Book Of A Lifetime: Jude the Obscure, By Thomas Hardy

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The Independent Culture

In a brief moment in my teens when I was able to concentrate on reading many of the classics, the one that lodged with particular resonance in my heart was Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Reading it some 50 years later, its potency has not faded one bit.

Elements of the story are of considerable pertinence today: for instance, work – the lack of it, the difficulty of finding a job that pays enough to exist on, or finding a job at all. Jude, the self-taught scholar turned stone mason of "indefinable charm", never gave up. Determined and tenacious, when he did get employment, his satisfaction in his humble achievements, repairing buildings, are inspirational. I love reading about the exact nature of people's jobs, quite rare in fiction. In Jude's chiselling of a gravestone, the hardness of the stone, and his satisfaction, are almost tangible.

By contrast, the love story between Jude and the remarkable Sue Bridehead – one of the most memorable heroines in fiction – is far from modern. Today, the couple would have been at it within pages. Jude and Sue take their time. Indeed, they procrastinate for so long that it could be irritating: but it is not because of Hardy's brilliance at making the reader understand why their decision not to sleep together, and not to marry, is so difficult. Jude, keen to make Sue his wife despite the mistake of his first marriage to Arabella, goes along with her wishes to procrastinate. His love for her is much tested: she's contrary, impatient, evasive, cruel, but also learned, lively, playful, steadfast. You can see why Jude finds her both difficult but lovable. Their short-lived happiness, of peaceful rhythms and few material ambitions, makes what is to follow all the more searing.

I could not choose a book of a lifetime that did not include the English landscape. Hardy's love of nature is utterly unsentimental, while the poet within him gilds his descriptions of the West Country in a remarkable way. Many of the places he writes about, some still unwrecked, I am able to envisage with huge pleasure.

Often I have been advised by editors to skip nature notes; but I like writing them as much as reading the best of them, and am of the belief that those who love the land appreciate the slow recording of its ways and moods. We follow the lovers through "the hell of conscious failure, both in ambition and love" – a feeling universally experienced. In trying to do the right thing, they get into serious muddles. But although beset by wrong decisions that cause increasing unhappiness, somehow the flame of optimism, along with their love, never quite dies. Hardy is a master when it comes to contradictions of the human spirit. When the ultimate tragedy comes - the deaths of the three children - his genius is to override expected grief with a persistent hope of better life. It is, as the author himself said, a moral tale.

Angela Huth's novel, 'Once A Land Girl', is published by Constable

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