By the October of 1880 Hardy was at work on a new serial for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, to be entitled A Laodicean. With several chapters written and the first instalment already printed he found himself ‘very unwell’. Doctors diagnosed ‘internal bleeding’, and told him that he would have to remain in bed for a considerable period if he was to avoid a serious operation. For the first few weeks he had ‘to lie on an inclined plane with the lower part of his body higher than his head’. From this ‘awkward position’ he stoically set out to dictate the rest of the novel to his wife – who was also his nurse. The limitations of the work, some of which are mentioned below, can surely be attributed largely to the wretched circumstances of composition. Hardy was not able to leave the house on foot until the following May, by which time the novel had been completed in draft form. It was serialised in Harper’s in thirteen instalments, running from December 1880 to December 1881. Sampson Low published a three-volume edition in December 1881.
The title of the novel, hardly self-explanatory to the twenty-first century reader, derives from Revelation 3, where the Laodiceans are denounced as being ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’. Hardy’s heroine, Paula Power, is describable in these terms for several reasons. Early in the novel she is seen turning back, at the last moment, from baptism by immersion – and this in the chapel which her late father, ‘a staunch Baptist’, had provided for his local village. He had made his fortune as a railway contractor, and purchased the ancient castle in which Paula now lives. She is caught between the old world, represented by her home, and the new, as typified by her father’s occupation and her very surname. Her ambivalence is further displayed when she hesitates between two suitors, George Somerset, a rising young architect, and Captain De Stancy, a descendant of the family that once owned her castle.
Theme and situation are promisingly Hardyesque, and precipitate some strong early encounters in the author’s liveliest vein. Gradually, however, the narrative is left becalmed for want of innate momentum. Hardy has repeatedly to prod it back into temporary motion by novelettish contrivances. Much of the second half of the story is taken up by inconsequential wanderings around Europe. Loose ends and improbabilities abound. Paula dwindles from a potentially interesting ‘modern woman’ to a mere coquette. The unfortunate Somerset, reduced from hero to victim, has nothing much to do. The reader is left with the feeling that Hardy, ill as he was, must have been relieved simply to get the novel somehow completed on time, and to the length required by the periodical.