Literary Notes: A radical writer on unmentionable topics

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The Independent Culture
"YOU MEAN mischief," wrote the publisher Macmillan after reading and rejecting Thomas Hardy's first (unpublished) novel The Poor Man and the Lady. It dealt with a man like Hardy rising from the working class but meeting rejection because of his origins. Subsequent history imitated art. Hardy married, as she said, "a lady" who thought that the less one had to do with "the peasant class" his family belonged to, the better. Macmillan meant that Hardy had the effrontery to satirise his betters and "blacken" a class he knew nothing about: he was a subversive.

After this Hardy went underground with his mild subversion. He cannibalised chunks of The Poor Man into his early published novels. These had other shocking elements apart from the attack on middle-class snobbery. They included seduction, bigamy and in one case latent lesbianism. By the 1870s such unmentionable topics sold to respectable readers, provided they were well coated with disapproval. Except for the "Sapphic" episode, Hardy was careful to provide this.

Quite quickly he achieved growing success and fame as a writer of what were seen mainly as wonderfully descriptive novels of life in rural Wessex. Some deplored his lapses into nasty sensationalism but his reputation as a serious writer rose. Hardy himself recognised the attraction and selling power of his half-real, half-imaginary country of Wessex. So, in the first collected edition of his novels he carefully worked up the Wessex theme by altering the texts. He made them topographically more consistent and provided a map but he delighted in obstructing attempts to find "real" locations.

So it was with considerable force that by the 1880s his now truly subversive views surfaced in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. In a society based on patriarchy and paternalism in church, state, and domestic relations, Hardy attacked those very institutions. He did more than defend Tess for succumbing to seduction. He argued that but for society's disapproval her fall and illegitimate baby would have been "a liberal education". He also made her commit adultery and murder, and then claimed her as "a pure woman", thereby savaging the basis of contemporary society. To make matters worse, in Jude the Obscure he next attacked the two props of the establishment: the Church and the older universities. The Church was presented as a worldly and self-serving middle- class enclave. The universities, which grew clergymen "like radishes" to supply the Church, were mechanisms for preserving social privilege and providing jobs for the middle-class boys.

Ironically Macmillan had scented an attack on the status quo in Hardy's slight early satire but he could have had no idea how far the critique would go. Nor could he have guessed how well such ideas would sell. Hardy achieved his greatest success when he spoke most radically and, for his time, subversively. The sales increased as the horror of some critics over Jude the Obscure did. As he wrote to a suffragette:

I have long been in favour of woman-suffrage . . . because I think the tendency of the woman's vote will be to break up the present pernicious conventions in respect of . . . illegitimacy, the stereotyped household (that it must be the unit of society), the father of a woman's child (that it is anybody's business but the woman's own . . .), sport (that so called educated men should be encouraged to harass and kill feeble creatures by mean stratagems), slaughterhouses (that they should be dens of cruelty).

Hardy may have been born in 1840 shortly after Victoria came to the throne, but he speaks to the 20th century rather than the 19th.

Patricia Ingham is General Editor of the new Penguin Classics edition of Hardy's novels, based on the original texts