Firstly, I would just like to say that the person who found my blog yesterday with the search term “enormous nipples” must have been rather disappointed when they alighted upon a feminist mauling of King Solomon’s Mines. Hee hee hee.
Onward! Jude the Obscure!
I have a strained relationship with Thomas Hardy. I first encountered him at school, when I was studying him for my CSYS English. I had to study three of his novels (alongside three plays by Tennessee Williams, who I ♥ by the way, and Coleridge’s poetry, which I ♥ some of): Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Far From the Madding Crowd. I read Tess first, and adored it. I still adore it. It’s definitely in my, say, Top Twenty novels of all time. Then there was Far From the Madding Crowd, which I have to say I struggled with a little. I was a 16 year old goth. Sheep farmers didn’t do it for me in the same way that tragic heroines did. And then… then came my nemesis. The Mayor of Casterbridge. For some reason that I now can’t even quite remember, I loathed it. I’ve been urged many times to give it another chance, but I can’t quite face it, even now.
University comes along. In my first year, Hardy pops up on the reading list, and I take a deep breath and dive fearfully into The Woodlanders. Hurrah, it was a success, and I really enjoyed it. Years pass. My fourth and final year, and here he is again, this time with Jude the Obscure. For Jude and I, it was love at first paragraph. I would also like to publically state that I got my second-highest undergraduate essay mark for a paper I wrote about religious imagery in the novel. < / boast >
So, it was with glee that I read the novel again recently for my MA class. As an aside, I do intend to read some Hardy away from academia one day. I know not when, but one day. I am pleased to report that I loved it even more this time than I did back in 2003, and this time I had the added dimension of living in the city where much of the novel is based.
The basic plot is well-known. Jude Fawley harbours a desire to go to Christminster (Oxford) and become a great scholar. He is waylayed (literally, one might suggest) by a disastrous marriage to Arabella, but eventually moves to the city and works as a stonemason while he tries to get into a college. He meets his long-lost cousin Sue Bridehead, and eventually they end up in a relationship, though they don’t marry because they have both had their fingers burned by previous marriages. They have to move about because of public shame about their cohabitation, and struggle to find work and lodging for them and their increasing brood of children, ending in one of the most horrific and tragic scenes of all literature, IMHO.
My feminist leanings obviously lead me to be interested in the character of Sue – Hardy’s closest approximation of a New Woman in many ways – and attitudes toward marriage and domesticity, but reading the novel this time around I found myself thinking a lot about Christminster/Oxford and its mystique. I understand the mystique. Though I have never studied here – I moved to Oxford nearly 4 years ago because I quite randomly got a job here – I don’t think anyone can be here for any length of time without having some kind of dealings with the University, or at least making friends who are/were students. The University is inescapable, its colleges dominate much of the architecture and of course the history of the place. The University is pretty much the reason Oxford exists. It’s easy to see this city through rose-tinted glasses. Before I came here I had that view of the place, and on my first morning I kept seeing students cycling about wearing full sub fusc. I later learned this was because it was exam season, and all students have to wear that get-up to exams, rather than my first assumption that I’d stepped in some Other World.
Oxford is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it is also just a city like anywhere else. They don’t test people’s IQ at the city borders or anything. And the tourists! Oh my god, the tourists drive me crazy. They’re always meandering up and down St Giles and Broad Street, piling in and out of The Eagle and Child or The Lamb and Flag (there’s a reason that hardly any locals go there), taking photos of everything. Understandable, but bloody annoying when you just want to get up the road. They move in packs! It’s like a swarm. Anyway, I’m getting off the point.
What I mean is knowing Oxford, and understanding more about this city, gave my reading of Jude the Obscure a certain slant. The difference between image and reality is stark to Jude, it’s a learning curve as it were, and this affects him deeply, and this element of Jude’s personality and growth was extremely prominent this time around. In my last reading I had focused almost entirely on Sue whereas this time I found I was thinking of Jude far more.
Lastly, I live in a fantastic area of Oxford called Jericho. I love it. This is also the area named Bearsheba in Jude the Obscure, and it is where the church of St Silas is found. Those of you who have read the novel will know that St Silas is where the dramatic scene towards the end of the novel, where Jude finds Sue prostrating herself at the altar, takes place. St Silas is based on Jericho’s St Barnabas church (pictured), which is quite literally across the road from my house. In fact, you can see part of the back of my house in this picture. Cool, huh?