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In Hardy Country

On the Ridgeway, a broad grass path on the northern edge of the Berkshire downs, there is a lonely spot of great beauty near where the road from Wantage, in the Vale of the White Horse below, crosses the path on its way over the downs to Hungerford, fourteen miles to the south. A strong wind blows even on clear days, and during a storm the wind whistles as it does on sound tracks. Some of the fields have been ploughed, but mostly the land is pasture, treeless and, by the standards of the region, hedgeless. Though the downs are only a few hundred feet above the vale, the slope is so steep, and great heights in that part of England so rare, that the views are wide and exhilarating.

This isn’t Hardy country at all; in its stark and unaccommodating grandness it bears little resemblance to the Dorsetshire Wessex of Under the Greenwood Tree, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Return of the Native. But Jude Fawley stood here, and was told that he could see Christminster, or Oxford, fifteen miles away, on a really clear day. There is perhaps just enough smog around Oxford now to prevent anyone’s ever seeing a spire, but it is possible to imagine it, which is really what Jude had been doing anyway. Rereading Jude I had been struck by the way the novel keeps coming back to this place, and to the road leading south over the downs to the village Hardy calls Marygreen, in fact called Fawley. He describes it so vividly and insistently that I felt certain the place had some special meaning for him. Hardy’s paternal grandmother was raised in Fawley, and his sister Mary taught for a number of years in the village of Denchworth, in the Vale of the White Horse.

The present life and landscape are sufficiently like what Hardy had seen and Jude lived in that the inevitable changes can be easily ignored when one makes the pilgrimage. Shepherds have used the Ridgeway itself for thousands of years, and the presence of a few houses, pavement on the highway that crosses it, and a few ploughed fields does nothing to keep the view from being the same as could be seen before the Romans came. There is a bridleway to Fawley, too, that is only slightly more primitive than the main Wantage-Hungerford road would have been in Hardy’s time. And Fawley itself is something of a revelation.

Hardy says in the opening chapter of Jude that the old parish church in Marygreen-Fawley had fallen into disuse in the nineteenth century and a new, unattractive one was being built; a cornerstone says the new church was dedicated in 1865, and the building is indeed unattractive. A similar disuse has overtaken the old cottages of the sort Jude’s Aunt Drucilla lived in, so that at present there are no dwellings one can confidently date earlier than the middle of the last century. Fawley is “new,” but in a way Hardy describes or foresees in the novel. The town has little sense of its own past, or of the possibility of present community. Of course there are cars now, and a few television antennas, and Oxford is within easy commuting distance, but none of that seems to matter. Only a few hundred yards off the highway, one might as well be a few hundred miles away. Fawley in 1976, a clutch of twenty houses, wretched and ignored, its major amenity a phone booth, is the Fawley of a century or more ago, No wonder the usually, accurate Blue Guide says that Lambourne—actually a few miles away and much more lively—is the “Maryland” (sic) of Jude the Obscure; such errors are easily made where care has seldom been taken and where errors once made are seldom corrected.

For me, Fawley’s lonely and static isolation was an excitement; yet Hardy scholars say little about the place. I wondered whether something could be discovered there about Hardy’s last novel and the strange shape it took. Hardy’s biography suggests that what I had to deal with was not just one Hardy but two, the man who had visited here a number of times in the 1860s and the man who returned in the early 1890s, while writing Jude. The older man is much easier to see since he is the one who gave us Jude as evidence. In his preface to the novel Hardy says:

The scheme was jotted down in 1890, from notes made in 1887 and onwards, some of the circumstances being suggested by the death of a woman in the former year. The scenes were revisited in October 1892; the narrative was written in outline in 1892 and the spring of 1893, and at full length as it now appears, from August 1893 onwards into the next year….

What that says is that Hardy did no serious work on the book until he had come back to Fawley and the Ridgeway.

As for the “notes made in 1887 and onwards,” Hardy’s diary for April 28, 1888, reads:

A short story of a young man—“who couldn’t go to Oxford”—His struggles and ultimate failure. Suicide. There is something the world ought to be shown, and I am the one to show it to them—though I was not altogether hindered going, at least to Cambridge, and could have gone up easily at five-and-twenty.

Going to the Ridgeway and Fawley with Hardy and Jude in mind, I began to see how much these two apparently simple statements revealed.

