There’s a particular pleasure that comes with having read so much of an author’s oeuvre that you find yourself reaching deep into the back catalogue for new experiences. I love reading the less-celebrated or more obscure works by a famous author. Sometimes they are less-celebrated and more obscure for good reason! Sometimes, though, as with A Laodicean, they turn out to be undiscovered treasures!
I picked up this used copy at the same time I picked up a copy of The Pickwick Papers. I’ve been having this urge to re-read Bleak House but for some stubborn reason thought I should read a different Dickens first. So far Pickwick has proved impenetrable to me this year. It was thus with some trepidation I picked up Thomas Hardy’s book, because I wondered if I just wasn’t in the mood to work as hard as one must to translate these older works. I was so, so wrong. While it’s true that it takes a few sessions for my mind to adjust to the older language, Hardy is most emphatically not Dickens. Once you get past the recondite title and the heavy architectural jargon (and skip the pedantic introduction, obvs), you have what I can only describe as a pulp romance tale. It’s wonderful.
George Somerset is an architect at the beginning of his practice. On his ambles across the countryside he stumbles upon Stancy Castle, now in the possession of young heiress Paula Power. She engages him to draft plans for revitalizing and restoring the castle, even as they begin a vacillating dalliance—Paula is the “Laodicean” woman referred to by the title, for her indecisive nature in matters spiritual and temporal. Somerset finds himself beset with two rivals, one professional and one personal: Havill, a local architect; and William de Stancy, who is manoeuvred into pursuing this woman who now owns his ancestral home. Both are assisted, in ways sanctioned and not, by the enigmatic and villainous scoundrel William Dare, whose identity links him closely to the de Stancys. Somerset desperately wants to win Paula’s love and affection, but she is afraid of commitment—and the machinations of Dare, de Stancy, and Havill might prove to be a wedge too wide for them to overcome.
This book is just so delicious. It’s got intrigue. Dare is all about the falsified telegrams, the manipulated photos. You could totally take this story and adapt it to a modern-day romantic comedy, or even a Gossip Girl–style CW show—literally all of the ingredients are there. I thought I’d be getting a palate cleanser after reading some YA, but this is pretty much YA if the young adults weren’t quite so young any more. You could transplant this to high school if you wanted: young, rich woman stuck in a love triangle, not sure who to commit to, while other characters manipulate the situation from behind the scenes. Dare’s villainy really clinches this aspect of the plot for me. He will basically stop at nothing; Hardy makes him out to be a despicable wretch of a man who puts so much effort into obtaining money dishonestly instead of getting an honest job.
Somerset and Paula’s romance isn’t the greatest, but it isn’t the worst either. I like that the attraction is largely intellectual, or seems to be conducted upon that playing field. Paula appreciates Somerset’s architectural and historical knowledge, and his somewhat dissenting views from traditional religious and political dogma. Likewise, even the more physically capable military man of Captain de Stancy tries to impress Paula by sharpening and displaying his knowledge of European history and nobility. Paula herself is, like so many of Hardy’s other heroines, intelligent but also educated and possessive of a fierce sense of individual self-determination. She may be frustratingly indecisive, and perhaps to a modern reader, fickle—but I really empathized with the position she was in.
Hardy is, once again, attempting to subvert the ideas of Victorian society when it comes to how men and women should court one another and ultimately marry. A Laodicean feels very progressive given its time. And a lot of what happens in the romantic plot feels relevant in today’s heteronormative society as well. Men are encouraged to pursue women and to stick with it, even if she is “playing hard to get.” De Stancy and Somerset both exhibit this ruthless perseverance. The former is constantly pressing his suit, while the latter literally pursues Paula and company across continental Europe. Paula, however, pushes back. In one memorable scene, she and de Stancy have been hiking the countryside. He is about to launch into another speech about why he would be an awesome husband, when she chides him:
He again offered his arm, and from sheer necessity she leant upon it as before.
“Grant me but a moment’s patience,” he began.
“Captain de Stancy! Is this fair? I am physically obliged to hold your arm, so that I must listen to what you say!”
“No, it is not fair; upon my soul it is not!” said de Stancy. “I won’t say another word.”
I appreciate this portrayal, how Hardy shows de Stancy acknowledging his mistake and correcting his behaviour. For most of the story we’re supposed to see de Stancy as a somewhat likeable rival to the protagonist of Somerset, I expect—he is a noble figure. But the climax is supposed to reveal his true character, the way he has to choose between Paula and Dare and how his attitude suddenly becomes a mixture of imperious and pleading. It’s tempting to see this as inconsistent with his earlier character; on the contrary, it’s consistent with how Dare manipulates him throughout the book. De Stancy is noble but fairly weak-willed, according to Hardy: a good man easily led astray.
Indeed, the characters who surround this central love triangle are interesting in their own ways. Charlotte de Stancy finds herself in a quandary when she learns how Dare’s deceptions have prejudiced Paula against Somerset. Does she intervene, reveal the truth, dash her own brother’s hopes of marrying her best friend? Or does she keep it a secret, even though it means breaking apart two people she knows are well-suited for one another? I can’t say I’ve been quite in the same situation, but I can definitely sympathize with the difficulty of that choice. Close friendship of the kind between Paula and Charlotte often means having to make such choices—and also having to choose between what you want and what is best for your friend. Similarly, Havill is not quite a villain yet not an innocent either. He has a surprising amount of depth for a minor character.
The ending of A Laodicean is probably one of the reasons it hasn’t received more attention, I suppose. It’s a fairly rushed, unsatisfying, and predictable sequence of events. For modern readers who are familiar with the romantic comedy formula, it’s going to feel very, very familiar in a lot of ways. For Hardy’s readers I wonder if it felt less so—certainly, Paula’s change of heart and the actions she undertakes as a result seem quite bold and brash for a woman in her position. Her final words, which close out the book, are also somewhat enigmatic. As I read those in a bath on Sunday morning, I leaned back and pondered what Hardy might mean by them. In my opinion, he’s reminding us that love is not a panacea. Paula might be content with what she has decided, might love someone, but that doesn’t stop her from wishing things were different anyway. It’s a flawed and very human admission and quite an interesting way to end the book.
While by no means supplanting The Woodlanders or Tess as my favourite Hardy novels, A Laodicean was eminently enjoyable. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to read right now, and it surprised me with its deftness of character and accessible, almost modern plot. Give me an adaptation!