The Well-beloved, Thomas Hardy, 1892
I don’t actually want to talk about this novel. I am embarrassed for Thomas Hardy. This one is so bad. Yikes. Writing a description of the plot is going to hurt. But my author-soulmate wrote this poorly conceived clunker and it would be disingenuous to skip it.
Listen to this nonsense. Jocelyn Pierston is a sculptor. He considers himself a man afflicted by an inconvenient malady: his affection flits from woman to woman in an—according to him—uncontrollable and regrettable manner. Pierston blames his commitment-phobia on his artistic temperament. Here is a blurry, real-time picture of my face as I type these words.
Pierston’s quest for the ideal female form to immortalize in stone causes his romantic feeling to flee capriciously on to another object after he has sworn fidelity and made who knows what other promises to some poor lass. I know what you are thinking. “Barf, surely Thomas Hardy didn’t think anyone would be interested in the life story of this idiot.” I guess he did though. I can’t explain it. We know he wrote some of the most compelling characters of the entire Victorian Era. Tess! Bathsheba! Gabriel! And then he whipped out this stupendously uninteresting tale.
Pierston thinks of the women he crushes on as embodiments of his ideal “well-beloved” woman and blames this entity, the Well-beloved, for refusing to stay put in one female frame. Sigh.
I’m getting ahead of myself. It gets so much worse. Pierston returns from London to his home town on the Isle of Portland, an insular island that is connected to England by a spit that is submerged during hightide. He sees a friend of his youth, Avice. Not a typo. She is Avice, not Alice. She impulsively kisses him as she did when they were children. This social gaffe—they are much too old for casual kissing—leads to a renewed acquaintanceship and an engagement.
Avice seems cool. She recites poetry publicly and shows other signs of intellect. But, it would be too simple for Pierston to marry his hometown honey. A twist of fate leads him to spend a rainy afternoon in the company of a dusky maiden named Marcia. Of course, his well-beloved departs from Avice and enters Marcia. Ugh. Such a gross concept, Thomas Hardy. Pierston wants to place the blame for his endless string of compromising dalliances on an outside entity. No, sweetie. It’s not “the well-beloved” that is tormenting you. You need to stop obsessing over momentary attraction and start learning to form friendships with women. I’ll say it again: yikes.
Anyway, he ditches Avice and plans to marry Marcia. However, Marcia is proud and imperious and maybe already in love with a different guy. Their attraction doesn’t last long enough for them to follow through on the marriage.
Many years and many well-beloveds later, Pierston returns to the island and discovers that poor Avice has died. She married another, poorer islander, had a sad life, and died young. Pierston is stricken with remorse. He should have stuck by her! She was the one he truly loved all along! That’s what he tells himself, anyway. I can’t bring myself to give a single frog about this man’s emotions.
Anyway, he encounters the spitting image of the Avice he was once engaged to in the form of her daughter. He insists on calling her Avice as well. We’ll call her Avice II. So, this asshole falls in love with the daughter. That’s what he tells himself. He is incapable of love. Anyway, he wants to marry her, mostly to make up for the wrong he did her mother. At this point he is forty and she is about twenty. Avice II is a more worldly, but less cultured version of her mother, whom she closely resembles, probably because everyone on the island is related…so they all look the same? That is Hardy’s explanation. Anyway, it turns out that Avice II is already pregnant with another man’s child so Pierston helps them marry. Cuz he’s such a swell guy. Haha, no. Out of guilt.
Twenty years later…do you know what’s coming? What could have transpired in twenty years? The birth and bringing up of a third Avice. That’s right, he meets and gets engaged to a third Avice. The granddaughter. I am not making this up. What a truly wretched plot. Sixty-year old Pierston wants to marry the granddaughter of the woman he should have married forty years earlier. Yikes! Avice II pushes for the marriage, because she is ill and wants to know, before she dies, that her daughter will be provided for by a rich husband.
Pierston can sense that the youngest Avice is only going along with the marriage out of a sense of maternal duty. She does not want to marry this sixty-year-old stranger. Pierston knows this, and he feels bad, but not bad enough to call off the wedding. Fortunately, on the eve of the ceremony, another twist of fate intervenes and Avice III runs off with her young beau. It turns out that her lover is Marcia’s stepson. Marcia returns to Pierston’s life. She is no longer an ideal beauty to his eye, but he’s a miserable, lonely old man. So, he marries her.
If there is one redeeming element of The Well-beloved it is that Pierston does not marry either the daughter or granddaughter. Yikes. But that is small comfort. What a truly stupid concept for a novel. Cringe-worthy. If we delved deeper into the details of this text you would only be more annoyed.
Final thoughts. What was he thinking? Such piffle.