Star-crossed Astronomers

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I love Thomas Hardy for so many reasons. Lately, I have been particularly admiring the surprising behavior of his female characters. Even in the Late Victorian Era, women in literature are mostly predictable. They obey their fathers and husbands. They almost always do the right thing, and by “right” I mean socially acceptable. When faced with adversity, Hardy’s heroines do not follow convention. Here are some of the surprising things they do:

  • when Bathsheba must fire her steward, she doesn’t hire another man to help her; she runs her farm herself.
  • one young lady marries a rich old aristocrat instead of her handsome, poor, young lover. Instead of pining away of misery when the old bag turns out to be immoral and controlling, she takes charge and reforms him.
  • when Grace’s adulterer husband returns from months away with his mistress, she doesn’t take him back, but runs off to be with her own lover.
  • Lady Constantine, the heroine of the novel I am reviewing today, is abandoned by her husband. She’s lonely and bored. Does she humbly pine away, spending her nights knitting socks for charity? Nope! She finds herself a hot young country lad. When her husband finally croaks, she DOES NOT marry her lover.

Women simply do not behave like this in novels by other authors. I love it! Hardy is the only Victorian author I have found who allows his female characters to act in their own interest without losing his or the reader’s sympathy. He’s the best. Let’s get back to the romance at hand.

These lovers just can’t uncross their stars.

Thomas Hardy starts with a 28-year-old woman whose horrible husband has abandoned her to go on safari. Due to a truly stupid vow he pried from her, she musn’t go into society or have any fun while he’s away. He’s been away for years. Bored out of her skull, Lady Constantine decides she’d like to survey her estate from the top of a column that was built to commemorate her husband’s grandpa who died in “The American War.” Gotcha, Grandpa. Stay on your side of the Atlantic.

Lady Constantine discovers a handsome young astronomer using her column to study the stars. “Hey, boy, hey” says Lady Inconstantine. She falls in love and begins wooing him several months before a letter arrives bearing the news of her husband’s timely death. Gasp! Horrors! An older woman a younger man! How can a young man be expected to love an older woman when her beauty will fade long before his?

Oh wait, before we proceed I must mention that the astronomical cherub’s name is Swithin St Cleeve. Swithin. I didn’t even know that was a name. Thomas Hardy, you champion.

This set up is just fine. Well, perhaps not. I’m here for the abandoned aristocrat finding a young swain on her property and seducing him. Why not? Well, because she’s taking advantage of his inexperience? That is a plausible interpretation of the situation. Hardy goes to some effort to establish that she is the wooer, but that Swithin loves her and consents to the wooing. An eight-year difference in the other direction wouldn’t have been noteworthy. I don’t know. One should not seduce inexperienced young things. True enough.

The other flaw in the design is Hardy’s contrast between the enormity of the universe and the insignificance of earthly romance. He succeeds in making the central tension in the novel seem insignificant.

Next, Hardy unveils a series of ludicrous misadventures. They marry, but the marriage is invalidated, because her husband is not dead! Except he is dead! He just didn’t die before they got married. And a host of other implausible inconveniences and strange mishaps interfere with our two insignificant lovers.

Just when our heroine selflessly decides to send her young fella away to pursue his career unencumbered by a renewal of their falsified vows, she discovers that she is pregnant. Of course, Hardy could not use such a scandalous word, but he gets his point across. Swithin has wandered beyond the reach of letter or telegram. In her desperation, Lady Constantine marries the pompous bishop who has been courting her and passes the baby off as his. Nothing this shocking has happened in the history of English literature. Thomas Hardy don’t give af. I so very much wish I could read the novels this gent would have written if fully unfettered by what Victorian’s considered printable. As it was Two on a Tower caused quite a stir, particularly because Lady Constantine’s dupe was a bishop.

How dare you impugn the bishopry? 

