Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Thomas Hardy was definitely not Jewish. But Hardy knew there was no such thing as the “West Bank.” And he knew that Jerusalem belonged to the Jews.

Hardy’s family couldn’t afford to send him to university, so his formal education ended at the age of 16 when he was apprenticed to a local architect. But for all that, Hardy knew Latin, and appeared to have a nodding acquaintance with other languages, including a smattering of Hebrew (more on this later). Like other Victorian writers, Hardy sprinkled his more than 900 poems, short stories, and plays with quotes from ecclesiastical works and the classics, and was well-acquainted with solar mythology.

Hardy was an autodidact. When not at work, he read, and learned how to write by writing. In my own efforts to self-educate, I have been known to raid the classics shelf in our local library, reading things the rest of my peers have read long ago, in school. Which is how I came to read Jude the Obscure. When I mentioned the book to friends, they said it was the one Hardy book they truly disliked. But I didn’t know the book from a hole in the wall. I only knew that it was by Thomas Hardy, and as such, was a classic. That meant I was going to read it.

Thomas Hardy, painting by William Strang

Hardy, like Jane Austen before him, was a social critic. He rebelled against entrenched beliefs that put constraints on people and made them miserable. Jude the Obscure, published in 1895, for example, caused a ruckus for its controversial take on the institution of marriage.

Hardy’s wife Emma was afraid people would think the book was autobiographical. Booksellers bagged it in brown paper, and Walsham How, the Bishop of Wakefield is said to have burned his copy of the book. Adding a postscript to the Jude in 1912, Hardy made reference to the last. "After these [hostile] verdicts from the press its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop–probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”

The central figure of Jude the Obscure, is Jude Fawley, a working class stonemason who yearns to be educated. He dreams of going to the fictional town of Christminster (modeled after Oxford), where he hopes to enter the halls of academe. Alas, (SPOILER ALERT) poverty and an unhappy marriage followed by a great love that cannot be sanctioned by society, all combine to doom Jude to, well, obscurity. My favorite line in the book relates to the talk surrounding Jude’s fake-out attempt to sanitize, at least for his neighbors’ consumption, his unorthodox relationship with Sue Bridehead, “A living mystery was not much less interesting than a dead scandal.”

Jude's ambition was to go to Christminster, modeled after Oxford. 

I love encountering gems like that writerly phrase, which is why I read the classics. But reading the classics can also be disconcerting, in particular if one is Jewish. I am familiar enough with Victorian literature to know that it is infested with antisemitism—a reflection of the times. Knowing this, I am not sure why manifestations of antisemitism in the classics continue to distress me or why I am not yet inured.

I suppose it is about feeling an affinity with a certain writer. You want and expect the writer to think harder about things and not just parrot the attitudes of his peers. You want him to scorn xenophobia, to have a higher sensibility: a calling to truth and goodness. When instead, a writer proves to have no better norms than the society he keeps, it is disheartening.

For this reason I was unsurprised but saddened to come across a reference to a “wicked Jew” only 18 pages into Hardy’s Jude, when as a young boy, the main character tries to see Christminster--the object of his academic dreams--from afar:

People said that, if you prayed, things sometimes came to you, even though they sometimes did not. He had read in a tract that a man who had begun to build a church, and had no money to finish it, knelt down and prayed, and the money came in by the next post. Another man tried the same experiment, and the money did not come; but he found afterwards that the breeches he knelt in were made by a wicked Jew. This was not discouraging, and turning on the ladder Jude knelt on the third rung, where, resting against those above it, he prayed that the mist might rise.

This was so disappointing! Was Hardy yet another literary antisemite? But after my initial shock at the “wicked Jew” reference, I reread the passage with more care. This time I understood that Hardy did not share the antisemitic attitudes of his peers. “This was not discouraging” was the key phrase here. 

Hardy’s character Jude was not poisoned by the silly lies people feed each other from the well of their base prejudices. Jude didn’t believe such stories and would be neither deterred nor diverted by them. Because his creator, Hardy, did not believe these lies.

This was Hardy satirizing the antisemitic attitudes of the day. He was poking fun at ignorant people who believed stupid tropes about Jews. Hardy also poked fun at Christianity. He had no compunction about calling things as he saw them, an uncommon expression of bravery for his time.

