A Pair of Blue Eyes
A Pair of Blue Eyes was the third of Hardy’s novels to be published and the first to be serialised, running in Tinsleys’ Magazine from the September of 1872 until the July of the following year. It appeared in three-volume form in May 1873, a year after the publication of Under the Greenwood Tree.
It is essentially a love-story. Elfride Swancourt, the blue-eyed heroine, lives with her widowed father, a clergyman, in a remote Cornish village. She is wooed successively by Stephen Smith, a young architect of humble birth, and Henry Knight, a successful man of letters, once a mentor to Stephen. In appearance, character and situation Elfride obviously has much in common with the young Emma Gifford, who was to become Hardy’s wife. The circumstances in which she and Smith meet recapitulate pretty exactly Emma’s first encounter with her future husband, when he came to Cornwall in March, 1870, on a church restoration project. In his Life, however, Hardy plays down the correspondences between himself and Smith, claiming that at the relevant time he had been closer in age and character to Knight.
The autobiographical element is in any case of limited interest. A Pair of Blue Eyes is chiefly significant as an experimental work of remarkable boldness and originality. In his Preface of 1895 Hardy was at pains to emphasise the importance of his setting, a remote corner of western England ‘where the wild and tragic features of the coast had long combined in perfect harmony with the crude Gothic art of the ecclesiastical buildings scattered along it’. The emotions of the lovers he is concerned with are ‘not without correspondence with these material circumstances’. He goes on to further description of this ‘region of dream and mystery’: ‘The ghostly birds, the pall-like sea, the frothy wind, the eternal soliloquy of the waters, the bloom of dark purple cast that seems to exhale from the shoreward precipices, in themselves lend to the scene an atmosphere like the twilight of a night vision.’
‘Vision’ is the key word here: A Pair of Blue Eyes is far larger than life. What might have been a realistic account of rivalry in love is translated into a series of extravagant episodes - rendered the stranger by effects of weather, light and landscape - which are made metaphorically expressive of the passions of the protagonists. Some of the happenings and descriptions are closer in spirit to grand opera than to most Victorian fiction in being hyperbolically proportioned to the intensity of the emotions of the characters concerned. In the dizzying central episode, the turning-point of the narrative, where Knight is clinging to a cliff-face in danger of plunging to his death, Hardy is working in multiple dimensions of space and time evoking, as background to the immediate melodramatic situation, a Darwinian vision of past millennia. The result is a scene at once recklessly ambitious yet immediately exhilarating to read.
By way of counterpoint the structure of the novel is artificial, even diagrammatic. Smith and Knight are the two central suitors in a series of four whom Elfride encounters in ascending social order. The contrasting courtships are cross-linked by coincidence, by patterning and by parallels of various kinds, so that the narrative as a whole becomes a dramatized meditation on the author’s favourite theme: the nature and the workings of romantic love.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Hardy. Not only is it a striking work in its own right: it instantly disposes of any lingering notion that the author was an unsophisticated traditionalist. To read it with understanding is to gain fresh insights into the way in which his apparently more orthodox novels should be read.
Hardy himself retained a fondness for this early work, partly for its personal associations. The poet Coventry Patmore wrote to the author praising its ‘unequalled beauty and power’ while expressing regret that it had not been written as verse. It was Tennyson’s favourite Hardy novel, and was also particularly admired by Marcel Proust.
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