, the type of prolific imagination in fiction, is no exception.
Content to give the merest external impression of reality, he toiled terribly in
moulding the clay of his own inner consciousness to produce a vast world of
half-baked images, which are immensely impressive in the mass but crumble to
pieces in your fingers when you take them up. Mr. George Meredith is,
perhaps, our nearest modern English counterpart to Balzac. There is a pro-
digious expenditure of intellectual energy in the crowd of Meredith’s huge
novels. To turn from, let us say, “The Hand of Ethelberta” to “Evan
Harrington,” is to feel that, intellectually, Hardy is a mere child compared to
Meredith. There never was a novelist so superhumanly and obstreperously
clever as Mr. Meredith. One suspects that much of the admiration expended
on Meredith, as on Browning, is really the reader’s admiration of his own
cleverness in being able to toddle along at the coat-tails of such a giant. Crude
intellect is as much outside art as crude emotion or crude morals. One
admires the splendid profusion of power, but the perfected achievement which
alone holds our attention permanently is not to be found among these
exuberantly brilliant marionettes. It is all very splendid, but I find no good
reason for reading it, since already it scarcely belongs to our time, since
it never possessed the virtues which are independent of time. Like Balzac,
George Meredith has built to his own memory a great cairn in literature. No
doubt it will be an inspiring spectacle for our race to gaze back at.

There arc really only two kinds of novels which are permanently interest-
ing to men. The first contains those few which impress us by the immortal
power with which they present a great story or a great human type. Such are
the “Satyricon,” “Petit Jehan de Saintré,” “Don Quixote,” “Gil Bias,” “Tom
Jones.” These books are always modern, always invigorating. They stand
foursquare, each on its own basis, against every assault of time. The other
class of novels—holding us not less closely, though it may be less masterfully
—appeal by their intimate insight into the mysteries of the heart. They are

38                              THE SAVOY

the books that whisper to us secrets we half-knew yet never quite understood.
They throw open doors into the soul that were only ajar. The men who write
them are not always great masters of style or of literary architectonics, but by
some happy inspiration they have revealed themselves as great masters of the
human heart. Such books are full of the intimate charm of something that we
remember, of things that chanced to us ” a great while since, a long, long time
ago,” and yet they have the startling audacity of the modernest things. Among
them are “Manon Lescaut,” “Adolphe,” “Le Rouge et le Noir,” some of
Dostoieffsky’s novels. If any of Mr. Hardy’s novels may claim to be compared
with the immortals it is the books of this class which we should bear in mind.

The real and permanent interest in Mr. Hardy’s books is not his claim to
be the exponent of Wessex—a claim which has been more than abundantly
recognized—but his intense preoccupation with the mysteries of women’s
hearts. He is less a story-teller than an artist who has intently studied
certain phases of passion, and brings us a simple and faithful report of what he
has found. A certain hesitancy in the report, an occasional failure of narrative
or style, only adds piquancy and a sense of veracity to the record. A mis-
chievous troll, from time to time—more rarely in Mr. Hardy’s later work—is
allowed to insert all sorts of fantastic conceits and incidents. Such interpola-
tions merely furnish additional evidence in favour of the genuine inspiration of
the whole document. We realize that we are in the presence of an artist who
is wholly absorbed in the effort to catch the fleeting caprices of the external
world, unsuspected and incalculable, the unexpected fluctuations of the human
heart.

The great novelists of the present century who have chiefly occupied
themselves with the problems of passion and the movements of women’s hearts
—I mean Paul Heyse and George Meredith, together with Goethe, who may
be called their master—have all shown a reverent faith in what we call Nature
as opposed to Society ; they have all regarded the impulses and the duties of
love in women as independent of social regulation, which may or may not
impede the free play of passion and natural morality. Mr. Hardy fully shares
this characteristic. It was less obvious in his earlier novels, no doubt, although
Cytherea of his first book, “Desperate Remedies,” discovered the moral
problems which have puzzled her youngest sisters, and Eustacia in “The Return
of the Native” sank in what she called “the mire of marriage” long before Sue
experienced her complicated matrimonial disasters. For Hardy, as for Goethe
and Heyse, and usually for Meredith the problems of women’s hearts are
mostly independent of the routine codes of men.