In Jude the Obscure, Hardy affirms the Jewish connection to Jerusalem when he details a trip by schoolchildren to see a model of the holy city. “It happened that the children were to be taken to Christminster to see an itinerant model of Jerusalem, to which schools were admitted at a penny a head in the interests of education.”

After walking around the model a few times, the pupils were bored. Realizing that this was the case, their school mistress Sue Bridehead commented, “I fancy we have had enough of Jerusalem,” she said, “considering we are not descended from Jews.”

Jerusalem, it was clear to Hardy, was Jewish indigenous territory. The Jews--and not Christians--were the inheritors of the Holy City. And in 1895, at least, there was no such thing as the West Bank. Places were apparently still known by their actual geographic designations:

“[They] expressed their thoughts so strongly to the meeting that a blackboard was split, three panes of the school-windows were broken, an inkbottle was spilled over a town-councillor’s shirt-front, [and] a church-warden was dealt such a topper with the map of Palestine that his head went right through Samaria . . .”

Samaria! How do you like them apples? No "West Bank." No "Occupied Palestinian Territory," but Samaria: Jewish indigenous territory.

At another point in the book, Hardy appears to highlight Christian hypocrisy. Jude is called upon to repair a stone ornament in a church in his capacity as a stone mason. The ornament is a rendering of the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a symbol of law and order. “The tables of the Jewish law towered sternly over the utensils of Christian grace, as the chief ornament of the chancel end, in the fine dry style of the last century.”

Jude enlists Sue to help him with the lettering, her special talent. But the job doesn’t last. Parishioners soon discover that Jude and Sue are living together in sin, and are shocked to find the two working on the sternly towering tablets of the law. The stone mason and his common law wife are asked to leave.

Christian tradition rejects Judaism as a stern religion of laws.* But here we have Christians offended by the idea that an unmarried couple living together in sin should make repairs to Jewish tablets of law in a church. “So much for the utensils of ‘Christian grace,’” Hardy seems to comment.

Near the end of the book, I was charmed by a reference to the English translation of the love interest’s full first name, “Susanna,” derived from the Hebrew "Shoshanna."

“She had never in her life looked so much like the lily her name connoted as she did in that pallid morning light.”

Many Jewish girls with the name “Shoshanna” are called so after a grandmother Rose or Raizel, on the assumption that “Shoshanna” means “rose.” But actually, “Shoshanna” is a lily. (“Varda,” on the other hand, comes from the actual word for rose, “Vered.” And yes, I am named after my great grandmother, Raizel—my parents didn’t like the name “Shoshanna” so they asked the rabbi to suggest a different name.)

Not only did Thomas Hardy understand that Jerusalem belonged to the Jews, and that there was no such thing as a “West Bank,” but as it turns out, he was a Zionist. From an essay on Hardy, Zionism, and Providential History[1]:

Hardy's  . . . interest in the Jews as the "People of the Book" was deep-rooted. His notebooks, for example, contain an 1876 review of J.P.N. Lan's The Principles of Hebrew Grammar, dealing with word-play in the Old Testament and the relationship between written script and speech, and providing him with a model of continuity in contrast with the decline of dialect he saw everywhere in Dorset. . .

We know something of Hardy's attitude to Zionism because in the Life, he includes a letter of support, written November 1905, to Israel Zangwill (whom Hardy knew well enough to be invited to his wedding in 1903). This is one of the rare occasions on which Hardy abandoned his resolution not to be allied to any political cause. . .

[Hardy saw] the attractions of the East African scheme as "a good practical idea, and . . . possibly all the better for having no retrospective sentiment about it." But he adds that it is precisely the "retrospective sentiment" attached to the idea of a return to the Palestine which would attract him if he were a Jew, "like unto them that dream" --as one of you said in a lyric which is among the finest in any tongue."

When Thomas Hardy died in 1928, there was a bit of a squabble over how he was to be buried. Hardy had asked for his body to be buried in the same grave as his first wife Emma at Stinsford parish church. But his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, wanted him interred in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. At last, a compromise was reached. The author’s heart was buried with his Emma, but his ashes were interred in Poets’ Corner.


*There are numerous examples of this in the gospel. For instance: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace,” and, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.”



[1] ARMSTRONG, T. (1999). HARDY, ZIONISM AND PROVIDENTIAL HISTORY. The Thomas Hardy Journal, 15(3), 73–79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/45274454









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