Thomas Hardy did dare. He wrote a host of implausible circumstances leading to the conception of this child, but many children were conceived out of wedlock and even today women marry men other than the father of their child before the birth of said child. Hardy’s bit of scandal is a bit of realism buried in a surfeit of silliness. I do see hints of the Tragic Destiny that characterizes his later and greatest works. The emotional and moral question of the novel is “how social restrictions can lead an otherwise virtuous woman into shameful circumstances.” This question lies at the heart of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s best works. Well, that’s just as far as I can remember. I haven’t read them in years and I wouldn’t be surprised if Far from the Madding Crowd conquers Tess in my heart. Anyway, the point is:

You may like Two in a Tower if:

  • you’re a cougar

You may not like Two in a Tower if:

  • life is too short for the minor works of major authors

Final Thoughts: This book is just ok. Not bad. Not perfect. The subject matter is certainly unique and scandalous for its time. I can’t say this is Hardy’s best work.

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Poor, Sick Thomas Hardy Writes a Real Clunker

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A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy, 1881

I am reading a biography of my favorite author, Thomas Hardy, concurrently with reading his books. Before the author mentions any plot elements, I stop reading the biography and switch to the novel. No spoilers. When I finished reading A Laodicean, I thought “why is this book so bad?” Turns out there’s a very good reason.

After accepting an advance from Harpers to publish his next novel in installments, Thomas Hardy became very ill. He was an invalid for many months. Hardy could not afford to lose the money, so he dictated the novel to his wife from his sickbed. This is why we should not work when we’re sick. Bad novels. No, contagion is why we shouldn’t work when we’re sick, but also A Laodicean.

Laodicean means lukewarm or undecided especially in terms of religion. Our heroine, Paula Power, is first seen by our peeping tom of a hero, George Somerset, when she is about to be baptized into her late father’s Protestant faith. At the last second, she greatly disappoints the minister by refusing to enter the dark pool of baptismal water. This minster later becomes…not important to the plot at all, even though he professes to think of Paula as a daughter. I think Thomas Hardy, in his illness, forgot the poor fellow.

The theme of A Laodicean is less about Paula’s religious doubt and more about her wavering between the old and the new. Her father was a wealthy railroad engineer and designer. Upon his death he left her in possession of a castle formerly owned by the still local De Stancy family. Paula seems to be an independent woman, a representative of modernity. Yet, she yearns for the legitimacy of being an aristocrat. If she were a De Stancy no one would question her actions, such as the renovation of the crumbling castle.

Predictably, given that Hardy trained as an architect, our young hero is an aspiring architect. He falls in love with Paula and pretends to be interested in sketching the castle for professional purposes, wink wink. He is clearly superior to the architect Paula was planning on using for the restoration.

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All seems well.  Our hero will get the gig and enter into close, love-inducing proximity with our girl Paula. Enter a young scamp named Dare. Hardy rarely used his first name and I’ve already forgotten it. Anyway, this mysterious villain thwarts George Somerset at every turn. He’s very clever at it. But why does he want to? Turns out he is the illegitimate son of Captain De Stancy. Gasp! He wants to see his father restored to their ancestral home. More importantly he wants to get his hands on Paula’s fortune.

Paula favors George, but she feels badly about her family taking over the home that the De Stancy’s occupied for hundreds of years. Dare is so good at making other people look bad, that after a long chase across the Continent she renounces George and engages herself to De Stancy. At the last minute the truth of Dare’s deceptions and his identity is revealed to Paula. She calls off the wedding and reverses the Continental chase, pursuing Somerset this time. After a long and tantalizing ordeal, she finds him, they make up and they get married. A resentful Dare burns down castle De Stancy.

George sanguinely suggests that this is a good thing. Now they can build a new home with modern amenities. His bride agrees for two seconds before proclaiming “but I wish I had my castle and I wish you were a De Stancy.”

