Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

This fairly little-known work was I believe the 3rd novel written by Hardy in the 1870's. He wrote it while he courted Emma Gifford, whom he had met in the countryside while on architectural business. They had fallen in love but her father disapproved as Hardy had no money. Here he idealises the happy times they had together (adding more plot of course. Emma's life was far less eventful than the heroine's). Surprisingly it was well-received in its time, as it was sweet and pure and lacks the darkness that is always present in a Hardy novel. And the smut. I think all Hardy's novels, unusually for a major novelist of that era, is rather smutty. He does manage to make it sensuous often but often it is smutty, much as I like Hardy. I am reading an old Penguin version which probably isn't sold anymore. (Update: Just checked Amazon and they do have it! The introduction is by Roger Ebbatson). I do miss those old versions, where they stick to the point and afford interesting facts on the history of the novel, instead of hammering into our minds weird analyses on postmodernist thought.

Elfride Swancourt lives in the countryside vicarage with her father the vicar. They are poor but of noble stock and lead a quiet life, as the aristocracy look down on them and they being genteel cannot be too close to the rest of the community. This is quite true in the Victorian era. Class distinctions still exist, though in a different way (but I won't go into that). Elfride is described as a girl with splendid blue eyes.
 These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance--blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.
They both await the arrival of Stephen Smith, a young architect from London. He is to stay at their residence while he sketches pictures of the old buildings in their parish. At first Elfride is nervous anticipating the visitor: she is socially inexperienced and only nineteen. Eventually Stephen arrives, and Elfride is delighted to find he is pretty and feminine-looking and handsome. She feels at ease with him and seeks to impress him. Mr Swancourt too welcomes him cordially. Stephen is enchanted by Elfride, who admittedly is too blatant in her showing off, though her chess-playing and piano-playing isn't wonderful in particular. But we see some strange hints: Stephen doesn't play chess well and handles the pieces strangely. Even Elfride who keeps on beating him lets him win once to please him, to his distress. While the two men discuss Latin classics (it was the thing for educated men then to know Latin and Greek classics) Mr Swancourt observes that Stephen pronounces his Latin differently from the norm. It turns out he didn't learn Latin at school but was instructed by correspondence with his Oxford-educated friend, Henry Knight whom he looks up to. Still everything seems idyllic. Stephen and Elfride spend many happy hours together riding, and they are besotted with each other. I found it amusing that Elfride went all out to impress him with her superiority and attractions but oh well. While outdoors they have their first kiss and Stephen asks her to marry him. She accepts.

In the meantime we discover that Stephen was originally born in this parish but went to school in another town. His father is a master-mason who works for Lord Luxellian (a distant relation of Mr Swancourt) and his mother a former dairy-maid.  Lord Luxellian thinks highly of Mr Smith's skills anyway. He conceals this from the Swancourts until his father is injured one day and he says he must leave them to look at him. At once Mr Swancourt grows cold and refuses to be on cordial terms with him. Since they haven't told Mr Swancourt about their engagement Elfride does it. Mr Swancourt refuses saying it's a childish infatuation and that Stephen is beneath her. But the two lovers promise to be secretly engaged. Here are some illustrations for the serial novel by James Abbott Pasquier.

Stephen and Elfride arrange to elope and get married. One day when  Mr Swancourt goes away Elfride runs away from home, pretending to take a long ride to marry Stephen. But Stephen has made a mistake: his marriage license is only applicable in the parish where he bought it and so they cannot marry at once. They have to go to London by train. Unfortunately a scary woman sees Elfride. She hates Elfride because she thinks she caused the death of her only son by breaking his heart. Anyway Elfride goes by train and arrives in London, only to feel it is indecent. So she takes the train back home. By now it is the next day. It would be an overnight train and you know young men and young ladies travelling together throughout the night unchaperoned could ruin the girl's reputation.

Stephen goes off to work in India where he will be paid well and there are more opportunities. When he returns home he will earn money enough to impress even Mr Swancourt. Elfride promises to wait for him.
But in the meantime after the failed elopement Elfride returns home where her absence isn't noticed by her father. He has been away longer than expected, and he comes home with his new wife. Apparently there was a rich widow who recently moved to the neighbourhood and Mr Swancourt married her for her money so Elfride could be brought out into society and marry well, which was the thing Victorian ladies aspired to do. In the first edition Mrs Swancourt was 20 years older than her husband, in the 2nd Hardy reduced it to 12 (it was too scandalous) and in the final 6 years older.

