Thomas Hardy is probably a love-him or hate-him kind of author, and I love him. The more I read, the more respect I have for his work. With some authors, you feel like you’re reading the same book over and over again, but every Hardy book I’ve read feels very different, even where the themes are similar.
A Pair of Blue Eyes was serialized from 1872 to 1873 and published in three volumes in May, 1873. According to the Introduction by Alan Manford,
In several respects it was a landmark for Hardy. Although it was his third novel to be published, it was the first to be serialized and the first to bear his name. Perhaps most importantly, during its publication he turned from his career as an architect to become a full-time writer.
This book is also viewed by critics as semi-autobiographical. Hardy is an architect like the young Stephen Smith, and the book is set in the same place that he meets his wife, Emma. Interestingly, Hardy meets Emma in 1870 and marries her in 1874, after the book’s publication. One key difference is that Hardy and Emma meet when they are considerably older than Elfride and Stephen, and seem to have had a much longer courtship.
The main character is Elfride Swancourt, a young, beautiful woman with eyes “blue as autumn distance… A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.”
Elfride, at nineteen years old, lives with her father, Parson Swancourt, in Endelstow, a remote location in Cornwall, England. Her mother died when she was young, and she’s had no relationships with men and probably no close friendships beyond her father. The story begins when Elfride meets Stephen Smith, an architect who is similarly young and innocent, when he is sent to Endelstow to survey the church for repairs.
Parson Swancourt sees Stephen as a perfect match for his daughter and encourages their growing infatuation with each other. Unfortunately, when Stephen and Elfride have become engaged, Stephen reveals an unfortunate truth: that he is in fact the son of the head mason in the parish. He is educated because he has been fortunate to have a good friend and mentor, Henry Knight. Nevertheless he is still the son of a laborer, and even worse, a laborer in the same town. Swancourt forbids their engagement, but Elfride and Stephen, caught up in the passion of the moment, agree to elope and remain secretly married until Stephen can earn the approval of her father.
By coincidence, Swancourt remarries a woman who is a distant relative of Knight’s. Mrs. Swancourt invites him to visit, and when he arrives, Elfride and Knight develop a friendship. Knight is an intellectual who is prepared to think Elfride is vapid and silly. She is not. Elfride may be young but she’s also educated, loves to read, and has even written a novel.
Elfride and Knight’s relationship is more thoughtful than the one she shared with Stephen. Where she was somewhat pushed into the relationship with Stephen, with Knight she has to resist her growing interest, because she is still corresponding with Stephen.
I’ll stop here in recounting the story. This is a novel about relationships, and about three characters, rather than a story where a great deal happens.
Elfride is a wonderful character — an interesting mix of innocence, intelligence, and emotion. She is both passive and headstrong, honest and deceptive, all at the same time. She is smart but can also be vain. She is easily swayed into relationships, and once in them she is too willing to be what her partner wants.
I think Hardy has a real gift for creating rich, multi-layered female heroines, and Elfride is no exception. She isn’t perfect, and makes many mistakes. Unlike many Hardy heroines, she has a family, financial security and status in her community. But it struck me how alone Elfride is while she’s wrestling with numerous questions and dilemmas. She asks her father for advice once, and he’s no help at all. She seems to have no friends and barely knows her stepmother. She is a surrogate parent to the neighboring motherless children, but seems to have no parent herself.
You can see in this book the ideas that will be explored in Tess of the D’urbevilles. As in Tess, one of the major themes in this book is how the strict morality of the times can lead to tragic results, especially when characters misunderstand each other, or are overly rigid in how they interpret moral codes. Knight, for example, is an intelligent man who genuinely loves Elfride. He is also unusually inexperienced with women, and believes that any woman he loves should be absolutely pure and untouched.
At the same time, he tells Elfride, perhaps disingenuously, that he prizes honesty above all else. Elfride finds herself in the same dilemma that Tess will face — should she be honest, considering that she has committed no horrible crime, even though she might lose the man she loves? And if she is not honest, is there any possibility that they can build a real relationship together?
Even in the 1870s, Elfride, Stephen and Knight face many of the dilemmas that you and I might face in a relationship today — how much to tell about our previous experiences? If you haven’t been in many relationships, how do you know if this is the right one? If your family doesn’t approve, do you push on or do you defer to their wishes?
I also like that unlike most Victorian novels, Hardy writes not just about love but about physical affection. These characters don’t just look at each other longingly, they kiss. Hardy has these characters actually think about what it means to be physically intimate. In other words, the characters in this book don’t just kiss, they think about kissing — when to kiss, where to kiss, who has kissed more, and all the resulting awkwardness that follows. He isn’t writing about love in the abstract, he’s writing about real people.
As with most of Hardy’s work, the setting, in all of it’s harshness and beauty, plays a pivotal role in how the relationships are carried out. At one point, Knight falls off a cliff and comes very close to dying. This becomes a critical turning point in his relationship with Elfride, and also is a demonstration of the strength of her character. (An interesting fact is that this scene in the book originated the term “cliffhanger” because of the way it was serialized. )
I could go on but I’ll leave it at this: this novel is beautifully written, creates likeable, multi-dimensional characters, and explores interesting ideas. It’s an entertaining read, but also a good indication of the writer Hardy will become. This book may be characterized as “simpler” than Hardy’s later works, but I thought it had a depth and complexity of its own. I highly recommend it.