The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved was serialised in weekly instalments in the Illustrated London News, from October to December 1892. It was not published in book form, however, until January 1897, thus becoming technically the last of Hardy’s novels to appear. He had not only abbreviated the title, but re-written his text substantially, in particular fashioning a radically different ending.
The author rather ponderously observes, in his 1912 Preface, that the story differs from the other Wessex novels ‘in that the interest aimed at is of an ideal or subjective nature, and frankly imaginative, verisimilitude in the sequence of events [being] subordinated to the said aim.’ In other words it is a deliberately stylised work, a poetic parable. There are at least three substantial and interconnected ideas in play. One is quoted in the Life as a note made on February 19th, 1889:
The story of a face which goes through three generations or more, would make a fine novel or poem of the passage of Time. The differences in personality to be ignored. [This idea was to some extent carried out in the novel The Well-Beloved…]
Certainly that work features three generations of the same family, as the hero, Jocelyn Pierston, fall successively in love (at 20, at 40 and at 60) with a mother, her daughter and her grand-daughter. Hardy’s sub-title, however, ‘A Sketch of a Temperament’ seems to put the emphasis on the personality of the hero. In a letter to the poet Swinburne he describes The Well-Beloved as ‘a fanciful exhibition of the artistic nature’ – and Pierston is a sculptor. His art is animated by his persistent pursuit of his elusive ‘well-beloved’: ‘a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception’. Yet the author also suggests in his Preface that Pierston’s quest for an ideal beauty, his ‘delicate dream’, may be ‘in a vaguer form…more or less common to all men, and is by no means new to Platonic philosophers.’ His theme may therefore be – alternatively or alternately – ‘the family face’, the artistic temperament or (as ever) the workings of romantic love. In the poem which bears the same title as the novel the unfortunate visionary is merely a lover, not an artist.
All this may sound forbiddingly abstract, but The Well-Beloved offers an entertaining read, featuring, as it does, some melodramatic episodes and lavish scenic descriptions in the author’s liveliest vein. It is also a salutary corrective to naïve realist readings of Hardy’s fiction in general, displaying in near-skeletal form the boldness of his experimentation. Elsewhere a seemingly straightforward story will from time to time precipitate a powerful metaphorical episode, as when Henchard sees his own effigy floating in the river below him, or John South fancies that his life is threatened by the tree in front of his house. In The Well-Beloved the method is reversed: the explicitly metaphorical story is only intermittently brought to full narrative life.
Hardy was later to note that Marcel Proust seemed to have endorsed and developed ‘the theory exhibited in The Well-Beloved’. He quotes Proust’s claim that when we fall in love it is essentially with a figment of our own invention.