I can see the makings of a good concept swirling around in there. I’m sure Hardy was going to make a brilliant point about the tension between progress and tradition. Technology and the newly rich may be taking over, but social status does not come so swiftly. My American brain is dumbfounded by the insistent clinging of the British people to the oppressive tradition of aristocracy. Why don’t they just get rid of their royals? Because everyone wants to dream about being a princess, I guess. Paula Power lives in a castle. She can buy anything she wants and marry whomever she pleases. Hardy was perhaps too ill to illustrate what more Paula could attain as a member of the gentry, so it seems like she’s hankering after nothing more than words and ideas. The point falls a bit flat.

Dare is an interesting character. He is smart, but corrupt and ruthless. He feels entitled to better treatment as the last of the De Stancy line, and he manipulates everyone around him to achieve this aim, including his own unowned father. The tricks he pulls on Somerset are entertaining and heartrending to read. The iniquity!

I could tell that this book was published serially and written for money. It seems that Hardy did not have the wherewithal to develop the side characters, subplots and depth of meaning that typify his better novels. I quickly grew tired of the repetition of a small set of ideas. He was dragging out a scanty creative effort in order to get that paycheck from Harpers. Poor thing.

Ultimately, book centers on the wooing of Paula by Somerset and De Stancy. He wallows in the minutiae of their attempts to win her. It gets quite dull. Often their efforts are manipulative and icky. Both suitors use guilt freely. This is a type of courtship that is not fun to read about and Hardy spends at least one hundred too many pages detailing it.

Final Thoughts: I’m so grateful for modern medicine. Hardy suffered for months from a urinary tract infection. I wish I could go back in time and give him some anti-biotics. Then maybe this would have been a good book.

Thomas Hardy Takes a Stab at Napoleon

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The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy, 1880

In 1880 our boy Thomas Hardy attempted a historical novel. As much as I love a romanticized historical setting, Hardy’s Regency Era novel is a big fat fail for me. The story concerns the denizens of a mill, which is a good start, because who doesn’t love a literary miller? The miller has two sons. A sailor named Bob and soldier named John. I knew from the names alone that Hardy didn’t put his thinking cap on for this one. This is the man who created Cytherea Gray, Bathsheba Everdeen and Gabriel Oak. He named the brothers Bob and John. And guess who both brothers are in love with? Anne Garland. No offense intended to the many Anne’s I love in this world, but Hardy sure didn’t strain his creative faculties for this novel.

Anne lives at the mill with her widowed mother. The miller also lost his spouse and decided to rent out part of the mill house to pretty, little Anne and her brainless mother. Of course, both his sons take a fancy to the maiden. Thomas Hardy is too cool for triangles; he loves a love square. So, the local aristocrat also falls for Anne. Anne. Come on now. At least the squire-ling is named Festus Derriman. That’s a name worth hearing. Apart from his appellation, Festus is worthless. He’s a big hulking bro who constantly attempts to or threatens to assault dear little Anne. It’s terrifying. To add another layer of horror, Anne remains silent about Derriman’s persecution, because she doesn’t want to interrupt trade between the manor and the mill. What’s more important than women’s safety in a capitalist society? Everything.

The reader is meant to admire steady, loyal John the soldier and look down on Bob the fickle sailor. However, the characters are so thin and bland, that I couldn’t work up any emotion. The great question of the book is who will Anne marry, but Anne is boring and so are her suitors. My only investment was hoping she didn’t chose Derriman for the sake of increasing her social status. It’s unclear to me why Hardy bothered with the Regency setting when it functions only as a background for his typical love square scenario. Unlike Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the war is incidental to the action of The Trumpet-Major and not fully utilized.

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This book is light, frivolous and unlike Hardy’s other novels, free from any point of view. Yet, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It’s not a strong novel, but it’s still Thomas freaking Hardy we’re talking about. He’s my favorite writer. Even when he has nothing to say, he says it well. The style of his writing pleases me. Always. I think Hardy wanted an excuse to interview his aged neighbors about their memories of the Napoleonic Wars. That exercise did not result in an excellent novel, but I like to think he enjoyed the process. I still enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Henry James so far. Pick up your game, Henry James.

