13 Surprising Facts about Thomas Hardy
& a Jude the Obscure Read-Along
Today is February 1st, which kicks off my first ever read-along! I am co-hosting with Bethany at BethanyLooi.com, and over the next six weeks, we will be reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy and discussing it over on Instagram (follow me to get all the updates).
In honor of the occasion, I took some time doing a deep dive into Hardy's life and the context for this, his final novel, and I have to say, he is a fascinating study!
Jude The Obscure: a bit of context on this banned book
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was an English writer in the Victorian Realist tradition. He was a native of Dorset, England, and the author of fourteen novels, eight volumes of poetry, and three volumes of short stories.
I will freely admit, I didn't know much about Jude the Obscure except that people told me to get ready to read something truly depressing. And while that might scare away your average reader, I've got it in me to still appreciate and even enjoy books that aren't all "good vibes only" and happy endings.
So scare, I did not! Not even when I learned that Hardy biographer Claire Tomalin wrote of the novel that it's
"like being hit in the face over and over again."
After some very careful internet searches (trying to avoid spoilers for myself), here's what I gather the book is about:
This book tells the tale of Jude Fawley, an orphan in rural England during the Victorian era. He's a boy of small means but big dreams and is in the process of teaching himself with ambitions to one day attend university when he gets tricked into marriage by a beautiful but scheming young woman, Arabella.
And that's all I know, because I was too scared to read any further in any plot summaries!
I don't know how well you are acquainted with Victorian morals and ideals, but, like
Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy's Jude flew in the face of those things the Victorian moralists held most dear: the sanctity of marriage and of the church, the hush hush-edness of all things sex, and the unwavering belief that hard work and thriftiness will win the day (and a happy ending).
By and large, the critics were positively vituperative. A review of the novel in the Pall Mall Gazette ran under the headline "Jude the Obscene," and a prominent church bishop proudly declared that he had thrown his copy into the fire. There's even a legend (I never found a reliable citation of it) that some booksellers sold the novel in brown paper bags like your average pornographic magazine.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles, published four years prior, received a similar reception. In response to the criticism then, Hardy wrote in his diary,
“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 was also lambasted, Hardy was done. In his revised postscript to the 1912 edition of Jude the Obscure, he wrote "the experience completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing."
Jude, the Obscure was the last novel written and published by the great Thomas Hardy.
And now that we know a little something of the novel, here are 13 fascinating facts I learned about Hardy that might surprise you.
13 surprising facts you never knew about Thomas Hardy
1. Hardy's formal schooling ended at the age of 16
Thomas Hardy came from a family of modest means, a fact of which he was acutely aware in London society. In fact, he didn't begin his formal education until the age of eight, having been homeschooled by his well-read mother until then. At 16, he became an apprentice to a local architect, John Hicks.
2. Much of Hardy's early career was spent as an architect.
He was actually a bit of a rising star in that field. Before he turned 22, he relocated to London to join a busy and notable architectural firm. All in all, he worked in the field of architecture for 16 years before quitting to focus on writing.
3. You can visit the unique "Hardy Tree" at London's St. Pancras Old Church
While working as an architect, Hardy was charged with solving the problem of moving the bodies out of the cemetary at St. Pancras Old Church to make way for a new railway line. Young Hardy was given this pleasant task. After relocating all the remains, he decided, for reasons unknown, to place all the headstones in a tight, circular pattern around a nearby tree, now dubbed "The Hardy Tree." The tree has grown up and over many of the stones, enhancing the rather strange and evocative image.
4. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 25 times (but never won)
Despite the critical reception many of his novels received, Hardy received Nobel prize nominations every year from 1910-14, 1920, and 1922- 27 for a total of 25 nominations. While he never won the coveted prize, he was awarded an Order of Merit in 1910.
5. He may have originated the term "Cliffhanger".... literally.
Hardy's first novel was A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was serialised in Tinsley Magazine from 1872-73. At the end of one of the chapters, one of his characters is left literally hanging from a cliff (and readers, of course, must wait for the next installment before finding out what happens next).
As with the etymology of many words in our lexicon, it isn't proven that it was Hardy's story that inspired the use of "cliffhanger," but it's still a origin story.
6. Hardy was friendly with many other famous contemporary writers.
While at his home, Max Gate, Hardy received many other writers of his day, including one of my personal favorites, Virginia Woolf. She wrote of him:
“Thus it is no mere transcript of life at a certain time and place that Hardy has given us. It is a vision of the world and of man’s lot as they revealed themselves to a powerful imagination, a profound and poetic genius, a gentle and humane soul.”
7. Though he's most famous for his novels, Hardy really considered himself a poet.
After Jude the Obscure's disastrous reception and Hardy's abandonment of novel-writing, he turned exclusively to poetry. Posthumously, his poetry has been better appreciated, and he is credited with influencing such poets as Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas.
If you want a peek into the genius of Hardy as a poet, I recommend checking out the short poem, "The Shadow on the Stone." Make sure you read it aloud and appreciate the rhythm and use of alliteration.
8. Hardy was heavily influenced by Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species.
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, it shook up the intellectual world, to put it mildly. Thomas Hardy was one of those deeply affected by it. Darwinian theory suggests that the forces that rule life are chance, necessity, and the survival of the fittest, not Victorian morality or divine predeterminism. These themes are pervasive in Hardy's writing, perhaps most especially in Jude.
9. Hardy's novels as we know them are significantly altered from their original publication.
Hardy struggled his entire writing life against Victorian censorship. He had difficulty finding publishers who would print his work without drastically changing the story to represent the Victorian ideals of morality. In the serial versions of Hardy's novels (as they first appeared), there are significant plot changes and omissions in order to placate editors.
10. Hardy was married two times, with varying success
Hardy writes a lot about marriage, and his own experiences with marriage are interesting stores in their own rite. His first marriage was to Emma Lavinia Gifford. She actively encouraged Hardy in his desire to write and is believed to have inspired his novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes.
A little more than a decade into their difficult marriage, the two were essentially completely estranged. By 1899, Emma had chosen to live in the attic as a recluse.
Even though they'd been estranged for more than twelve years, Emma's death in 1912 affected Hardy deeply and inspired The Poems of 1912-13, said to be not only the very best of Hardy's poetry but some of the greatest love poems ever written in the English language.
Two years after Emma's death, he married Florence Dugdale, who was 39 years his junior. According to her, it was a true love match.
11. People thought Jude the Obscure was autobiographical about his first wife Emma, who reportedly hated it.
It's reported that Hardy never showed his manuscript of Jude the Obscure to Emma before publishing it, and that she hated it when she read it. This is likely due to her own increasing religious devotion, whereas Jude the Obscure introduces many criticisms of religion, and her fear that people would think the novel about their marriage.
12. Thomas Hardy is buried in two different places.
Adding to the rather strange tale of Hardy's first marriage, it was Hardy's desire to be buried with his first wife, Emma. However, during his life he had attained such high status as a writer that it was heavily advocated for him to be interred in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Hardy's second wife, Florence, agreed to a compromise: Hardy's heart would be removed and buried with Emma. The rest of his body would be cremated with the ashes interred at Westminster Abbey.
So, literary pilgrims today can visit his tomb in both locations, as macabre as it may be.
13. We know exactly what was in his pocket when he died.
In one of her last letters to Lady Alda, Florence Hardy signed off with the following footnote:
"In the pocket of the last coat T.H. wore I found, after his death, just an old knife, an unfinished poem and a piece of string."
Well, now that we are pretty well and thoroughly introduced to Jude the Obscure and its author, Thomas Hardy, I think it's time to get reading!
Pin this to reference throughout our read-along (and beyond).