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The book the bishop burnt

Radio Times, 26th January 1986

Branded as immoral when it was first published, ‘Jude the Obscure’ (Sunday 9.0, re-broadcast Friday 3.0) was to prove the last novel by Thomas Hardy. Its attack on marital conventions (and, indeed, on conventional morality) scandalised Victorian society and horrified Hardy’s wife Emma.

The book was even ceremonially burnt by a bishop – “probably in his despair”, wrote Hardy later, “at not being able to burn me”. For the remaining 33 years of his life he was to concentrate on poetry – “the experience (with Jude) completely curing me of further interest in novel-writing”.

Today ‘Jude the Obscure’ is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the late 19th century. “It’s extraordinarily outspoken and full of social significance,” says novelist and playwright Elizabeth North, who has newly adapted it for radio.

“It stands on its own in his output and continues to divide Hardy lovers because it is so different. It’s the story of a country boy (like Hardy’s father, a stonemason) who desperately wants to get to Oxford – called Christminster in the book – and of his love for a modern, free-thinking woman. It attacks both the institution of marriage and the system which prevented the poor getting the same educational opportunities as the rich.”

Elizabeth was herself brought up in Hardy country – in Dorset, the centre of Hardy’s sprawling Wessex – and has already made one radio foray ‘home’ with her 1984 feature ‘The Real Tess’, about the woman who first played Tess of the d’Urbervilles in Britain. Adapting ‘Jude’ has been a tougher challenge though Hardy obligingly divided the book into six parts and Elizabeth has kept closely to each for the serial’s six episodes. “I’ve tried to shape each one as a little play of its own,” she says.

Jude is played by Michael Pennington who says he understands why the book was such a shocker in its time. “It’s quite Lawrentian, a very explicit look at sexual matter,” he says.” It feels very much like a last novel and it’s difficult to imagine what Hardy would have tackled afterwards. Jude has one foot in the old rural Wessex and the other in the new thinking of the 20th century. But what makes the character so interesting are the heights and depths he reaches. He’s very idealistic but rather weak and completely collapses when things go wrong.”

Michael was an acclaimed Hamlet a few years back and he has recently toured around Europe with his one-man show about Chekhov, first seen at the National Theatre.

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