Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Lasting Impressions: Sue Bridehead

Jude the Obscure is arguably Hardy's greatest novel, rivalling Tess even in complexity and character. But it is not so much the downtrodden Jude (reminiscent of Clym Yeobright) who steals the show as Sue Bridehead, his cousin and later common-law wife. We do not know Sue's thoughts and yet how vivid she is! A German reviewer wrote of her as
the first delineation in fiction of the woman... of the feminist movement - the slight pale 'bachelor' girl - the intellectualised, emancipated bundle of nerves
that you will see in late Victorian or Edwardian fiction. Unlike her fellow New Women, Sue is working class - the rest tend to be Bohemian middle-class or at least middle class. Hardy knew what he was doing when he had her train as a teacher. For this part is based on his cousin Tryphena Sparks, who become a schoolteacher - a social ascent for her. Sue does not talk about classical music or modern painters or the right to vote, but she has a passion for figurines and J.S Mill. She causes scandal because she collect nude statues, which are deemed improper. But Sue thinks she is perfectly decent because the figures are religious, and she is fond of art. How often do you find women in classic fiction who openly state their intellectual stances? Even intelligent heroines tend to be socially intelligent rather than intellectual.

But Sue is full of inconsistencies. She once lived with an undergraduate who cultivated her intellect, not realising he expected her to become his mistress. Only when he informed her of his intentions she refused and so they remained platonic friends in cohabitation. He died of heartbreak and left her a little money. Jude finds this curious in Sue, because how often then did a woman live with a man on such sexless terms? The key is Sue's sexlessness: she is frigid and asexual, and feels no physical attraction to men. She liked the undergraduate because he was intellectual but she could not enjoy the baser side of him. Still it would have been against the norms of the Victorian era. I admire the fact she places intellectual attraction above physical attraction, and her relationships seem to be based on the former rather than the latter. Even after she marries Phillotson she resists marital relations and runs away with Jude. But it is not on account on sexual attraction. She likes Jude for emotional reasons and because they are somewhat similar - two intelligent working class people trying to make their way in the world. But by doing so she loses her respectable job as teacher, a job she is good at. Interestingly she argues against her living with her husband by using J.S. Mill, a Victorian philosopher and social reformer who argued for the rights of women. His On Liberty is considered a classic, and Hardy was fascinated by it. As Phillotson says, her intellect sparkles like diamonds whereas he is old and dusty.

Sue refuses to consummate her relationship with Jude even after her divorce. Only until after his estranged wife has a brief rough and tumble in an inn is her wrath raised, and she agrees to fulfill marital relations if only to keep him. If we did not know she was sexless, we would expect her to be passionately in love with Jude because she is jealous of his wife and is clearly attached to him. And so her sexlessness comes as a surprise. Hardy was showing a truth, however - it is possible for a sexless person to love deeply without desiring physical relations. This was a sort of Victorian ideal, but many people would uncover the more sexual side of things (like the fact women do enjoy physical relations). By Hardy's time that was more known. But Sue's asexuality isn't a Victorian idealism, because she does bear children without enjoying physical relations. In that way she is more pure than Tess, who does have physical desires. Hardy himself confirmed in a letter that Sue hardly consummates her relationship with Jude and doesn't enjoy it. It's possible she was inspired by his friend, Mrs Henniker whom he was in love with, but who never allowed him to become more than a good friend. Mrs Henniker was a fellow intellectual and a lady, clever and refined and understanding. The fact she was unattainable could have increased his passion. So while Sue is no longer a maiden her mind is pure. Note her name, Bridehead could be a play on the word maidenhead. Her emotional, platonic attraction also reflect a mind elevated from sordid desires, and in this way she is superior to both Jude and Phillotson who desire her body. I don't know if Hardy intended this, but Plato did mention that intellect rather than base sexual desires raised the plane of one's existence.

Sue's naïvete causes some misunderstandings as to men's intentions. She would rather see the higher side of things, they would rather see her as a woman. Since Jude the Obscure is a Darwinian story about natural selection, Sue's hatred of sex and the death of all her children, not to mention her social descent, reflect her unfitness for her environment.  Thomas Hardy was a Darwinian and a sceptic. A worldly person with sex instinct would survive, because they would not only rise but will leave descendents. Arabella is promiscuous and survives Jude and Sue's sanity. Because Sue becomes insane after returning to Phillotson (a gruesome scene as well).  Despite her good intentions Sue never fully becomes any man's because she dislikes sex. This may be seen as high and good, but it is a double-edged sword to Hardy as well, who emphasised people's dirty lives. Disliking sex renders you unfit to live on. Perhaps he was reflecting on his own life as well, because his wife could not bear him any children - something he regretted - and we have so far not heard of any mistresses he might have had. Mrs Henniker was beyond him. All his siblings died unmarried and childless so there are no close descendants of Thomas Hardy or his family. He did not survive the Victorian rat-race.

The New Woman is neurotic and intelligent, and may not be so successful at relationships as their peers. Sue is certainly all this. But we must look at On Liberty and see what inspired Hardy. Apparently he enjoyed Chapter 3: on the individual. It's been some time since I read that book so I can't connect it with Jude the Obscure. But it's worth checking it out.

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