Penny Booth

Thomas Hardy and Divorce – far more than wife-selling?


The passage of the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act permitted the first judicial divorces to take place if they met stringent conditions. Hardy is well-known for his Victorian novels which explore the brief happiness and lingering tragedy of life, including the successes and failures of personal relationships in the context of an unfriendly universe. In this paper I propose to explore the representations of the initial impact of the 1857 Act as it is told in ‘Jude the Obscure’ – a story which presented the ‘scandals’ of marital separation but was itself something of a scandal in even telling such a story. Hardy was fascinated by the law and played a role himself as a magistrate. By the time he wrote and published ‘Jude the Obscure’ the divorce process using the Act was several decades old. The story of Jude coincides with the early years of the operation of the Act and reflects, among other things, the personal difficulties experienced by the absence and presence of judicial provision for the ending of a marriage.


Penny Booth is a Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University Law School, where she has worked since 2018. Before then she taught full time and part time at a number of institutions including Staffordshire University and the Open University. She teaches on a number of modules, including family law, and has taught child and family law at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Her personal interests include the representation of law in literature. She studied English and history and taught English in a comprehensive school before returning to university to study for a law degree part time in the 1980s, and her interest in the intersections of law, literature and cultural perspectives have grown since then.