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          39

The whole course of Mr. Hardy’s development, from 1871 to the present,
has been natural and inevitable, with lapses and irregularities it may be, but
with no real break and no new departure. He seems to have been led along
the path of his art by his instincts ; he was never a novelist with a programme,
planning his line of march at the outset, and boldly affronting public reproba-
tion ; he has moved slowly and tentatively. In his earlier books he eluded
any situation involving marked collision between Nature and Society, and thus
these books failed to shock the susceptibilities of readers who had been brought
up in familiarity with the unreal conventionalities which rule in the novels
of Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray, and the rest. “Far from the Madding Crowd”
first appeared in the “Cornhill,” from which a few years earlier Thackeray had
excluded Mrs. Browning’s poem, “Lord Walter’s Wife,” as presenting an
immoral situation. It was not until “Two on a Tower” appeared, in 1882,
that the general public—led, if I remember rightly, by the “Spectator”—
began to suspect that in reading Mr. Hardy’s books it was not treading on
the firm rock of convention. The reason was, not that any fundamental
change was taking place in the novelist’s work, but that there really is a large
field in which the instincts of human love and human caprice can have free
play without too obviously conflicting with established moral codes. Both in
life and in art it is this large field which we first reach. It is thus in the most
perfect and perhaps the most delightful of Mr. Hardy’s early books, “Under
the Greenwood Tree.” The free play of Fancy’s vagrant heart may be followed
in all its little bounds and rebounds, its fanciful ardours and repressions,
because she is too young a thing to drink deep of life—and because she is not
yet married. It is all very immoral, as Nature is, but it succeeds in avoiding
any collision with the rigid constitution of Society. The victim finally takes
the white veil and is led to the altar ; then a door is closed, and the convent
gate of marriage is not again opened to the intrusive novel-reader’s eye. Not
by any means because it is considered that the horrors beyond are too terrible
to be depicted. The matter does not appear to the novelist under this metaphor.
Your wholesome-minded novelist knows that the life of a pure-natured English-
woman after marriage is, as Taine said, mainly that of a very broody hen, a
series of merely physiological processes with which he, as a novelist, has no
further concern.

But in novels, as in life, one comes at length to realize that marriage is not
necessarily either a grave, or a convent gate, or a hen’s nest, that though the
conditions are changed the forces at work remain largely the same. It is still
quite possible to watch the passions at play, though there may now be more

40                              THE SAVOY

tragedy or more pathos in the outcome of that play. This Mr. Hardy
proceeded to do. first on a small scale in short stories, and then on a larger
scale. “Tess” is typical of this later unconventional way of depicting the real
issues of passion. Remarkable as that book no doubt is, I confess that on the
whole it has made no very strong appeal to me. I was repelled at the outset
by the sub-title. It so happens that I have always regarded the conception of
“purity,” when used in moral discussions, as a conception sadly in need of analy-
sis, and almost the first time I ever saw myself in print was as the author of a
discussion, carried on with the usual ethical fervour of youth, of the question :
“What is Purity ?” I have often seen occasion to ask the question since. It
seems to me doubtful whether anyone is entitled to use the word “pure”
without first defining precisely what he means, and still more doubtful whether
an artist is called upon to define it at all, even in several hundred pages. I
can quite conceive that the artist should take pleasure in the fact that his own
creative revelation of life poured contempt on many old prejudices. But such
an effect is neither powerful nor legitimate unless it is engrained in the texture
of the narrative ; it cannot be stuck on by a label. To me that glaring sub-
title meant nothing, and I could not see what it should mean to Mr. Hardy.
It seemed an indication that he was inclined to follow after George Eliot, who
—for a large “consideration”—condescended to teach morality to the British
public, selling her great abilities for a position of fame which has since proved
somewhat insecure ; because although English men and women are never so
happy as when absorbing unorthodox sermons under the guise of art, the
permanent vitality of sermons is considerably less than that of art.

Thus I was not without suspicion in approaching “Jude the Obscure.”
Had Mr. Hardy discovered the pernicious truth that whereas children can only
take their powders in jam, the strenuous British public cannot be induced to
devour their jam unless convinced that it contains some strange and nauseous
powder? Was “Jude the Obscure” a sermon on marriage from the text on
the title-page : “The letter killeth” ? Putting aside the small failures always
liable to occur in Mr. Hardy’s work, I found little to justify the suspicion. The
sermon may, possibly, be there, but the spirit of art has, at all events, not been
killed. In all the great qualities of literature “Jude the Obscure” seems to
me the greatest novel written in England for many years.

