« AnteriorContinuar »
MR. HARDY'S NEW NOVEL.*
AMONG the novelists who, with so remarkable a vitality and variety, have illustrated the latest generation of English thought and feeling, three, by general consent, have attracted the most enthusiastic attention of men of letters. Mr. George Meredith, Mr. Thomas Hardy, the late Mr. Stevenson --these are certainly the names which occur, before any others, to the historian of literature as he reaches the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century. These three have, in no small measure, already entered into their rest; if, which every reader deprecates, Mr. Meredith and Mr. Hardy should write no more, these three, at least, have become classical. Other eminent novelists of our day may have surpassed them in wide popularity, others may possess a more strenuous moral purpose, a greater fluidity of invention, a more ebullient flood of narrative, but those men and women have their reward. The Authors' Club bends, awe-stricken, before the enormous volume of their “sales.” But pure literary renown, sapped though it is by the commercial spirit, is still a commanding element. Still a great number of English novelists, and many of them with no small success, hear the voice yet speaking which said two hundred years ago :
“ Travaillez pour la gloire, et qu'un sordide gain
Ne soit jamais l'objet d'un illustre écrivain," and among these we say Meredith, Hardy, Stevenson, as one hundred and fifty years ago we might have said Richardson, Fielding, Sterne.
When so high a position as this has been definitely secured by a living writer, it seems to me futile, if not impertinent, to continue, in speaking of his successive books,
* "Jude the Obscure." By Thomas Hardy. London: Osgood, Mcllvaine & Co.
that strain of purely indulgent eulogy which is the agreeable mode in criticism when welcoming the work of a man who by meritorious production is conquering a place in literature. There is something either patronising or obsequious, surely, in speaking of Mr. Meredith, for instance, with a less judicious freedom than we use in the consideration of Thackeray or Balzac. We do not hold it artistic to admire every excrescence on the strongly individualised work of the dead ; we ought not to suppose that there is any disrespect in admitting that the psychology of Stevenson is sometimes puerile, or that the pertinacious euphuism of Mr. Meredith often painfully clouds the lucidity of his intelligence. We take our favourites as we find them, and, because they are great, we neither expect them to be, nor declare that they are, faultless. Nor is Mr. Hardy, , although the author of pages and scenes indescribably felicitous, one of those monsters that the world ne'er saw, a perfect writer. In "Jude the Obscure," he has aimed, in all probability, higher than he ever aimed before, and it is not to be maintained that he has been equally successful in every part of his design.
Before these pages find a reader, everybody will be familiar with “ Jude the Obscure," and we may well be excused, therefore, from repeating the story in detail. It will be remembered that it is a study of four lives, a rectangular problem in failures, drawn with almost mathematical rigidity. The tragedy of these four persons is constructed in a mode almost as geometrical as that in which Dr. Samuel Clarke was wont to prove the existence of the Deity. It is difficult not to believe that the author set up his four ninepins in the wilds of Wessex, and built up his theorem round them. Here is an initial difficulty. Not quite thus is theology or poetry conveniently composed ; we like to conceive that the relation of the parts was more spontaneous, we like to feel that the persons of a story have been thrown up in a jet of enthusiasm, not put into a cave of theory to be slowly covered with stalactite. In this I may be doing Mr. Hardy an injustice, but a certain hardness in the initial conception of "Jude the Obscure” cannot, I believe, be denied. Mr. Hardy is certainly to be condoled with upon the fact that his novel, which has
been seven years in the making, has appeared at last at a moment when a sheaf of “purpose " stories on the marriage question " (as it is called) have just been irritating the nerves of the British Patron. No serious critic, however, will accuse Mr. Hardy of joining the ranks of these deciduous troublers of our peace.
We come, therefore, without prejudice to his chronicle of four unnecessary lives. There are the poor village lad, with his longing for the intellectual career; the crude village beauty, like a dahlia in a cottage-garden ; the neurotic, semieducated girl of hyper-sensitive instincts; and the dull, earthy, but not ungenerous schoolmaster. On these four failures, inextricably tied together and dragging one another down, our attention is riveted--on Jude, Arabella, Sue, and Philottson. Before, however, we discuss their characteristics, we may give a little attention to the scene in which these are laid. Mr. Hardy, as all the world knows, has dedicated his life's work to the study of the old province of Wessex. It is his as Languedoc belongs to M. Ferdinand Fabre, or the Isle of Man to Mr. Hall Caine. That he is never happy outside its borders is a commonplace; it is not quite so clearly perceived, perhaps, that he is happiest in the heart of it. When Mr. Hardy writes of South Wessex (Dorsetshire) he seldom goes wrong; this county has been the theatre for all his most splendid successes. From Abbot's Cornal to Budmouth Regis, and wherever the wind blows freshly off Egdon Heath, he is absolute master and king. But he is not content with such a limited realm ; he claims four other counties, and it must be confessed that his authority weakens as he approaches their confines.
