Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Pair of Blue Eyes

I have long associated Thomas Hardy with novels – The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbevilles and Jude the Obscure. What I was only vaguely aware of was his poetry – with 10 collections published during his lifetime and at least eight after he died in 1924. His novels fall into what would be the “Later Victorian” period of English literature; his poetry largely in the Edwardian period.

I’ve read two of his novels – The Return of the Native (high school required reading) and Jude the Obscure (extra college reading). Recently I started reading his poetry, and one volume led me to an early novel he wrote, A Pair of Blue Eyes. I found it on Amazon – and the Kindle version is free.

It is a romance, and it reads as much like Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens as it does Thomas Hardy. It was first published in 1873 in Tinsley’s Magazine, and it was the first novel Hardy published under his own name (two previous novels did not sell well).

A young architect, Stephen Smith, is visiting a small town in Wessex, responsible for the renovation of an old medieval church. He stays with the local vicar, and promptly falls in love with the vicar’s daughter, Elfride Swancourt. But there is a problem. Stephen comes from a lowly background – his father is a stonemason and his mother a former dairy maid. Despite Stephen’s education from a much-loved mentor, the vicar will have none of it.

Interestingly enough, this is the novel believed to have given birth to the expression “a cliffhanger,” because there is a scene in which a character literally hangs off the edge of a cliff.

The language is old-fashioned. The story is old-fashioned; its class considerations seem odd today. Hardy spends a great deal of time and attention on describing the setting, and the countryside of Wessex becomes almost a character in its own right as well as an important element for establishing mood.

I have found myself totally charmed by the story. Almost 140 years after it was first published, it is still a compelling, interesting story. It is also a kind of artifact, because Hardy uses references that his readers would have been familiar with but might seem more obscure to modern readers. How many people today would understand his description of the shadow of a tree on a country lane being as long as “Jael’s tent-nail?”

A Pair of Blue Eyes is also autobiographical. Hardy trained as an architect. He met his first wife in Wessex. She was considered of a better class than he was. After her death, he would write several volumes of poetry about her, and revisit the area where they first met and fell in love. But that’s another – and surprising – part of the story that I’ll be writing about next week at The Master’s Artist.

In the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying this old-fashioned romantic love story, full of all the elements Victorian readers held dear.

Illustration, top: from the original publication of A Pair of Blue Eyes in Tinsley’s Magazine, 1873, by artist James Abbott Pasquier; via The Victorian Web. Illustration, middle: Thomas Hardy in his younger days. Illustration, bottom: the cover of a contemporary version of the Hardy novel.


Karen Swallow Prior said...

Hardy is one of my favorite novelists of all time. I am working my way through all of them, and this one was like a wonderful, secret treasure to discover.

Nice to find another fan!

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

I've never read Hardy. But I do enjoy a good Victorian novel now and then. I may check this one out.

Linda said...

Oh thank you for sharing this one Glynn. Sounds like my kind of book!

Linda said...

I have it! Aren't Kindles just the most fun?

S. Etole said...

I need to check this one out, especially on the Kindle.

Louise Gallagher said...

Glynn, I think you could write a review of the text on a cereal box and make me want to read it!

I too need to check this one out on my Kindle reader!

Sherry said...

I've never heard of this early Thomas Hardy. It sounds as if he wrote this novel before he became such a pessimistic soul later in life. His later novels are so sad and almost hopeless.

H. Gillham said...

I love Thomas Hardy, and I have never heard of this work either.

Thanks for unearthing it ---

and, FTR, I love his poetry.

Jules said...

I've only read Far From the Madding Crowd by Hardy, and while I loved the writing, I didn't enjoy the book that much. This one sounds a little more up my ally. May have to check this one out.

hopeinbrazil said...

Thanks for letting us know it was available for free on Kindle.