It is interesting to compare “Jude” with a characteristic novel of Mr.
Hardy’s earlier period, with “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” or “The Return of the
Native.” On going back to these, after reading “Jude,” one notes the graver
and deeper tones in the later book, the more austere and restrained roads of

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          41

art which Mr. Hardy has sought to follow, and the more organic and radical
way in which he now grips the individuality of his creatures. The individuals
themselves have not fundamentally changed. The type of womankind that
Mr. Hardy chiefly loves to study, from Cytherea to Sue, has always been the
same, very human, also very feminine, rarely with any marked element of
virility, and so contrasting curiously with the androgynous heroines loved of
Mr. Meredith. The latter, with their resolute daring and energy, are of finer
calibre and more imposing ; they are also very much rarer in the actual world
than Mr. Hardy’s women, who represent, it seems to me, a type not un-
common in the south of England, where the heavier Teutonic and Scandinavian
elements are, more than elsewhere, modified by the alert and volatile elements
furnished by earlier races. But if the type remains the same the grasp of it is
now much more thorough. At first Mr. Hardy took these women chiefly at
their more obviously charming or pathetic moments, and sought to make the
most of those moments, a little careless as to the organic connection of such
moments to the underlying personality. One can well understand that many
readers should prefer the romantic charm of the earlier passages, but—should
it be necessary to affirm ?—to grapple with complexly realized persons and to
dare to face them in the tragic or sordid crises of real life is to rise to a higher
plane of art. In “Jude the Obscure” there is a fine self-restraint, a complete
mastery of all the elements of an exceedingly human story. There is nothing
here of the distressing melodrama into which Mr. Hardy was wont to fall in
his early novels. Yet in plot “Jude” might be a farce. One could imagine
that Mr. Hardy had purposed to himself to take a conventional farce, in which
a man and a woman leave their respective partners to make love to one
another and then finally rejoin their original partners, in order to see what
could be made of such a story by an artist whose sensitive vision penetrated
to the tragic irony of things ; just as the great novelists of old, De la Sale,
Cervantes, Fielding, took the worn-out conventional stories of their time, and
filled them with the immortal blood of life. Thus “Jude” has a certain
symmetry of plan such as is rare in the actual world—where we do not so
readily respond to our cues—but to use such a plot to produce such an effect
is an achievement of the first order.

Only at one point, it seems to me, is there a serious lapse in the art of
the book, and that is when the door of the bedroom closet is sprung open on
us to reveal the row of childish corpses. Up to that one admires the strength
and sobriety of the narrative, its complete reliance on the interests that lie in
common humanity. We feel that here are real human beings of the sort we

42                              THE SAVOY

all know, engaged in obscure struggles that are latent in the life we all know.
But with the opening of that cupboard we are thrust out of the large field of
common life into the small field of the police court or the lunatic asylum,
among the things which for most of us are comparatively unreal. It seems an
unnecessary clash in the story. Whatever failure of nervous energy may be
present in the Fawley family, it is clear that Mr. Hardy was not proposing to
himself a study of gross pathological degenerescence, a study of the hereditary
evolution of criminality. If that were so, the story would lose the wide human
significance which is not merely stated explicitly in the preface, but implicitly
throughout. Nor can it be said that so wholesale a murder was required for
the constructive development of the history ; a much less serious catastrophe
would surely have sufficed to influence the impressionable Sue. However
skilful Mr. Hardy may be in the fine art of murder, it is as a master of the
more tender and human passions that he is at his best. The element of
bloodshed in “Tess” seems of dubious value. One is inclined to question
altogether the fitness of bloodshed for the novelist’s purpose at the present
period of history. As a factor in human fate bloodshed to-day is both too
near and too remote for the purposes of art. It is too rare to be real and
poignant to every heart, and in the days of well-equipped burglars and a
” spirited ” foreign policy it is too vulgar to bring with it any romance of ” old
unhappy far-off things.” Our great sixteenth-century dramatists could use it
securely as their commonest resource because it was then a deeply-rooted fact
both of artistic convention and of real life. In this century bloodshed can
only be made humanly interesting by a great psychologist, living on the
barbarous outskirts of civilization, a Dostoieffsky to whom the secret of every
abnormal impulse has been revealed. In Mr. Hardy’s books bloodshed is
one of the forms put on by the capricious troll whose business it is to lure
him from his own work. But that cupboard contains the only skeleton in the
house of ” Jude the Obscure.” On the whole, it may be said that Mr. Hardy
here leads us to a summit in art, where the air is perhaps too rare and austere
for the more short-winded among his habitual readers, but, so far as can yet
be seen, surely a summit.—So at least it seems to one who no longer cares
to strain his vision in detecting mole-hills on the lower slopes of Parnassus,
yet still finds pleasure in gazing back at the peaks.

