The novel’s tragedy would be obviated by 1) birth control and 2) equality of the sexes. Tess, in effect, is killed by the rules that bound the old world. Hardy hinted at this in the preface, and his works in general make obvious the pointless cruelty of rural England’s moralism, which operates even more nefariously within his character’s consciences than without it in visible society. Nearly every hope of happiness in the major Wessex novels is dashed by a character’s inability to set aside sexual mores for the sake of human flourishing. ‘The letter killeth’, the epigraph of Jude the Obscure, sums up Hardy’s deep discontent with rural Christian prejudices.
The cruellest example is Sue’s attack of Christian conscience in Jude the Obscure, which makes her throw away the man she loves in order to return to the frigid husband she had earlier divorced. Close second is Clare’s refusal to marry a woman who had already had a child out of wedlock.
This all happens – and yet, the dominant theme of the Wessex novels is not the promise of social progress, but nostalgia. Just as Hardy mourns his characters’ individual suffering, so does he also lament the rural world that was passing away around them. In Tess, the Durbeyfields are thrust unceremoniously out of their home on Old Lady Day, swept up in the churn of wandering labour that had upset the entire countryside. This episode is best read against Hardy’s preface to the 1895 edition of Far from the Madding Crowd. There he describes what has happened to the Dorset village of Puddletown, saying outright what he hints at in all the Wessex novels:
The church remains, by great good fortune, unrestored and intact, and a few of the old houses; but the ancient malt-house, which was formerly so characteristic of the parish, has been pulled down these twenty years; also most of the thatched and dormered cottages that were once lifeholds. The game of prisoner’s base, which not so long ago seemed to enjoy a perennial vitality in front of the worn-out stocks, may, so far as I can say, be entirely unknown to the rising generation of schoolboys there. The practice of divination by Bible and key, the regarding of valentines as things of serious import, the shearing-supper, and the harvest-home, have, too, nearly disappeared in the wake of the old houses; and with them have gone, it is said, much of that love of fuddling to which the village at one time was notoriously prone. The change at the root of this has been the recent supplanting of the class of stationary cottagers, who carried on the local traditions and humours, by a population of more or less migratory labourers, which has led to a break of continuity in local history, more fatal than any other thing to the preservation of legend, folk-lore, close inter-social relations, and eccentric individualities. For these the indispensable conditions of existence are attachment to the soil of one particular spot by generation after generation.This paragraph would have been at home in the writing of anyone who saw the threat that industrialisation posed to human happiness in the nineteenth century. We’re all familiar with Tolkien setting the merry medieval Shire against barren industrial Isengard. But the feeling of nostalgia took root everywhere as Europe reached its peak of industrialisation, among such men of otherwise different convictions as G. K. Chesterton, William Morris, John Everett Millais, and Richard Wagner. It was obvious that social mobility, mechanisation, and the sudden flight into cities spelled doom for the old folkways that had previously given human life its warmth and substance.
Two stories thus run through all of the Wessex novels. One is the destruction of the old folk tradition, and the lonely sadness of rootless modernity. The second is the tyranny of the old moralism, and a hinted promise of escape from them on the vehicle of social progress. There is no attempt to reconcile these two stories, which together give an ambiguous verdict on the progress of modernity. They simply run their track at the same time. That’s Hardy’s paradox.
Both human freedom and human rootlessness have by now advanced to an extent that would shock a resurrected Hardy.
As for human freedom: birth control and abortion have allowed free love to exist for the first time in the 300,000-year life of humanity. With its help, Western women have been liberated not only from sexual prejudice, but also from the stupid natural law that punished them with unplanned pregnancy in the first place.. No-fault divorce is also legal now just about everywhere in the West; New York, the last American state to enact it, did so in 2010 after finally overcoming the Catholic Church’s opposition.
Machinery, in another line, has freed the vast bulk of Western humanity from the backbreaking agricultural labour that used to be its lot. Housework, too, is ten times easier than it was a hundred years ago, thanks to widespread plumbing, electrification, and not least the washing machine. Poverty has been the great enemy of human freedom, for the simple reason that it consumes every useful hour of the day in dreary labor. Our technology has begun to triumph over it.
Egalitarianism has also won: racial and religious minorities, women and homosexuals all enjoy legal equality throughout the West. One hundred years ago I would have been an object of suspicion and hatred in every hamlet on the European continent. Now there are few Europeans who care (or even know) what a Jew is. Women, meanwhile, serve in legislatures, armies, and company boards without raising an eyebrow. Free speech is protected by most governments. Homosexuality, reviled everywhere at the beginning of the twentieth century, is now tolerated in cities.
This has all happened, and meanwhile the hobgoblin of modernity has swallowed folk tradition into his mouth. The countryside has been emptied just as cities have swollen into cyclopean monstrosities. Gone are country public houses like this one, populated with townsfolk who know the words to The Barley Mow. Folk dances no longer exist. God has gone out of most Westerners’ lives, and with him all the Gothic wonder of the Christian life. The infirm and the dying used to be taken care of by their families – and now they die in nursing homes or hospitals. This is not because their younger relatives are callous: it’s because families, in the sense of a set of kin living in a single place, are much rarer than they were.
In the place of living culture is karaoke, The Avengers 2, nine-to-five shifts at the local Vodafone, Snapchat, and spectator football. Anything that can be endlessly replicated to gratify the masses has survived; everything else has faded like elf-gold.
I’m not one to sigh meaningfully and lament the lost diversity of the old world. Diversity, whether in an institution or in a country, is at best morally and aesthetically neutral. The problem is not homogenization as such; it’s homogeniszation into banality. There have been epidemic traditions since the invention of agriculture; for example, the Church in Europe, Arab Islam in North Africa, and Hellenism in the Near East. But nothing has been at once so vacuous and so virulent as modern global culture.
This is partly the fault of the Second World War, which literally burned away old Europe and set off the most tumultuous migrations in human history. But it’s also the fault of the very forces that made prosperity and liberation possible: technology and the free movement of people.
We don’t really have a choice to make: we don’t get to pick between human freedom and a living culture. Fate has already decreed that we Westerners should have the former and lack the latter. These two developments, freedom and banality, are equal parts of a revolution in human life on a scale that hasn’t happened since the first cities were founded in the fourth millennium BC. It’s entirely possible that conservatism will yet win the day – Islamism or thuggish Western nationalism could end up beating out both freedom and globalism. But for now, while we liberals hold the field, it’s worth stopping to admire the wild and sorrowful triumph over the old world that we’ve achieved.