Tag Archives: reviewing

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:

Paid or Unpaid?

Our address was chosen at random to take part in a nationwide time use survey run by NatCen Social Research in conjunction with the University of Oxford. On last Sunday and again this past Friday, we had to fill out the entire day’s activities in 10-minute blocks; for the whole week we also had to note our hours spent in paid work. My husband’s graph looked pretty standard, but mine resembled a Morse code message. Overall I did 35 paid hours –making for a fairly normal working week – but it was spread across the days, often in evenings or in odd chunks here and there.

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Is there a Morse code message in my weekly working pattern?

Having my paid work, volunteer work and hobby all overlap in the realm of bookishness is convenient, but it also means I treat all my hours as potential work time. I consider my unpaid reviews (e.g. for Nudge, For Books’ Sake, The Bookbag, Shiny New Books and Third Way magazine) to be ‘work’ just as much as those I’m paid for, so it can feel like I put in much more than a 40-hour week.

The truth is that it’s hard to make a living from book reviews. Very few venues still pay for reviews – why would they, given the abundance of people who review for free on Amazon and Goodreads, among other websites? I’ve found some American print and web publications willing to pay for writing, but in the UK, paid opportunities can seem few and far between. My more reliable source of income is editing academic journal articles.

There’s one exception to the rule: self-published books. Indie authors have to do all their own marketing and publicity, so are eager to garner professional reviewers’ opinions. Several of my main gigs are for independent companies that provide book reviews to self-published authors, for a fee. There have some a handful of gems over the past 20 months, but there have also been some books so utterly terrible that they should never have seen the light of day.

I wrote to Ron Charles, the Washington Post’s book editor, last year and asked for his take on the situation. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote to him:

“It seems to be an irony of this life that the books I want to be reading and most enjoy, I usually don’t get paid to review; while many of the books I am paid to review (most of them self-published) range from okay to terrible. I wondered if you might have any advice for me – specifically, whether there is still money to be made from reviewing for traditional print media.”

He let me down in the nicest possible way:

“The short answer is, ‘No.’ There has never been much money to be made reviewing books, and, lately, there’s almost none.  The collapse of almost all the nation’s book sections along with the rise of a million book blogs and a trillion customer reviews on online bookseller sites mean there’s very little demand for professional book reviews. For people who want to read about books, this is largely a good thing. For people who want to support themselves by writing about books, it’s problematic. If you write well and enjoy it, that may be enough. Or you may find some new way to write about books that could draw an online audience. I wish the best!”

Do I have some novel way of writing about books? I doubt I could make that case. I write for pay when I can, but for the most part I just follow my tastes and amass all the free new books I can – through the unpaid review venues mentioned above, from the library, via giveaways, or as electronic downloads from NetGalley and Edelweiss. Although I’m a writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; it’s an essential part of my identity rather than a professional goal.


 

Many of you may be bloggers who have a day job and review books purely for the love of it. I’d be interested to get some feedback from any of you who write book reviews, especially if you get paid for some but not for others:

  • Do you feel varying degrees of pressure depending on the audience or venue you’re writing for?
  • Does the knowledge that an author (perhaps a self-published one) is paying for your opinion mean that you approach the work differently?
  • Do you see a future for paid book reviews?