But I understand that the charge brought against “Jude the Obscure” is
not so much that it is bad art as that it is a book with a purpose, a moral or
an immoral purpose, according to the standpoint of the critic. It would not
be pleasant to admit that a book you thought bad morality is good art, but

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          43

the bad morality is the main point, and this book, it is said, is immoral, and
indecent as well.

So are most of our great novels. “Jane Eyre,” we know on the authority
of a “Quarterly” reviewer, could not have been written by a respectable woman,
while another “Quarterly” (or maybe “Edinburgh”) reviewer declared that
certain scenes in “Adam Bede” are indecently suggestive. “Tom Jones” is
even yet regarded as unfit to be read in an unabridged form. The echo of the
horror which “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” produced more than a century ago
in the cheerfully immoral society of the ancien régime has scarcely even to-day-
died down sufficiently to permit an impartial judgment of that powerful and
saturnine book. “Madame Bovary,” which Taine regarded in later days as
fit for use in Sunday schools, was thought so shocking in the austere court of
Napoleon III. that there was no alternative to prosecution. Zola’s chief
novels, which to-day are good enough to please Mr. Stead, the champion of
British Puritanism, were yesterday bad enough to send his English publisher
to prison. It seems, indeed, on a review of all the facts, that the surer a novel
is of a certain immortality, the surer it is also to be regarded at first as
indecent, as subversive of public morality. So that when, as in the present
case, such charges are recklessly flung about in all the most influential
quarters, we are simply called upon to accept them placidly as necessary
incidents in the career of a great novel.

It is no fortuitous circumstance that the greatest achievements of the
novelist’s art seem to outrage morality. “Jude the Obscure” is a sufficiently
great book to serve to illustrate a first principle. I have remarked that I
cannot find any undue intrusion of morality in the art of this book. But I was
careful to express myself cautiously, for without doubt the greatest issues of
social morality are throughout at stake. So that the question arises : What
is the function of the novelist as regards morals ? The answer is simple, though
it has sometimes been muddled. A few persons have incautiously asserted that
the novel has nothing to do with morals. That we cannot assert ; the utmost
that can be asserted is that the novelist should never allow himself to be made
the tool of a merely moral or immoral purpose. For the fact is that, so far as
the moralist deals with life at all, morals is part of the very stuff of his art.
That is to say, that his art lies in drawing the sinuous woof of human nature
between the rigid warp of morals. Take away morals, and the novelist is in
vacuo
, in the region of fairy land. The more subtly and firmly he can weave
these elements together the more impressive becomes the stuff of his art. The
great poet may be in love with passion, but it is by heightening and strengthen-

44                              THE SAVOY

ing the dignity of traditional moral law that he gives passion fullest play.
When Wagner desired to create a typically complete picture of passion he chose
the story of Tristram ; no story of Paul and Virginia can ever bring out the
deepest cries of human passion. Shakespeare found it impossible to picture
even the pure young love of Romeo and Juliet without the aid of the violated
laws of family and tradition. ” The crash of broken commandments,” Mr.
Hardy once wrote in a magazine article, ” is as necessary an accompaniment to
the catastrophe of a tragedy as the noise of drum and cymbals to a triumphal
march ;” and that picturesque image fails to express how essential to the
dramatist is this clash of law against passion. It is the same in life as in art,
and if you think of the most pathetic stories of human passion, the profoundest
utterances of human love, you probably think most readily of such things as the
letters of Abélard and Héloise, or of Mlle, de Lespinasse, or of the Portuguese
nun, and only with difficulty of the tamer speech of happier and more legiti-
mate emotions. Life finds her game in playing off the irresistible energy of
the individual against the equally irresistible energy of the race, and the
stronger each is the finer the game. So the great artist whose brain is afire
with the love of passion yet magnifies the terror and force of moral law, in his
heart probably hates it.