 

You might like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you have a thing for stories about brothers squabbling over the same lady
  • you have a thing for novels about the Napoleonic Wars
  • you want to read a decently written novel that doesn’t require much thought

You might not like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you only have time for the best works by the best writers

Final thoughts: It’s still better than Under the Greenwood Tree. Thomas Hardy’s second worst novel so far. We have at least two truly spectacular novels to go, y’all. Have faith in our boy.

A Forgotten Gem by Thomas Hardy

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This novel is about a young society lady whose father is a butler and I got my father to pose for the picture. Cute, right?

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876

Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.

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Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:

“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
And
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”

You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
  • you like unexpected endings
  • you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption

You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen

Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.

A Series of Unfortunate Marriages

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The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, 1878

Alert: The Return of the Native is one of the only audiobooks that Alan Rickman ever recorded. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you should listen to this one before reading this post. Treat yourself. I will not divulge the entire plot here, but you might want to go give it a listen before I divulge a single thing.

This novel is a strange, mixed bag. It contains all the elements that make Thomas Hardy’s writing wonderful and some elements that let the story down. The highlight of the book is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. I love this character from the depths of my being. He roves the heath in something like a Romani wagon, selling red dye that shepherds use to mark their livestock. He’s quite successful, but his trade has the disadvantage of turning his skin and clothes red. Of course, he becomes the local boogeyman, because of his outlandish appearance. If you don’t wash behind your ears, the reddleman will carry you away. Far from being a scary kidnapper, poor Diggory is kind and resourceful and tireless in his efforts to help others. But the woman he loves, Thomasin Yeobright, will not marry him, in part because of his redness.

We must take yet another moment on this blog to recognize Hardy’s brilliance with character names. Characters in this book include:

Thomasin (Tamsin) Yeobright                                          Clement (Clym) Yeobright

Eustacia Vye                                                                        Damon Wildeve

Grandfer Cantle                                                                     Johnny Nunsuch

How does he do it?

The tale takes place on Egdon Heath. Hardy describes this wild habitat with such beauty and nuance that the setting is absolutely the second-best part of the book after Diggory Venn. I appreciate every word he uses to describe Egdon. However, when the setting is more interesting than half your characters, you halfway blew it. If he’d put the same energy into making Tamsin something more than a symbol of feminine sweetness, figuring out whether Eustacia is supposed to be an allegory or a girl, and eliminating the bizarre, abstract elements of Clym’s characterization, this would be a perfect book.

We need to talk about Eustacia Vye. Please indulge me by reading Hardy’s initial description of her:

“Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.”

Wow. I love this intertwining of Hardy’s worldview with his description of this woman. She is as unpredictable and arbitrary as human destiny. I’m intrigued. Did you notice that in this extended metaphor he avoided implying that any deity actually does control the outcome of our lives? Hardy was pretty much an atheist. Go team!

I wanted to love our mercurial heath goddess, Eustacia, because she dresses in drag to get close to a fella she’s interested in. But she’s a Hera, not an Athena, and we can’t love Hera, because she’s prone to imposing extravagant punishments on the women that her husband rapes. You have to exhibit a smidge of compassion to be a sympathetic character. Instead, Eustacia’s careless, egotistic meddling ruins lives. This would be fine, not morally, but as a fictitious device, if Hardy didn’t spend the last section of the novel asking the reader to bewail poor Eustacia’s sad lot. The same lot in life that she chose for herself with complete disregard for the happiness of everyone around her. Perhaps this will not be a problem for you. Perhaps you are more forgiving than I.