Writing about the young man who couldn’t go to Oxford, Hardy could remember his visits to north Berkshire made almost thirty years earlier. He had stood on the Ridgeway and peered at the northern horizon for glimpses of Oxford’s spires. Though Hardy’s diary entry assures us he could have gone up when he was twenty-five, he did not go. He went to see his sister Mary a number of times in Denchworth, and she said Oxford was “jolly.” He knew Oxford contained great treasures of the medieval stonework he much admired. But he didn’t even visit Oxford in those years.

Denchworth is about halfway between Oxford and the Ridgeway, and Hardy had gone the “other” way, the “wrong” way, not to the city but to where he could feel himself to be the young man who couldn’t go to the city. He probably did something like this in the 1860s and so would know where to return in 1892.

Hardy’s sense of this place was perhaps richer than he was conscious of, so that when he came back to find a starting place for his hero he brought to it memories of others who couldn’t go to Oxford, and memories of his own experience around Fawley that had nothing at all to do with Oxford. Somehow all these came together in Hardy so strongly that they found their way into Jude. The evidence offered by the novel is overwhelming on this point; what began as a short story about a young man who couldn’t go to Oxford became a novel bulging with people, places, and events, many of which have nothing to do with the original conception. It is easy enough for a traveler to stand on the ridge of the downs and imagine himself to be Jude; many have probably done so. But, having made the trip to Fawley, having noted how determinedly the novel keeps returning to these places only a few miles from each other, I felt I could begin to see Hardy more clearly, as well as Jude, and to glimpse the strange relationship between them.

There are at least two others besides Hardy who were young men in something like Jude’s position. One was John Antell, Hardy’s uncle, a cobbler from Puddletown in Dorset; like Jude, Antell had wanted to go to college, had taught himself Latin, had a great mass of curly black hair, had hastened his death by lying in a ditch after a night of heavy drinking. The other young man was Horace Moule, who had been to both Oxford and Cambridge but who hadn’t taken a degree from either. Moule had been Hardy’s close friend and literary mentor until his suicide in 1873; he too drank a great deal, he too considered himself a failure. In addition Moule had a more private torment. When he was young he had gotten a lower-class Dorset girl pregnant, and she and the child subsequently emigrated to Australia. In a poem written after Moule’s suicide, “She at His Funeral,” Hardy imagines the woman returning to England and going to Moule’s funeral: “But they stand round with griefless eyes, / While my regret consumes like fire.”

Both the poem and the woman, whom we read about in Robert Gittings’s Young Thomas Hardy, seem suggestive of something important in Jude. Hardy knew where to place his story of the young man who couldn’t go to Oxford, because he had been there himself. Then the memory of Moule impinged, and brought with it the story of the woman, their child, her emigration and return, fancied or real. The story of Arabella Donn has no necessary relation to the original story, but it is likely it came into the novel because she was so tied up, for Hardy, with his memory of Moule. The moment Arabella was brought in, Hardy was no longer writing a short story; sticking to his original strong sense of where he wanted to place the action, he put Arabella’s home in Letcombe Basset, which he calls Cresscombe in the novel, at the foot of the downs, and he put her first home with Jude on the ridge itself, in a “lonely cottage between the Brown House” and Marygreen.

When I went there, I found no cottage and no Brown House, but that hardly mattered since I knew that if Hardy could bring in Moule’s young woman he had at some point committed himself not just to an idea—the young man who couldn’t go to Oxford—or just a place—the spot on the ridge where Hardy had peered northward with longing—but to whatever might be evoked by the idea and the place. He had originally been drawn toward Fawley because he had been told, as a boy, that some terrible thing had happened there to his ancestors; this, too, would turn up in his novel.

The story, or hint of a story, impressed Hardy enough that he asked Mary to investigate when she first went to teach in Berkshire, and, when Mary could find little in that village that was so heedless of its past, Hardy went there himself. Whatever he may have found, Jude offers this much: the constant warnings by Jude’s aunt never to marry, and the story told by the widow Edlin the night before Jude and Sue Bridehead are to be married. In her grandfather’s time, says the widow, a man, refused admittance to the home of his wife’s relatives, broke into the house after he learned his child had died there. For that trespass the man was hanged, and the gibbet was still there, for Hardy to see, just below the Ridgeway—indeed, according to Denys Kay-Robinson in Hardy’s Wessex Reappraised, it would be there still were it not that some people in Wantage took it down. The widow’s story, thus, is a matter of actual local lore, though it may have nothing to do with the Hardy family.

