Letter from the Vicar (October 2008/November 2008)
When I knew that the BBC was to present a new television adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles I thought I would read that great novel again. Thomas Hardy was one of the first classic novelists whose work I read and really enjoyed.
He is, of course, Dorset’s greatest literary figure, though there have been a number of others such as John Fowles, the Powys brothers and William Barnes.
Although Hardy was a notorious sceptic and a deep pessimist whose outlook on life seems inimical to the Christian gospel and who was denounced in his day by some religious leaders (including a bishop who threw Jude the Obscure into his fire), I believe his writings have a great deal to say to us and they certainly make us think about things we often take for granted. Though Hardy was by no means a Christian in the conventional sense, he described himself once as ‘a churchy kind of person’ who never stopped attending, and taking communion in the Church of England - even after his first (evangelical) wife died!
It is also the case that he had the most prodigious Biblical knowledge. How many priests could identify who Ahimaaz and Aholibah are or where they are found in the Bible? How many Christians could quote from Psalm 102? Do you know where Jared and Mahaleel are in Scripture? All of these items - and (literally) hundreds more - are found by way of biblical allusion in Thomas Hardy’s novels. This agnostic was virtually a walking Bible concordance! Hardy read the Bible in both Latin and Greek. Even while he was still alive and writing it was said that Hardy “was more certainly influenced by [the Bible] than any novelist writing today.” If you consider Tess of the D’Urbervilles alone there are 428 general allusions to Scripture and 110 specific ones. This is only exceeded by Jude the Obscure which has 456 and 112 respectively.
Hardy began life as a Christian and at one point aspired to ordination. A number of sad occurrences turned him away from the faith. A failed love affair, the suicide of his best friend, the influence of secular thought, a failure to gain entry to university, these were just some of the incidents in his life that soured him and made him reject Christianity. His novels became increasingly pessimistic as his career advanced. In some ways this pessimism is excessive, yet it serves as a reminder that the naïve optimism expressed by another great Victorian writer, Robert Browning, “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world” just does not do justice to the tragic realities of life that most of us face sooner or later. Hardy faces a dilemma, however. If there is no God why are we in the grim predicament he describes? In his novels he speaks of an “unconscious will” or an “Immanent Will” or “the Prime Cause” lying behind the events that befall his characters.
I would not call Hardy an atheist. In fact, rather he stands in the tradition of those who have some degree of belief in God, but cannot see him as the all loving, all merciful one the Gospel proclaims. Christians need to take this seriously. For there are many people who find it hard to square the evils of this world with our belief in an all good God. Hardy also serves us by the way he castigates the Church of his day for its judgementalism, narrow-mindedness and legalism. In Tess the heroine feels herself judged by the graffiti of an itinerant Calvinist. The unwillingness of the parson to bury her baby whom he considers to have been inadequately baptised in consecrated ground also seems very harsh. What is more, Hardy makes it clear that the ‘crowd of moral hobgoblins’ which torment her mind (i.e. her guilt) and which pervert her natural inclinations have been put there by her exposure to Christianity. As he puts it, “Most of the misery had been generated by her conventional aspect, and not by her innate sensations.”
It seems to me, therefore, that two important lessons can be learned from the sceptic Hardy. First, we need to take the reality of human tragedy with the utmost seriousness. It cannot be glossed over or glibly dismissed. It is a real and genuine challenge to faith and must be addressed as such. Second, we must beware of dogmatic or fundamentalist forms of faith which replace the loving and merciful God of whom Jesus taught with a harsh and judgemental one. Such a perversion of religion invites its rejection by humanitarians and yet it precisely such faith that is often peddled in the modern world.
If these lessons can be learned from Thomas Hardy, then as well as his lasting contribution to literature, we can also say that he has contributed to civilized and thoughtful faith.