In the meantime, Elfride has written a novel and admitted as such to Mrs Swancourt. It is set in the Middle Ages because she knows little of modern (that is, victorian) life - a typical romance common in the Victorian era. Just as we now like novels set in the Regency era, the Victorians liked to escape into the Middle Ages, where there were stories about tournaments and pages and whatnot. She thinks it is not good enough to publish but Mrs Swancourt encourages her to publish, and indeed she does, under the pseudonym of Ernest Field. By the way it was relatively common for female authors to use masculine pen-names, though a number published under their real names e.g. Elizabeth Gaskell, Dinah Mulock, Mrs Oliphant.

Somewhere Elfride discovers that her novel has received a bad review in a paper, to her dismay, and she decides to write to the critic via the paper justifying her faults. At the same time, Mrs Swancourt has invited her distant relation, Henry Knight (yup, Stephen's ex-tutor) to stay with them. It turns out that he is the critic. Elfride is nervous at first of Knight's crustiness but soon is intrigued by him. I like the way Hardy describes the chemistry between them. Knight doesn't think very highly of Elfride at first, but he finds her cute and charming (and no, he doesn't flirt or speak warmly, he is dry and cynical). The part where Knight is making notes in his journal for his reviews, and Elfride asking if he will show it to her, is especially sweet. I don't know why.  It isn't romantic or sentimental, but you see the vision of a naive young girl trying to get attention from an elder companion, and somehow it is nostalgic, it reminds you of innocence.  Elfride and Knight are surprisingly frank to each other in their questions and opinions, which Knight tends to triumph over, making Elfride sound small.  She gradually loses interest in Stephen but forces herself to read his letters. While she had let Stephen win chess on purpose she now finds she cannot beat Knight.

Knight I admit can be rather insensitive but I do find myself agreeing with him on many things despite being a feminist. He says that it is rare to find women who genuinely love music compared to jewellery. I do think this has relevance in modern society: even most intelligent women do not have the inner nerd in them.  They can make perfectly intelligent conversation but intellectual stuff isn't the core of their soul, even in today's day and age. Elfride then pretends she would choose excellent music over pretty jewellery, and Knight goes Really? until he makes her admit she prefers the earrings.  Poor Elfride. Shallowish as her tastes might be her conversation is deep for her age.

Anyway Knight leaves, thinking he won't visit them again. But when he is no longer with her he falls in love with Elfride's ideal.  He is an inexperienced lover and wants to please her by getting her earrings. He doesn't know whether it is proper to do so if they are not engaged, but anywhere he does get her a pair and then returns to  see the Swancourts.  He gives it to Elfride, who refuses it (thinking she should be loyal to Stephen) but he makes the excuse it was an apology for saying she is shallow.

Elfride is harrowed by her new love for Knight because she has pledged to be true to Stephen. She tries to avoid him to hide her feelings, and he is miserable because she doesn't talk to him so much. He thinks she is being coy and naive, whereas it is because she is experienced in love. I do feel sorry for Knight here. Elfride isn't really nice not breaking up with Stephen but even Hardy portrays her sympathetically.  One day they go walking together, and Knight points out  a ship sailing in the distance - Stephen's ship home - and he is blown to the edge of the cliff. He grasps it, hanging for dear life - that's why the term cliffhanger comes from. The description of this scene is pretty good - it shows his thoughts on life and evolution. Hardy was actually influenced by Darwin, as a matter of fact, something you can see in his later novels.  Because there is nothing to save Knight, Elfride takes off her clothes and pulls out her petticoats. She then puts on her dress. She makes a rope out of her petticoats and steers Knight to land. At that moment they embrace. unable to conceal each other's feelings any longer. A very moving scene, I might add.

Knight and Elfride become engaged. Stephen returns to find Elfride doesn't meet him as she promised to his disappointment. Then he accidentally encounters Knight embracing her and knows the truth. He is upset. By now he has done well for himself and is designing a building opened by a Mayor or something. We see Stephen's magnanimity and social tact when he pretends to Knight (whom he meets with Elfride) that he doesn't know her. Knight hasn't got those qualities though Hardy makes it clear he is deeper and intellectually superior. Despite modern readers hating Knight I actually like him: even the readers of that time liked him. I suppose I have this empathy with a Victorian audience.

