Classic of the Month & 20 Books of Summer #5: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (1873)

While going through my boxes stored in my sister’s basement, I came across an antiquarian copy of this lesser-known Hardy novel. I used to place a lot more value on books’ age and rarity, whereas now I tend to just acquire readable paperback copies. I also used to get on much better with Victorian novels – I completed an MA in Victorian Literature, after all – but these days I generally find them tedious. Two years ago, I DNFed Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, and I ended up mostly skimming A Pair of Blue Eyes after the first 100 pages. In any case, it fit into my 20 Books of Summer colour theme. It’s sad for me that I’ve lost my love for my academic speciality, but life is long and I may well go back to Victorian literature someday.

I found similarities to Far from the Madding Crowd, my favourite Hardy novel, as well as to Hardy’s own life. As in FFTMC, the focus is on a vain young woman with three suitors. Elfride Swancourt is best known for her eyes, rapturously described as “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.” Her vicar father, suffering from gout and sounding much older than his actual age (40 was a different prospect in that time!), warns her that architects will soon be arriving from London to plan restoration work on the church tower.

The young architectural assistant who arrives at the Swancourts’ coastal parish in “Lower Wessex” (North Devon?) is Stephen Smith, a clear Hardy stand-in, desperate to hide his humble background as he seeks to establish himself in his profession. Stephen emulates his friend Henry Knight, a dilettante essayist and book reviewer. Book learning has given Stephen passable knowledge of everything from Latin to chess, but he doesn’t know how to do practical things like ride a horse. Elfride and Stephen, predictably, fall in love, and she is determined to go ahead with an engagement even when she learns that his parents are a mason and a milkmaid, but her father refuses to grant permission. It’s intriguing that this poor clergyman fancies himself of the class of the Luxellians, local nobility, than of the Smiths.

 

{SPOILERS FOLLOW}

Elfride’s previous love died, and his pauper mother, Mrs Jethway, blames her still for toying with her boy’s affections. When Stephen takes a position in India and Mr Swancourt remarries and moves the family to London, Elfride’s eye wanders. Time for love interest #3. The family runs into Knight, who is a distant cousin of Mrs Swancourt. There’s another, juicier, connection: Elfride is a would-be author (she writes her father’s sermons for him, putting passages in brackets with the instruction “Leave this out if the farmers are falling asleep”) and publishes a medieval romance under a male pseudonym. A negative write-up of her book needles her. “What a plague that reviewer is to me!” And who is it but Knight?

They begin a romance despite this inauspicious coincidence and his flirty/haughty refusal to admire her fine eyes – “I prefer hazel,” he says. Some of the novel’s most memorable scenes, famous even beyond its immediate context, come from their courtship. Knight saves her from falling off the church tower, while she tears her dress into linen strips and ties them into a rope to rescue him from a sea cliff (scandalous!). Somewhere I’d read an in-depth account of this scene: as Knight dangles from the rock face, he spots a trilobite, which, in its very ancientness, mocks the precariousness of his brief human life. Lovingly created and personally watched over by a supreme being? Pshaw. Hardy’s was a godless vision, and I’ve always been interested in that Victorian transition from devoutness to atheism.

The novel’s span is too long, requiring a lot of jumps in time. I did appreciate that Mrs Jethway becomes the instrument of downfall, writing a warning letter to Knight about Elfride’s mistreatment of her son and another former fiancé. Knight breaks things off and it’s not until 15 months later, after he and Stephen bump into each other in London and Knight realizes that Stephen was her other suitor, that they travel back to Wessex to duke it out over the girl. When they arrive, though, it’s too late: Elfride had married but then fallen ill and died; her funeral is to take place the very next day. As the book closes at the vault, it’s her widower, Lord Luxellian, who has the right to mourn and not either of her previous loves.

{END OF SPOILERS}

 

As always with Hardy, I enjoyed the interplay of coincidence and fate. There were a few elements of this novel that I particularly liked: the coastal setting, the characters’ lines of work (including a potential profession for Elfride, though Knight told her in future she should stick to domestic scenes in her writing!) and the role played by a book review, but overall, this was not a story that is likely to stick with me. I did wonder to what extent it inspired Lars Mytting’s The Bell in the Lake, about a country girl who falls in love with the man who comes to oversee construction at the local church.