Mr. Hardy has always been in love with Nature, with the instinctive,
spontaneous, unregarded aspects of Nature, from the music of the dead heather-
bells to the flutter of tremulous human hearts, all the things that are beautiful
because they are uncontrolled by artificial constraint. The progress of his art
has consisted in bringing this element of nature into ever closer contact with
the rigid routine of life, making it more human, making it more moral or more
immoral. It is an inevitable progression. That love of the spontaneous, the
primitive, the unbound—which we call the love of “Nature”—must as
it becomes more searching take more and more into account those things, also
natural, which bind and constrain “Nature.” So that on the one side, as Mr.
Hardy has himself expressed it, we have Nature and her unconsciousness of
all but essential law, on the other the laws framed merely as social expedients
without a basis in the heart of things, and merely expressing the triumph of the
majority over the individual ; which shows, as is indeed evident from Mr.
Hardy’s work, that he is not much in sympathy with Society, and also shows
that, like Heyse, he recognizes a moral order in Nature. This conflict reaches
its highest point around women. Truly or falsely, for good or for evil, woman
has always been for man the supreme priestess, or the supreme devil, of
Nature. “A woman,” said Proudhon—himself the incarnation of the revolt of

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          45

Nature in the heart of man—”even the most charming and virtuous woman,
always contains an element of cunning, the wild beast element. She is a tamed
animal that sometimes returns to her natural instinct. This cannot be said
in the same degree of man.” The loving student of the elemental in Nature so
becomes the loving student of women, the sensitive historian of her conflicts
with “sin” and with “repentance,” the creations of man. Not, indeed, that
any woman who has “sinned,” if her sin was indeed love, ever really “repents.”
It is probable that a true experience of the one emotional state as of the other
remains a little foreign to her, “sin” having probably been the invention
of men who never really knew what love is. She may catch the phrases of the
people around her when her spirit is broken, but that is all. I have never
known or heard of any woman, having for one moment in her life loved and
been loved, who did not count that moment as worth all other moments in life.
The consciousness of the world’s professed esteem can never give to unloved
virtue and respectability the pride which belongs to the woman who has once
“sinned” with all her heart. One supposes that the slaves of old who never
once failed in abject obedience to their master’s will mostly subdued their
souls to the level of their starved virtues. But the woman who has loved is like
the slave who once at least in his life has risen in rebellion with the cry : “And
I, too, am a man !” Nothing that comes after can undo the fine satisfaction of
that moment. It was so that a great seventeenth-century predecessor of Mr.
Hardy in the knowledge of the heart, painted Annabella exultant in her sin
even at the moment of discovery, for “Nature” knows no sin.

If these things are so, it is clear how the artist who has trained himself to
the finest observation of Nature cannot fail, as his art becomes more vital and
profound, to paint morals. The fresher and more intimate his vision of Nature,
the more startling his picture of morals. To such an extent is this the case in
“Jude the Obscure,” that some people have preferred to regard the book as a
study of monstrosity, of disease. Sue is neurotic, some critics say; it is fashionable
to play cheerfully with terrible words you know nothing about. “Neurotic”
these good people say by way of dismissing her, innocently unaware that
many a charming “urban miss” of their own acquaintance would deserve the
name at least as well. In representing Jude and Sue as belonging to a failing
family stock, I take it that Mr. Hardy by no means wished to bring before us
a mere monstrosity, a pathological “case,” but that rather, with an artist’s true
instinct—the same instinct that moved so great an artist as Shakespeare when
he conceived “Hamlet”—he indicates the channels of least resistance along
which the forces of life most impetuously rush. Jude and Sue are represented

