The title of this piece is the Obscure after the book about Jude Fawley by Thomas Hardy. The image is also printed on the text from a 1917 edition. There are lots of reasons for this but the main one is if you don’t have an education, you are screwed.
I’ve never read all of Jude the Obscure despite the fact that Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite writers. It’s just too bleak and sad. Even Michael Winterbottom’s film with Christopher Ecclestone and Kate Winslet is too much for me to sit through; poverty, siblicide, suicide all under the gaze of the unforgiving lemon sucking Victorian establishment. But I know a lot about this book because it pivots on the the desire for education. I cannot begin to imagine how my life would have turned out without the access to education I had.
The first work by Hardy I ever read was Return of the Native for A level English at night classes having screwed up royally first at secondary and then art school. Very early on in the novel he introduces his heroine standing on top of some ancient earth works, stock still until she turns and scuttles away as other people approach to build a bonfire. He places her alone in the landscape, adrift, at odds and Eustacia Vye spends the rest of the novel being pretty objectionable, but given her circumstances it’s hardly surprising.
Eustacia’s options are even more spartan than Jude’s, he just wants to study and his access to formal study is reliant on a background very different from his own. Nevertheless, he teaches himself classical Greek and Latin but his biology gets the better of him and he ends up marrying someone he really shouldn’t have. Had he been rich, nothing could possibly have stood in his way, but he isn’t, so he can’t. He doesn’t want an education in order to get a job in a bank, he just wants to be a scholar. But although Jude’s tragedy is in part due to his inability to get a place at Christminster, he is also crushed by his passionate, destructive and blinkered pursuit of what he thinks is worthwhile. Eustacia’s position is more binary, she is half Italian and thus foreign and weird and she’s a she. Jude could have contented himself with being a smart fella in a crap job and maybe with a lucky break he could have met some progressive types and found a place for himself. Eustacia can marry an idiot who chucks a perfectly good job away in order to get closer to nature thus rendering himself and his wife to a life on the breadline, or become the mistress of a cad.
So far, so Victorian. In Hardy’s hands the Return of the Native despite it’s rigid social and religious framework is still a good read, the descriptions of the countryside are cinematic, the inflections, accents and dialects are rendered in a way that makes the believable and even in a weird way quite current. I recognize the stark contrast between being rural poor and unable to escape and and affluent incomer who can be comfortable. I grew up Malvern, a very pretty place where there was also real hardship and poverty that the casual observer would often find incomprehensible – you must love it there, such a beautiful place – . Despite it’s hippy dippy reputation, Malvern had its problem people and Malvern being Malvern didn’t treat those viewed as outside the social acceptability paradigm in a fair or equitable manner. Ask ‘Super Chav’ and ex-resident Cher Lloyd about the joys of being other in South West Worcestershire.
If anything this is the core of what I find most appealing about his work; that even under a vast shared sky, there is an implacable order that education can circumvent (unless you find a powerful allay), but that in order to get that education, far more so now than when I was an undergraduate, your chances, access and ability to use that learning is predicated on the luck and affluence of your family.
Education has been the making of me and lack of it was in part the cause of my father’s idea of failure. I have chosen to live the way I do in order to learn, in order to have, in order to make but also always to take care that the things that I was working towards were realistic. He chose to make other sacrifices in order to give us his family a nice life. His awareness of his own failures with education propelled me into making sure I was protected as best I could from the impact of the outside world on my internal peace of mind. To keep me cushioned from the vagaries of the job market and to get me as close as I possibly could to achieve the things I dreamed of. His name was Graham Simon (1926-1979) and he encouraged me to dream.