Source: Secondhand purchase, most likely from Wonder Book and Video in the early 2000s

My rating:

18 responses

  1. I really enjoyed this – I haven’t lost any love for Victorian novels because I never “did” them at university (I skipped from the Metaphysical Poets to the 20th century, somehow and rather wickedly; I’d use my time there a LOT better now!) but I have lost my tolerance for the ickiness of Barbara Comyns so we do all change. A not very illuminating review from me from when I was reading all of Hardy with Ali a decade ago … https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/thomas-hardy-a-pair-of-blue-eyes/

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    1. Great to find someone else who’s familiar with this one! I think it must be very little read these days. I noted that it was his third novel, just a year before FFTMC — so to me it almost felt like he was trying out that plot and got it better the second time. But you’re quite right about the “nail-biting moments”! And that’s a good point about the landscape coinciding with characters’ experiences. Do you know the term “psychogeography”? I just read a travel memoir from that perspective and although the label was new to me, I realized that I had actually read a number of books it would fit.

      I have succeeded in reading hardly any proper Victorian literature since my course, maybe just the two novels by Anne Bronte. Then again, I really have to force myself to read any classics these days, so I’m glad for challenges like Karen and Simon’s year clubs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love a bit of psychogeography, in fact I’m reading an Iain Sinclair at the moment with my best friend (although it’s a bit yucky for our tastes now). I did have the Pathetic Fallacy laboured on me with Hardy at school, all the rain or baking sun reflecting characters – in fact, thinking about it, I’m amazed he wasn’t ruined for me at school as I did him for O and A level! I’ve only read some of them once, though, like this one. I’ve got into George Eliot since my thing of only reading Middlemarch was challenged, too.

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      2. Actually, I don’t think I ever studied a Hardy formally — I read all the major ones on my own. Perhaps that helped! I’ve struggled with Eliot since my uni days as well. I read Middlemarch on my study abroad year and Daniel Deronda for my MA course, but I couldn’t get through The Mill on the Floss the other year.

        The psychogeography narrative I read (for a TLS review) was Heavy Time by Sonia Overall.

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  2. I find it hard to remember which Hardys I have read because a lot of the middling ones blur together for me! I’m pretty sure I haven’t read this one, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At one time I probably thought I would read all of his work, but it seems the lesser-known novels are obscure for a reason!

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      1. I actually quite liked Under The Greenwood Tree IIRC which I think would count as lesser known? My most hated Hardys are Tess and Jude ha.

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      2. Aww, I love those two! Over-the-top high tragedies. I didn’t care for Under the Greenwood Tree.

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    2. The handy thing for me is that I did a readalong project with Heaven-Ali so I know I’ve read them all once, in order, at very least!

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      1. I just found a really old post by me that reminds me what Hardys I’ve read! I think the only one I’ve read since then is Under the Greenwood Tree http://laurareadingbooks.blogspot.com/2011/08/thomas-hardy-backwards-escaping-ones.html

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      2. I enjoyed that, thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This sounds like a Hardy novel to steer clear of, for all the semi-autobiographical touches. I didn’t get on with Hardy at school, to the extent that I haven’t read him since, but there’s a shortish early novel of his somewhere—can’t recall the title at the moment—which I thought might break the pattern. Was he too prolific for his own good, do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting question to which I don’t have an answer! He always prized his poetry over his fiction. Perhaps some of the earlier novels were hastily published and would have benefited from more editing. Are you perhaps thinking of Under the Greenwood Tree? I didn’t care for that one. Three of his novels in a row (Greenwood, Blue Eyes, and Madding Crowd) adopted the young woman with three suitors framework!

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      1. I’ve just checked, and it’s in fact ‘Greenwood’ I’ve got; I thought I had a copy of ‘The Woodlanders’ but I think an old edition of that may be on Emily’s shelves, she had a thing for Hardy at one stage. Ah well.

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  4. buriedinprint | Reply

    I find it hard to nestle the classics in with contemporary writing; even when I was devoted to backlist reading, I found it more likely that I might add a classic (and only rarely did), but now that I’m back on the new-new-new train, I’ve got even less patience for the idea of slowing for the Victorian pace of things.But I know I still enjoy them…in theory…just not currently in practice. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I feel just the same. I’m not even managing my theoretical one per month at the moment. At least you got through Deerbrook last year!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        I’d forgotten about that: you’re right! And I think that was my last classic. “We” should do another. LOL

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Eh … maybe not a doorstopper this time!

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