46                              THE SAVOY

as crushed by a civilization to which they were not born, and though civilization
may in some respects be regarded as a disease and as unnatural, in others it
may be said to bring out those finer vibrations of Nature which are overlaid by
rough and bucolic conditions of life. The refinement of sexual sensibility with
which this book largely deals is precisely such a vibration. To treat Jude, who
wavers between two women, and Sue, who finds the laws of marriage too
mighty for her lightly-poised organism, as shocking monstrosities, reveals a
curious attitude in the critics who have committed themselves to that view.
Clearly they consider human sexual relationships to be as simple as those of
the farmyard. They are as shocked as a farmer would be to find that a hen
had views of her own concerning the lord of the harem. If, let us say, you
decide that Indian Game and Plymouth Rock make a good cross, you put your
cock and hens together, and the matter is settled ; and if you decide that a
man and a woman are in love with each other, you marry them and the matter
is likewise settled for the whole term of their natural lives. I suppose that the
farmyard view really is the view of the ordinary wholescme-minded novelist
—I mean of course in England—and of his ordinary critic. Indeed in Europe
generally, a distinguished German anthropologist has lately declared, sensible
and experienced men still often exhibit a knowledge of sexual matters such as we
might expect from a milkmaid. But assuredly the farmyard view corresponds
imperfectly to the facts of human life in our time. Such things as “Jude” is
made of are, in our time at all events, life, and life is still worthy of her muse.

“Yes, yes, no doubt that is so,” some critics have said in effect, “but con-
sider how dangerous such a book is. It may be read by the young. Consider
how sad it would be if the young should come to suspect, before they are
themselves married, that marriage after all may not always be a box of bon-
bons. Remember the Young Person.” Mr. Hardy has himself seemingly,
though it may only be in seeming, admitted the justice of this objection when
in the preface to his book he states that it is “addressed by a man to men
and women of full age.” Of course there is really only one thing that the
true artist can or will remember, and that is his art. He is only writing for
one person—himself. But it remains true that a picture of the moral facts of
the world must arouse moral emotions in the beholder, and while it may not
be legitimate to discuss what the artist ought to have done, it is perfectly
legitimate to discuss the effect of what he has done.

I must confess that to me it seems the merest cant to say that a book has
been written only to be read by elderly persons. In France, where a different
tradition has been established, the statement may pass, but not in England nor

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          47

in America, where the Young Person has a firm grip of the novel, which she is
not likely to lose. Twenty years ago one observed that one’s girl friends—
the daughters of clergymen and other pillars of society—found no difficulty,
when so minded, in reading en cachette the works of Ouida, then the standard-
bearer of the Forbidden, and subsequent observation makes it probable that
they are transmitting a similar aptitude to their daughters, the Young Persons
of to-day. We may take it that a novel, especially if written in English, is
open to all readers. If you wish to write exclusively for adult readers, it is
difficult to say what form of literature you should adopt ; even metaphysics is
scarcely safe, but the novel is out of the question. Every attempt to restrict
literature is open to a reductio ad absurdum. I well remember the tender-
hearted remonstrance of an eminent physician concerning a proposal to publish
in a medical journal a paper on some delicate point in morbid psychology :
“There are always the compositors.” Who knows but that some weak-kneed
suggestible compositor may by Jude Fawley’s example be thrust on the
downward road to adultery and drink ? With this high-strung anxiety lest we
cause our brother to offend, no forward step could ever be taken in the world ;
for “there are always the compositors.” There would be nothing better than
to sit still before the book of Ecclesiastes, leaving the compositors to starve in
the odour of sanctity.

But why should the Young Person not read “Jude the Obscure”? To
me at least such a question admits of no answer when the book is the work
of a genuine artist. One can understand that a work of art as art may not
be altogether intelligible to the youthful mind, but if we are to regard it as
an ensample or a warning, surely it is only for youth that it can have any sort
of saving grace. “Jude” is an artistic picture of a dilemma such as the Young
Person, in some form or another, may one day have to face. Surely, on moral
grounds, she should understand and realize this beforehand. A book which
pictures such things with fine perception and sympathy should be singularly
fit reading. There is probably, however, much more foxiness than morality
in the attitude of the Elderly Person in this matter. “Don’t trouble about
traps, my little dears,” the Elderly Person seems to say ; “at your age you
ought not to know there are such things. And really they are too painful to
talk about ; no well-bred Young Person does.” When the Young Person has
been duly caught, and emerges perhaps without any tail, then the Elderly Person
will be willing to discuss the matter on a footing of comfortable equality. But
what good will it be to the Young Person then ? The Elderly Person’s solici-
tude in this matter springs, one fears, from no moral source, but has its origin

48                              THE SAVOY

in mists of barbarous iniquity which, to avoid bringing the blush of shame to his
cheek, need not here be investigated. “Move on, Auntie !” as little Sue said
to the indignant relation who had caught her wading in the pond, “this is no
sight for modest eyes !”

