Been a while since I read a new Thomas Hardy novel, mostly because I try to pick them up in gently used editions from my local used bookstore! I think I have read all of his most well-known novels now and have just a few less celebrated ones, along with collections of short stories, left. A Pair of Blue Eyes is not Hardy’s first novel, but it is an early one and the first to be published under his name originally. According to the very brief introduction (I commend the Wordsworth Classics editors for not indulging in a 30-page academic treatise like some publishers do), this novel contains a scene that scandalized contemporary readers at the time! I was excited for that.
Elfride Swancourt is a vicar’s daughter in a rural part of the country. She meets Stephen Smith when he comes to make drawings and measurements for his architect mentor to redo the church in a gothic style. Elfride and Stephen fall in love—young, puppy love if you will—but in a cruel twist of fate, it turns out Stephen is actually from the area! His father is a mere mason, and this combined with Stephen’s own architectural aspirations make him an unsuitable suitor in the eyes of Mr. Swancourt. After nearly marrying in secret, Stephen and Elfride part but swear to remain faithful. Stephen travels to India for a multi-year project where he hope he can make a name for himself and prove himself worthy of Elfride. What he doesn’t know is that a friend of his, Henry Knight, gets introduced to Elfride by way of another connection. Knight, unaware that Elfride is the one who got away for Stephen, soon falls for Elfride! So we have a love triangle amidst a series of unlikely coincidences.
This book is a hot mess in the best possible way.
The first third of the book, when Stephen and Elfride meet and fall for each other, is adorable. I love the hesitation, the way that Stephen is so reluctant to return because he knows he is falling for her and he also knows he isn’t “good enough” for her. I can overlook the constant interjection of coincidence into the plot because it’s just so much fun!
But what I think really elevates A Pair of Blue Eyes beyond its fun romance is Hardy’s trademark commentary on a revolutionary shift in English life and culture. This is commentary he later refined into a much sharper delivery in his more famous works like Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. So for those of us who love luxuriating in Hardy’s novels, getting to see his first attempts at this commentary is a delight.
Basically, this book is in part about urbanization and the resulting shift in cultural capital from landed gentry to a new upper–middle class of working people. In Mr. Swancourt we see a man very much concerned with heredity. When he first learns Stephen’s last name, he is convinced Stephen is related to a very prestigious family—of course we later that’s not true, and when Mr. Swancourt finds out, he looks down on Stephen. Despite he and Elfride living in a rural village, as a vicar he is an educated man and therefore sees himself as above the villagers like Stephen’s (presumably illiterate) mason father. Stephen has gone to London to study architecture to better himself—designing buildings surely is more prestigious than labouring over the actual building of them—but this is an upward mobility that Swancourt doesn’t recognize. In a contrasting irony, Swancourt himself attempts upward mobility through a channel he does see as valid: marrying up, by marrying a rich widow. He hopes to harness the same avenue for Elfride.
So when Henry Knight, promising barrister, shows up, we see the effect this has on Swancourt. Henry comes from a “good family” and lawyers are not seen as tradespeople like architects. So he’s a far more attractive suitor. His attitude towards Elfride is also far more traditional than Stephen’s. Whereas Stephen was bewitched, perhaps even besotted, with Elfride, Henry is more enamoured of her. The distinction here, to be clear, is that Henry sees Elfride as a woman to love for being a woman. Her most attractive qualities are her feminine ones. He doesn’t greatly admire her writing—though he does, at one point, admit she has some talent. He rather expects her to conform, to marry (hopefully him) and be a good little wife. As Elfride falls for Henry, the narrator explains how she bites her tongue and develops the habit of not challenging him or his views.
The result, then, is a novel about upward mobility, about gender roles, about propriety and who “deserves” to marry a vicar’s daughter. As many have noted, there are plenty of autobiographical features to this text (notably Hardy being an architect by trade). I’m actually really glad I read this novel now, after having read so many of Hardy’s later works. This way I get to see the seeds of those later works in A Pair of Blue Eyes, and I think that enhances the book overall. If I had read this as one of my first Hardy novels, I understandably wouldn’t have been as impressed.
So that’s my recommendation: don’t, if you have the opportunity, make this your first Hardy novel. He has so many others that are unquestionably superior in both plot and theme. But if you have read one or two of those, and like me you recognize the skill that Hardy brings to discussing his changing country at the end of the nineteenth century, then read this book too.