Mrs Jethway, the widow who hates Elfride, threatens to tell Knight she eloped with Stephen. Elfride is terrified as she wants Knight to love her: he loves her because he thinks she is innocent, like him. His kiss with her was his first and he is 32. He doesn't really fit in with society, though he is an educated gentleman. He is crusty and introverted. Lest you vilify Mr Knight let me point out that innocence in young ladies were expected at the time - at least more innocent than men.

Knight eventually asks Elfride whether he is her first kiss, and she admits no - she has been engaged before. But she evades and denies until he wrangles it out of her. Now while Knight is harsh I think she ought to have been honest. If he doesn't like her for her experience then they don't suit. But at least be honest.  Yet Hardy makes her a sympathetic figure.  Knight is disturbed by this, because he hates the idea of her having been someone else's sweetheart but still he doesn't break off. Elfride has written to Mrs Jethway telling her not to divulge her elopement with Stephen. But Knight receives a letter from Mrs Jethway warning her against Elfride. Mrs Jethway is killed by a falling tower and Knight somehow comes across Elfride's letter. He now breaks off, because her returning home the next day after running away means she has spent the night with Stephen, and therefore she is a ruined woman (she may not be a virgin). (Actually she is. Stephen was gentlemanly and she would think a small thing indecent). Elfride is heartbroken but he will not give in.

He returns to his home in London, only to find Elfride at his door. She has run away unable to bear being without him.  Later in comes Mr Swancourt angry with Knight for leading on his daughter. Knight dares not tell why he broke off because this would ruin Elfride's reputation. He goes on working for some time, unhappy and unfulfilled. I feel sorry for him becaue you know he was faithful to Elfride's memory, not seeking another woman. Though he is socially incompetent to do so.

Stephen has prospered and meets Knight. They are no longer so friendly, but they end up talking. While Stephen is sketching Knight notices the figure is Elfride's face and questions him. Stephen admits he was engaged to Elfride, and they had done nothing improper, to Knight's relief. He feels guilty for not letting Elfride tell him the whole story. But they both pretend to each other they have lost interest in her. Actually they are planning to go to her to propose to her.  They end up taking the same train, and arrive in Endelstow only to find a coffin borne with Mr Swancourt as a mourner. It is Elfride's coffin, and she had married Lord Luxellian.

Knight says she was false, but they both go to see Unity, Elfride's former maid. She tells them after Knight left the house she grew unhappy and her parents weren't nice to her she longed to be free. Lord Luxellian, a widower with two daughters, came more often for company after his first wife died quite recently. The little girls who loved Elfride asked him whether she could come and live with them and he courted Elfride with the children around.  Elfride still harboured feelings for Knight but married Luxellian to escape her unhappy home. She fell from a horse and miscarried - and died.

Knight ends by concluding she was weak and torn by circumstances, and therefore wasn't really bad after all. They leave Lord Luxellian to mourn at the death of his second wife.

Notes: Smith indicates a common origin, and knight someone higher up the ladder. A Lord of course is highest of all.  I don't know whether Hardy intended this to be Darwinian, but while he makes Elfride vulnerable (out of the natural selection pool) he also makes her more viable than Knight, a perpetual virgin and introvert. Elfride gets higher-positioned men with time, which indicates that her beauty is sexually selected. Knight is not handsome or amiable. Stephen earns a better living and Lord Luxellian is handsome, which puts poor Knight in a tragic place. I think he is meant to be the tragic figure. Overall a decent production, which gave me more pleasure than Hardy's deeper novels, Tess and Jude the Obscure. The startling freshness and innocence makes it far more readable, less haunting, than the animalistic seductions of the latter novels.

I notice Hardy likes to make his heroes faithful, his heroines fickle. I wonder why? It doesn't reflect very well on female fidelity though it is more realistic. Still, entirely loyal heroes aren't that realistic.

In the end, Hardy married Emma Gifford. Their marriage, I am afraid to say, was unhappy, which probably influenced his latter novels. A Pair of Blue Eyes was written at a time of ambition, hope and love, which is why it is much happier. It was when Hardy decided to give up architecture for writing, encouraged by Emma, who couldn't have liked to wait for an impoverished suitor.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I've never read this book by Hardy before, but it sounds like it would be a good one. Great review!