So that if the Young Person should care to read “Jude” we ought for her
own sake, at all events, to be thankful. But our thankfulness may not be
needed. The Young Person has her own tastes, which are at least as
organically rooted as anyone else’s ; if they are strong she will succeed in
gratifying them ; if they are not, they scarcely matter much. She ranks
“A Pair of Blue Eyes” above “Jude the Obscure,” likes Dickens more than
either, and infinitely prefers Marie Corelli to them all. Thus she puts her
foot down on the whole discussion. In any case it ought to be unnecessary
to labour this point ; there is really little to add to Ruskin’s eloquent vindica-
tion for young girls of a wholesome freedom to follow their own instincts in
the choice of books.

To sum up, “Jude the Obscure” seems to me—in such a matter one can
only give one’s own impressions for what they are worth—a singularly fine
piece of art, when we remember the present position of the English novel. It
is the natural outcome of Mr. Hardy’s development, along lines that are
genuinely and completely English. It deals very subtly and sensitively with
new and modern aspects of life, and if, in so doing, it may be said to represent
Nature as often cruel to our social laws, we must remark that the strife of
Nature and Society, the individual and the community, has ever been the
artist’s opportunity. “Matrimony have growed to be that serious in these days,”
Widow Edlin remarks, “that one really do feel afeard to move in it at all.” It
is an affectation to pretend that the farmyard theory of life still rules un-
questioned, and that there are no facts to justify Mrs. Edlin. If anyone will
not hear her, let him turn to the Registrar-General. Such facts are in our
civilisation to-day. We have no right to resent the grave and serious spirit
with which Mr. Hardy, in the maturity of his genius, has devoted his best art
to picture some of these facts. In “Jude the Obscure” we find for the first
time in our literature the reality of marriage clearly recognized as something
wholly apart from the mere ceremony with which our novelists have usually
identified it. Others among our novelists may have tried to deal with the
reality rather than with its shadow, but assuredly not with the audacity, purity
and sincerity of an artist who is akin in spirit to the great artists of our best
dramatic age, to Fletcher and Heywood and Ford, rather than to the powerful
though often clumsy novelists of the eighteenth century.

     CONCERNING JUDE THE OBSCURE                          49

There is one other complaint often brought against this book, I under-
stand, by critics usually regarded as intelligent, and with the mention of it I
have done. “Mr. Hardy finds that marriage often leads to tragedy,” they say,
“but he shows us no way out of these difficulties ; he does not tell us his own
plans for the improvement of marriage and the promotion of morality.” Let
us try to consider this complaint with due solemnity. It is true that the artist
is god in his own world ; but being so he has too fine a sense of the etiquette
of creation to presume to offer suggestions to the creator of the actual world,
suggestions which might be resented, and would almost certainly not be
adopted. An artist’s private opinions concerning the things that are good
and bad in the larger work! are sufficiently implicit in the structure of his own
smaller world ; the counsel that he should make them explicit in a code
of rules and regulations for humanity at large is a counsel which, as every
artist knows, can only come from the Evil One. This complaint against
“Jude the Obscure” could not have arisen save among a generation which has
battened on moral and immoral tracts thrown into the form of fiction by
ingenious novices. The only cure for it one can suggest is a course of great
European novels from “Petit Jehan de Saintré” downwards. One suggestion
indeed occurs for such consolation as it may yield. Has it not been left to our
century to discover that the same hand which wrote the disordered philosophy
of “Hamlet” put the times into joint again in “The New Atlantis,” and may
not posterity find Thomas Hardy’s hand in “Looking Backward” and “The
Strike of a Sex ?” Thus for these critics of “Jude” there may yet be balm in
Utopia.


                                                                                HAVELOCK ELLIS.

MLA citation:

Ellis, Havelock. “Concerning Jude the Obscure.” The Savoy vol. 6, October 1896, pp. 35-49. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv6-ellis-jude/