But more than this, Fawley might have appealed to Hardy precisely because it was so bleak and lacking in any feeling of community. Not only does Fawley seem much farther away from Oxford than it actually is, but its very inability to nurture the dreams of its young people would make the determination of the hero stand out all the more boldly. Hardy had not only been raised in a genuine community in Dorset, but he had found Horace Moule there to encourage him when he most needed it; Fawley, then and now, holds out no prospects of containing anyone like Moule. In one of the most touching moments in the novel, Jude, having at last gotten his hands on a Latin textbook, is dismayed to discover that learning a foreign language is not a matter of locating a key that will automatically change English words into their Latin equivalents. In all Fawley’s history, no one may ever have been taught a foreign language there.

But the more everything seems coherent, the more one must look around to see what doesn’t fit. Here are the young man, and Arabella, and the pinched and isolated village with its old tale of the hanged man. Sue Bridehead seems also tied somehow in Hardy’s mind to either the idea or the place. There are some tantalizing hints about her origins. “Sue is a type of woman,” Hardy wrote Edmund Gosse, “which has always had an attraction for me,” which is one way of saying that Sue is not a “new woman” of the 1890s—if she were, she would tend to be socialist and feminist—but a “new woman” of a generation earlier, proudly free of the medieval past, reading Mill’s On Liberty rather than The Subjection of Women.

Robert Gittings, who inclines toward lavish supposing as well as a dogged pursuit of details, wants to connect Sue with a woman we can know only as H.A. He calls attention to two letters Hardy wrote to his sister, in 1863 and 1865; in the later one Hardy says: “Will it be a good thing or will it be awkward for you if H.A. and I come down for Xmas Day and the next?” Gittings then speculates that Hardy and H.A. did indeed go down to Berkshire, and even that Hardy’s first major poem, “Neutral Tones,” was written after a scene between the two near the frozen pond at Fawley. It is all possible; it is even possible that H.A., not Tryphema Sparks, is the woman whose death in 1890 suggested some of the circumstances of Jude.

The less speculative and admittedly more vague evidence is better. In the early 1860s, when Hardy made his first visits to Jude‘s landscape, he was wrestling with religious doubts in ways similar to Jude’s and Sue’s. It seems likely that he knew one woman at least who was like Sue, as Tryphema Sparks, to say nothing of his future wife Emma Gifford, does not seem to have been. What we know about how Hardy discovered his materials for Jude suggests the presence of such a person, perhaps in Berkshire, most likely in the years when he first went to Berkshire. She need not have been H.A., or someone with whom he ever went to Fawley, for Gittings’s guess to be in important respects right.

Hardy’s idea and his sense of the place seem to have worked together to make one story out of what were different stories, and the more one is aware of this, then the more one is convinced that Fawley haunted Hardy, rang chords in his mind and memory, and is the novel’s imaginative center, for all that the book seems, unlike the earlier novels, so placeless. Jude is raised here, and makes his first home with Arabella here; Jude’s two great scenes with Sue take place here; Sue and Phillotson return here with a compulsion that seems as much their author’s as their own; Arabella and Phillotson, that unlikely pair, have their eerie meeting here, near the Ridgeway.

But the more the place seems to have haunted Hardy, the less it seems to haunt Jude. Hardy is telling the story of the struggles and ultimate failure of a young man who couldn’t go to Oxford, but if we weren’t so much aware of the morbid insistence on failure and fate in Hardy’s later novels we might not be so inclined to stress that quality in Jude. Rather, what seems to me striking is Jude’s resiliency, his ability to live in the present and take what comes. Hardy keeps giving him huge tasks and Jude keeps rebounding in the face of his inability to master them. Jude starts in the bleak landscape of the downs, and must rely on itinerants, like Phillotson or the quack doctor Vilbert, to teach him. Even Tess—to say nothing of Michael Henchard or Bathsheba Everdene—seems protected and part of a community when compared to Jude. But by himself Jude learns Latin and sets his sights on Christminster. The experience with Arabella, so similar to what haunted and destroyed Horace Moule, Jude accepts, both in its coming and its going.

