Hardy is an interesting author to read. I absolutely adore his style: the writing is beautiful and evocative and emotional. However, he can be absolutely heart-wrenchingly painful to read.
The first Hardy I ever read was Tess of the d’Urbervilles which, as my old literature students will tell you, has a main character with the most unremitting bad luck of any character in fiction. Throughout the book, bad things happen to her, and she deals with them in the only way possible that will keep further bad things, or worse things, from happening, and then worse things happen anyway. But the writing is so gorgeous that even as you’re weeping for Tess (and cursing the people responsible for her situation), you absolutely love her.
And then there’s Jude. Oh, Jude the Obscure. Again, absolutely gorgeous writing, and a book I will never ever read again. There is one particular scene which is horribly inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to experience. I read it on a train in Italy, with my friends who had already read it looking on, and I actually shrieked in horror. They knew exactly where in the book I was. The mental image of that scene will never, ever leave me.
Hardy has a particular gift for making horrible things seem inevitable. There is a point in the book, the Judicture* if you will, where you know that bad things are going to happen to these characters and there’s no way they can stop it. It is the point where the story shifts from “things are fine” to “life is hell”.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy, and it’s pretty obvious. It’s not a bad book by any means, it’s just not as clear or refined as his later books. There are definite indications of what he will become as a writer, but the full impact is not there yet.
The indications certainly are there, though. The language is approaching the beauty and clarity of later books like Tess and Jude – I don’t have specific examples but it was certainly easy to read. The mood, while I’m sure devastating to Elfride (the main character), was not nearly as traumatic to read as Tess or Jude. But the most striking indication of his later greatness is in the themes.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is basically about a young country girl and her love life. Elfride, who just turned 19 when the book starts, is a completely innocent parson’s daughter in the Southwest of England (probably Dorset, less than a day’s journey from Plymouth anyway). She falls in love for the first time with Stephen Smith, a man whom her father thinks is unsuitable for her (he’s lower class). They become secretly engaged, and even run off to get married, but she gets cold feet at the last minute and they return unmarried. She tries to be faithful to him when he goes to India to make his fortune and prove himself, but then falls in love with Harry Knight, an older man (who happens to be Stephen’s mentor). She doesn’t tell the older man about her past, and he refuses to marry her when he finds out that she’d had a (non-physical, although he doesn’t know that) lover before. After a year or more of separation, Knight and Stephen meet, realise the truth, and go to each try to win Elfride again – only to come on her funeral procession and her now-widowed husband. They decry her as false, but leave the grieving husband in peace.
All the elements are there: love and the way society sees love; women’s roles in love and society; the clash between classes; the clash between country and city; secrecy and its devastating effect on relationships. These themes are more developed in Tess and Jude, of course, but they’re certainly there in Blue Eyes.
(You know, it’s much harder to shorten the title of a Hardy book that doesn’t have the main character’s name in it. Tess and Jude = easy. Even The Mayor of Casterbridge can easily be known by “Casterbridge”. But “A Pair of Blue Eyes”? “Blue Eyes”, I suppose. The funny thing is that apart from one incident, her blue eyes aren’t really a plot point at all. I suppose it’s just another example of how relatively undeveloped Hardy was at this point.)
Anyway: love, society’s view of love, women’s roles in love. Elfride, as I mentioned is an innocent. She’d had a brief flirtation with a local boy that, in her eyes, was just kindness, but in his eyes was true love. The boy then dies, and his mother blames Elfride and hates her bitterly. She then does everything in her power (which is not much, but enough) to destroy Elfride’s future happiness.
Then there’s the old attitude (that still hangs on, to some extent, today), that a woman should be innocent until marriage, but a man is expected to be experienced. Both Stephen and Knight (although, to be fair, Stephen got the idea from Knight) think and say that the sweetest first kiss is an awkward one, because it proves that the woman has never been kissed before. Knight even falls in love with Elfride because he believes that she has never loved anyone before. He tells her so (and then is it any wonder that she can’t confess that she has, in fact, had a previous boyfriend?). He leaves her because he can’t accept the fact that she was planning to marry someone before him (and because she hadn’t told him, but mostly it’s the fact that she’d had a boyfriend before). Knight himself, on the other hand, is considered very wise and experienced – and indeed he has thought about the subject extensively although he is a rarity who has no physical experience himself.
And, a vent: Boys. When you break up with a girl, and leave the country, and do your best to forget her, and do not communicate with her in any way for a year, she is in no way “false” when she marries someone else. When you give her no indication that you are ever coming back or that you still have feelings for her, she is not “false” when she marries someone else. When you have moved on, or at least tried to, then you have to expect that she will do the same. I know that in The Princess Bride, Westley says “Why didn’t you wait for me? Death cannot stop true love,” and it’s very sweet and romantic. But that is an idealised fairy tale and should not in any way be taken as reality. Reality is this: the woman has just as much right to move on, change her mind, and find a new relationship as the man does. When you disappear completely, you can’t expect her to wait, unknowing and unchanging, forever.
(This rant is based mostly on the book and partially on personal life events. Yeah, I’m still mad about that one. It’ll be a while longer before I’m fully over it, I think.)
The class clash, and the clash between city and country, is seen most in the character of Stephen Smith. The city is seen to be a haven of culture and experience – anyone who comes recommended from the city must be a person of worth. When Elfride’s father finds out that Stephen is not just a country boy but a lower-class country boy, all of Stephen’s education and employment count for nothing. Stephen is accepted with open arms when the parson thinks he is an architect’s assistant from London; he is essentially thrown out of the house when his father is a local labourer. Elfride even points this out – that Stephen himself hasn’t changed, just their knowledge of his parents, and if his parents had been labourers from, say, the North, Stephen still would have been accepted. But because they are aware of his low birth and his local history, he is suddenly unacceptable.
Knight, too, is incredibly condescending toward Stephen. Knight has lived in the city much longer and maintains fewer ties to the local area. What ties he does have are loose, and higher class. This makes Knight not just an acceptable suitor for Elfride, but a superior person (even though, in my mind, Stephen was much better for Elfride and more of a person that I’d like to know).
Finally, secrecy. It’s when secrets are revealed that the Judictures come in this book (although, as I’ve said, they’re not as devastating as the Judictures in Tess or Jude). Stephen’s revelation that his parents are local labourers leads to his banishment from the parsonage, and hence to his and Elfride’s elopement. The parson’s secret relationship with a local (rich) woman prevents Elfride from confiding in him about her relationship with Stephen. Elfride’s (unwilling) revelation about her previous relationship leads to Knight’s departure. If any of those three secrets hadn’t been secrets, the story would have been much, much different. Even if the telling of the secrets had been different (well, except for the first one which is almost entirely down to the parson’s snobbery), the story would have been much, much different.
The story revolves around miscommunication, misapprehension, and misunderstandings from almost the first word. It shows signs of the greatness that Hardy achieves in his later works, without the emotional devastation that makes him painful to experience.
*Judicture = a combination of Jude (from Jude the Obscure) and juncture (the juncture of “life is fine” and “life is not fine”). Spread the word. Let’s get in the OED someday.