Howard Brenton: There's nothing obscure about my new Jude
A special commission for The Telegraph by Howard Brenton
Ten years ago, when working with the theatre director Howard Davies, we discovered a shared passion for Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. This 1895 work is tough to read but overwhelmingly human. It’s the great outsider novel.
Jude Fawley is not as loved a character as, say, Hardy’s innocent Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but he should be. His thwarted drive to learn, to change himself, is inspirational even though he is defeated. He is a self-taught working-class man, a stone mason, who is denied his heart’s desire – to study classics at Oxford University. He has an inner life beyond the comprehension of the people around him. If he’d been a good, sober churchgoer, dutiful to the sour aunt who took him in as an orphan, perhaps he’d have found a patron and got somewhere.
But he’s a rebel and will not behave properly. He drinks too much, he loves sex. His two great love affairs are disasters.
The first is with the uninhibited Arabella Donn. She comes across Jude reading in the fields and throws a pig’s penis at his head and he is lost! Later, she lies about being pregnant and entraps him into marriage. The second affair is with Sue Bridehead, his cousin. They live together openly and have three children out of wedlock (this was probably the last straw for the Bishop of Wakefield, who threw his copy of the book into the fire). Sue is a wonderfully complex character and the opposite of Arabella. She is psychologically fragile but with a strange energy.