Menu Close

‘Crazy for books’: How Thomas Hardy understood the transformative power of reading

The English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy may be overshadowed in schools today by writers such as Shakespeare, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. But in times of widespread education cuts it is worth remembering what he had to teach us about access to education – and his belief in the power of books to change lives.

Writing in the American symposium-based journal Forum in 1888, Hardy outlined the benefits of reading as “alleviating the effects of over-work” but, more importantly, as “getting good”, which he defined as “intellectual or moral profit”.

Hardy knew education could help protect girls and young women from predatory men. If novels were more inclined to treat taboo subjects with more candour, they might contribute to sex education. He hints at this idea in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which was published in 1891.

Following her encounter with the well-to-do Alec D’Urberville, Tess demands of her mother: “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger in men-folk? Why didn’t you warn me?” Tess, in her own words “a peasant by position, not by nature”, continues:

Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o’ learning in that way, and you did not help me.

Hardy found the Victorian novel made timid by censorship and looked to a time when “a brazen young Shakespeare” might be rehabilitated. He also thought novels had done little to address the sexual double standard. He later suggested in the pioneering New Review (1894) that all girls be presented with “a plain handbook on natural processes”. It was Hardy’s profound sense of the power of literature and its potential to educate that moved him to seek to wrest the novel from what he called a “censorship of prudery”.

In his essay “Candour in English Fiction” he observed that children were often more open minded than their parents who sought to impose a literature of “false views” and “social forms and ordinances”.

Perhaps no one was drawn more to learning than the hero of his final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). It was conceived initially as a short story about a “young man who could not go to Oxford” and his “struggles and ultimate failure”. In the words of Jude’s great-aunt: “The boy is crazy for books, that he is.”

Moving to the fictional town of Christminster (a barely disguised version of Oxford) he works as a manual labourer by day, setting up a study in his bedsit – to the consternation of his landlady – and “reading most of the night”. Without money for a fire he must study “in a greatcoat, hat, and woollen gloves”.

Hardy times

Hardy sought to address injustices of class and gender throughout his writing, broadening and radicalising the remit of the novel. Poverty was no crime, he demonstrates repeatedly in his novels. He warned his middle-class metropolitan readers to avoid any easy and unobservant homogenisation of the rural poor, chronicling how they merged with the urban poor, pushed towards London by unemployment “like the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced”. They were victims of changing rural conditions and newly capitalist relations – and a sheer lack of money.

“What are my books but one plea against ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ – to woman – and to the lower animals?” he remarked to the journalist William Archer in 1901. Born into the “hungry” 1840s, he was surrounded by the working-class political activism played out by the Swing Riots, the Tolpuddle martyrs and the demands of Chartism. He had grown up with dramatic tales of rural incendiarism and political agitation.

As a child, Hardy had known a shepherd boy his age who had starved to death. As a young man he spent the 1860s in London, a time of social unrest and new political consciousness. He never forgot these early encounters with the realities of poverty and maintained a strong interest in the period that had seen the galvanising of class conflict.

In 1869 his first novel “The Poor Man and the Lady”, the title pointing to concerns of class and gender that would variously characterise his work, went unpublished and was subsequently lost. His publishers advised him that his critique of social hierarchy was too radical, or, in his own words, “socialistic”.

The protagonist of Jude the Obscure, pushed out by men of privilege, has all the ability but none of the economic or social means to study at university. It takes his comrade, Sue Bridehead, to voice his predicament in class terms.

Defending the “townspeople, artisans, drunkards and paupers” from the charge of ignorance, she declares Jude to be “one of the very men” the university was intended for “when the colleges were founded”. He is a man with a passion for learning, but no money, opportunities, or friends – elbowed off the pavement by “millionaires’ sons”.

Reading today

The effects of Jude the Obscure reverberated up and down the country. Recounting Jude’s “struggle for books”, the Saturday Review observed:

If the reader is one of those who have been educated from the beginning, it may interest him to learn that today in the second-hand bookshops old out-of-date books are sold by the thousand.

The Idler was forthright in its praise:

For the first time in English literature the almost intolerable difficulties that beset an ambitious man of the working class – the snares, the obstacles, the countless rejections and humiliations by which our society eludes the services of these volunteers – receive adequate treatment.

Hardy – who wrote a story for children: “Our Exploits at West Poley” soon after Tess – would likely have wholeheartedly approved of initiatives such as World Book Day and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which are driven by the same belief in the power of reading.

While there has been much progress in widening access to university education, policy decisions remain unhelpful and there is significant work still be done to make higher education and the knowledge and understanding it confers available to all.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 181,900 academics and researchers from 4,938 institutions.

Register now