After Arabella leaves for Australia Jude climbs to the Ridgeway and the spot where he once carved the inscription “THITHER J.F.” with an arrow pointing toward Christminster:

The sight of it, unimpaired, with its screen of grass and nettles, lit in his soul a spark of the old fire. Surely his plan should be to move onward through good and ill—to avoid morbid sorrow even though he did see ugliness in the world? Bene agere et laeteri—to do good cheerfully—which he had heard to be the philosophy of one Spinoza, might be his own even now.

Surely there is some irony here; but in his strength, in his ability to take on all the disparate challenges Hardy’s imagination conspired to throw his way, Jude still strikes us as strong enough to elude the tragic fate Hardy seeks for him. After he gets to Christminster he sets up as a stonemason and writes letters to various officials about how he might enter one of the colleges. When, after a long wait, he gets one gruff and condescending answer telling him to stop dreaming, Jude is momentarily bitter, and writes on a wall a quotation from Job: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you.” Hardy believes, of course, as we believe, that Jude is right: he may have been a fool to hope for anyone’s help, but he is inferior to no one, and his defiance is as much a sign of tenacity and integrity as it is of folly or conceit. Besides, Jude can more easily turn away from the colleges because Hardy has already drawn him close to the mystery of Sue.

The first two sections of Jude are marvelous, as good as anything in Hardy’s fiction. But what seems to have given them their power is something rather tenuous and, on the face of it, short-lived. In order to “be,” as it were, Hardy himself, and Hardy with his memories of H.A. or someone else similar to Sue; in order to “be” John Antell and Horace Moule, and burdened with Moule’s brief youthful affair; in order to be all these in a landscape totally unhelpful and unencouraging, Jude had to be created larger and more resilient than any of these figures. The story of Arabella has no necessary place in the story of the young man who couldn’t go to Oxford, nor does the story of Sue. Yet Hardy not only brought these in, by means or the imaginative logic I’ve tried to describe; he made them belong, and in doing so he had to make Jude very impressive.

Indeed, for almost two thirds of the novel Jude is amazingly strong; Jude the obscure is also Jude the successful and contented. Before the section called “At Aldbrickham and Elsewhere,” Jude has been through his rocky time with Sue, he is moving about a good deal from job to job, but when Arabella sees him, with Sue and their children, she is struck by how happy they seem, and when the subject of their getting married is first raised by Sue, Jude is kind, cheerful, and capable.

All this obviously is not what Hardy originally had in mind, and he proceeds, and rather crudely too I should say, to pull the rug out from under Jude and Sue. Arabella suddenly reappears, and with Father Time; if this had been in Hardy’s plan all along, I doubt if one reader in a thousand could have expected it. Equally suddenly Aldbrickham, or Reading, is made to seem not a city but a village filled with malicious gossip, and quite abruptly Sue is made to seem neurotically sensitive to it. After six years of living together, both decide that the question of getting married is important. The widow Edlin is brought in to tell the tale of the hanged man and his gibbet. All this leads to the gratuitous decision to return to Christminster, which in turn precipitates the murder of the children by Father Time. At this point the novel is reeling under Hardy’s blows, and it totters to its conclusion.

Hardy, in asking Jude to be impelled by all that Hardy’s haunted sense of his original idea and original landscape could summon up, had in effect created a Jude who is not a failure at all but a figure of Wordsworthian strength, grim and gay, accepting as well as asking. So Hardy had to pile on disasters to bring him down, to make his troubles yield a sense of failure and make failure yield suicide. Hardy always had trouble with his plots in their late stages, but when he contrives to bring down Tess or Henchard or Eustacia Vye, we can see what it was in their characters, or in what they had done, that aided in the contrivance. This is not true of Jude.

The pilgrimage starts as a journey to a place made important by a writer who cared about it; the landscape yields not only itself, and not only the vividness of the book’s details, but the urgencies of the writer too. To say Hardy is more a great poet than a great novelist—the comparison with Dickens and Great Expectations is instructive here—is not to diminish my admiration for this powerful if dismaying novel. In his poems Hardy could express more directly what haunted him, in a place, in memory; in his novels often something manages to intervene. There were many reasons Hardy stopped writing novels after Jude, but one of them may have been a realization, when he shifted his scene from Dorset to Berkshire, that places evoked more in him than any imagined story about the daily lives of others could say.

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