This instalment of the Behind the Classic series looks at the women’s rights movement of the nineteenth century that forms the political backdrop of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. More specifically, it will discuss the issue of sex – or, to speak in more appropriate, Victorian terms – “conjugal rights” and a woman’s right to possess her own body. Not to worry, I will keep it civil.
Published in 1895, Jude the Obscure is Hardy’s last, and second most famous novel, right behind Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Like Tess, Jude deals with issues of class, gender and marriage, and is deeply invested in ongoing debates in Victorian society. Until the mid-nineteenth century, wives were, both legally and socially, considered to be their husband’s property. By marriage, the husband and the wife became one person, causing a woman’s legal rights and obligations to be incorporated in those of her husband’s, preventing her from owning property or making contracts. This custom, known as “coverture”, also entailed that the husband had “conjugal rights” to his wife’s body, which he could claim whenever he pleased.
The women’s rights movement strongly opposed the idea that a woman was anyone’s property but her own. Their activism resulted in the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, which enabled women to be in charge of their own wages and property, and thus released them from coverture. However, the fact that they were now allowed to possess property did not entail that they were free to possess themselves. The husband was still seen as the “owner” of the wife, and could demand obedience from her, which included sexual obedience.
In Jude, titular character Jude Fawley is a working-class man who dreams of an education at “Christminster” (Hardy’s fictional version of Oxford), but finds himself trapped in Victorian England’s class system. After an ill-fitted marriage and separation, he falls in love with his cousin Sue Bridehead, who – despite what her name might suggest – is not a strong supporter of the concept of marriage. She marries schoolmaster Phillotson solely for reasons of financial security. Although the two parties respect each other, there is hardly any marital intimacy between them. In fact, Sue is frightened by Phillotson’s very presence in the bedroom to such an extent that she jumps out of the window when he accidentally enters her chamber. At the root of Sue’s abstinence lies her desire to control her own body. She eventually leaves Phillotson for Jude, but is very hesitant to marry him and even when she does, her withdrawal from intimacy prevails. According to Hardy himself, it is her unwillingness to let a man possess her body and claim her sexually whenever he wants, that is central to her reluctance to get married. In a letter to Edmund Gosse on 20 November 1895, he writes:
“[Alt]hough she [Sue] has children, her intimacies with Jude have never been more than occasional, even while they were living together (I mention that they occupy separate rooms, except towards the end), & one of her reasons for fearing the marriage ceremony is that she fears it w[oul]d be breaking faith with Jude to withhold herself at pleasure, or altogether, after it; though while uncontracted she feels at liberty to yield herself as seldom as she chooses”.
For Sue, remaining in charge of her own body is paramount to facing the social consequences of being an unmarried woman living with a man. Even when she and Jude eventually marry, it is arguably Sue’s resolution to possess herself that makes their marriage work, albeit temporarily. It is a theory that women’s rights activist Mona Caird would probably have approved of, for in her radical article “Marriage” (1888), she writes: “The ideal marriage then, despite all dangers and difficulties, should be free. So long as love and trust and friendship remain, no bonds are necessary to bind two people together”.
Taking into account that Mona Caird’s article was considered radical, one can imagine how remarkable it is to have a nineteenth-century male author dedicate one of his novel’s main themes to the notions of free marriage and a woman’s right to her own body. Hardy’s almost feminist take on the conjugal rights debate is unique for his time, which alone make this classic well worth a (re)read.