Margaret Oliphant was described in an obituary as ‘the most accomplished periodical writer of her day’. Her review of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Jude the Obscure, shows her to be profoundly shocked by its contents, and she attacks it as ‘coarsely indecent’. However, she also clearly considers Hardy to be a major writer: ‘There may be books more disgusting, more impious as regards human nature, more foul in detail, in those dark corners where the amateurs of filth find garbage to their taste; but not, we repeat, from any Master’s hand’ (p. 138).
Hardy first published the book as instalments in magazines in Britain, America and Australia, before publishing the full novel. Oliphant attacks Hardy for making money out of one version of the text and then publishing it in book form, with ‘many edifying details … put in for the enlightenment of those who have no squeamish scruples to get over. The transaction is insulting to the public’.
After suggesting that the book is not an attack on marriage (p. 139), she reconsiders this (p. 141), but saves her greatest sense of offence for the character of Arabella whom she describes as ‘a human pig’.
Reviews of Jude the Obscure included such comments as, ‘It is almost the worst book I ever read’. Many focused on the melancholy and underlying gloom of the novel, and even those who praised it as a masterpiece were taken aback by its pessimism. Hardy was seen as attacking the institution of marriage, and as envisaging fate as a spiteful force rather than merely a blind one.
Not all of the reviews were hostile, however. Havelock Ellis, in a review in The Savoy (October 1896), called the book ‘the greatest novel written in England for many years’, and a work which, along with Adam Bede, Jane Eyre or Tom Jones, people might charge with being ‘indecent, as subversive of public morality’, charges that are ‘necessary incidents in the career of a great novel’.
Hardy was put out by the perception that Jude the Obscure was an attack on marriage. He felt the work was primarily a tragedy of Jude’s ambitions being thwarted by the rigid class structure of Victorian society and the indifference of fate. The novel, for Hardy, was only secondarily concerned with ‘the tragic crimes of two bad marriages’.