Thomas Hardy’s final novel, Jude the Obscure, was first published on November 1, 1895. When Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles had been published four years earlier it was denounced by critics and clergy as immoral and irreligious.
Jude the Obscure fared no better in some quarters. One reviewer called it “Jude the Obscene.” Another wrote, “What has Providence done to Mr Hardy that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at the Creator?” The Bishop of Wakefield let it be known that he burned his copy of the book.
I can remember being a little taken aback when Arabella Donn slaps Jude Fawley with a “pig’s pizzle” in a rustic courtship scene when I first read Jude the Obscure. I can only imagine what a Victorian cleric might have made of it!
Jude the Obscure is the story of Jude’s desire to go to university and become a clergyman, and how his humble beginnings and orphan status keep getting in the way. There is plenty of sex outside of marriage (and a child out of wedlock), divorces, questioning of religious orthodoxy and challenges to the class system.
There were critics at the time who saw it as a socially conscious critique, and a satire of changes to Victorian values as a more modern era was dawning in Britain.
After the shocked reaction to Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy wrote in his diary, “Well, if this sort of thing continues no more novel-writing for me. A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.”
After Jude the Obscure he gave up novel writing and published only poetry for the last 30 years of his life.