“Jude the Obscure" is acted in North Wessex (Berkshire) and just across the frontier, at Christminster (Oxford), which is not in Wessex at all. We want our novelist back among the rich orchards of the Hintocks, and where the water-lilies impede the lingering river at Shottsford Ash. Berkshire is an unpoetical county, "meanly utilitarian,” as Mr. Hardy confesses ; the imagination hates its concave, loamy cornfields and dreary, hedgeless highways. The local history has been singularly tampered with in Berkshire ; it is useless to speak to us of ancient records where the past is all obliterated, and the
thatched and dormered houses replaced by modern cottages. In choosing North Wessex as the scene of a novel Mr. Hardy wilfully deprives himself of a great element of his strength. Where there are no prehistoric monuments, no ancient buildings, no mossed and immemorial woodlands, he is Samson shorn. In Berkshire, the change which is coming over England so rapidly, the resignation of the old dreamy elements of beauty, has proceeded further than anywhere else in Wessex. Pastoral loveliness is to be discovered only here and there, while in Dorsetshire it still remains the masterelement. All this combines to lessen the physical charm of " Jude the Obscure" to those who turn from it in memory to "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "The Return of the Native."
But, this fortuitous absence of beauty being acknowledged, the novelist's hand shows no falling off in the vigour and reality of his description. It may be held, in fact, to be a lesser feat to raise before us an enchanting vision of the valley of the Froom, than successfully to rivet our attention on the prosaic arable land encircling the dull hamlet of Marygreen. Most attractive Mr. Hardy's pictures of purely country life have certainly been--there is no picture in “ Jude” to approach that of the life on the dairy farm in “ Tess ”—but he has never treated rural scenes with a more prodigious mastery and knowledge. It is, in fact, in knowledge, that Mr. Hardy's work of this class is so admirable. Mere observation will not produce this illusion of absolute truth. That it is not enough to drive in an open carriage through the rural districts was abundantly proved, in the face of Europe, by M. Zola's deplorable fiasco of “La Terre.” The talent of M. Zola, long unduly exalted, now perhaps as unduly decried, covers so wide a ground of human experience that a failure in one direction proves no want of skill in another, but as a student of the peasant his incompetence is beyond question. Curiously enough-and doubtless by a pure accident--there are not a few passages of “Jude the Obscure” which naturally excite comparison with similar scenes in “ La Terre.” The parallel is always in Mr. Hardy's favour; his vision of the peasant is invariably more distinct, and more convincing than M. Zola's,
He falls into none of the pitfalls laid for the Parisian romancier, and we are never more happy than when he allows us to overhear the primitive Wessex speech. Our only quarrel with Mr. Hardy, indeed, in this respect, is that he grow's now impatient of retailing to us the axiomatic humour, the crafty and narrow dignity of the villager.
To pass from the landscape to the persons, two threads of action seem to be intertwined in “Jude the Obscure.” We have, first of all, the contrast between the ideal life the young peasant of scholarly instincts wished to lead, and the squalid real life into which he was fated to sink. We have, secondly, the almost rectilinear puzzle of the sexual relations of the four principal characters. Mr. Hardy has wished to show how cruel destiny can be to the eternal dream of youth, and he has undertaken to trace the lamentable results of unions in a family exhausted by intermarriage and poverty. Some collision is apparent between these aims; the first seems to demand a poet, the second a physician. The Fawleys are a decayed and wasted race, in the last of whom, Jude, there appears, with a kind of flicker in the socket, a certain intellectual and artistic brightness. In favourable surroundings, we feel that this young man might have become fairly distinguished as a scholar, or as a sculptor. But at the supreme moment, or at each supreme moment, the conditions hurl him back into insignificance. When we examine clearly what these conditions are, we find them to be instinctive. He is just going to develop into a lad of education, when Arabella throws her hideous missile at him, and he sinks with her into a resigned inferiority.
So far, the critical court is with Mr. Hardy; these scenes and their results give a perfect impression of truth. Later on, it is not quite evident whether the claim on Jude's passions, or the inherent weakness of his inherited character, is the source of his failure. Perhaps both. But it is difficult to see what part Oxford has in his destruction, or how Mr. Hardy can excuse the rhetorical diatribes against the university which appear towards the close of the book. Does the novelist really think that it was the duty of the heads of houses to whom Jude wrote his crudely pathetic