 

You might like The Return of the Native if:

  • you’re a fan of Thomas Hardy’s other work
  • you love anything set on a moor

You might not like The Return of the Native if:

  • you need your characters to be at least as dynamic as the scenery

Final Thoughts: Even with this flaw, the end of the book is pretty satisfying. Overall, I like it very much. Hardy’s prose is top notch in this one. There is pristine scene in which a woman looks at a heron. I read it three or four times and I got more out of it each time. Currently, I would rank The Return of the Native fourth or fifth out of the seven Thomas Hardy books I have read, which may sound low, but the three or four books ahead of it are three or four of my all-time favorite books. I think it’ll end up at the top of my second tier of Hardy novels. We shall see.

Cliffhanging with Thomas Hardy

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A Pair of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy, 1873

Famous for:

  • allegedly creating the term and concept of the cliffhanger

Thomas Hardy’s third novel is a simple story that I have complicated feelings for. This is gonna be a doozy.

The central concern of A Pair of Blue Eyes is the romantic history of Elfride Swancourt. As I have said before, Thomas Hardy is the king of character names. Young Elfride is the daughter of a country vicar. Here’s a summary of her love life:

  • A young farmer named Felix Jethway completely misconstrues some comments and actions of Elfie’s. He thinks she cares for him. She does not. He sneaks up behind her and kisses her. The fact that she didn’t tell her father and have him, I dunno, whipped or something, is later tossed in her face as evidence that she had accepted him as her sweetheart. Does wordpress have an eye-roll emoji? Felix dies of consumption. His mother, the Widow Jethway, blames Elfride for her son’s death.
  • A young architect, Stephen Smith, stays with the vicar while planning church repairs. He and Elfie fall in love. Her father encourages the match until he discovers that Stephen is not the London gentleman he seems to be, but the son of local cottagers. British English is perhaps superior to American English. We don’t have a word for people who live in cottages. More to the point, Elfride’s father forbids them from marrying. Stephen, determined to win the right to his sweetheart’s hand, decides to go to India where the competition among architects is less stiff and a man can rise quickly in the world. To ensure that they remain true to each other, he persuades Elfie to run away and marry him in secret. She begins the process, but has second thoughts about defying her father and begs Stephen to return her home. He does so, but the journey back to Endelstow—Thomas Hardy is also great at place names—takes so long that Elfride is OUT ALONE WITH A MAN OVERNIGHT. Her nemesis, the Widow Jethway, sees her on the train and has the power to ruin Elfride.
  • Elfie meets Henry Knight who happens to be Stephen’s friend and mentor. They play chess. She rescues him from death! They fall in love and she forsakes Stephen for Mr. Knight. The freakin’ Widow Jethway vents her ire upon Elfride by sending Knight a letter describing her overnight trip with Stephen in an uncharitable light. Knight forsakes Elfride.
  • Elfie’s handsome neighbor, Lord Luxellian, needs a mother for his children since the last one croaked. He picks Elfie because his little girls like her. He grows to love her passionately. Sadly, Elfride dies just five months after their marriage.

Elfride’s love life is a good deal less complicated than Lady Mary’s, but she certainly has more betrothed suitors than any girl in English literature so far. For me, the novel succeeds in parts and fails spectacularly in others.

A Pair of Blue Eyes Successes:

  • Elfride has some charming and unique personality traits. She is smarter than her father and writes his sermons for him. I really love that detail. She’s very good at chess. She also cares for finery and flattery, which I’m ok with, because the stereotype that smart girls don’t care about their looks is silly. I doubt there is any correlation between IQ and vanity. Hardy also succeeds at painting Elride’s romantic vacillations in a sympathetic light. Knight might judge her, but the reader is not meant to, which I appreciate.
  • The cliffhanger scene is wonderful. The book was originally published serially. Hardy left Knight literally hanging from a cliff between installments. I mean, on my second read through I was upset that I had to go to work with Knight hanging there. Elfride goes behind a bush, takes all her clothes off, puts the outer layer back on and rips up her petticoats to make a rope that saves her beloved.
  • The wild, rugged, Wessex landscape is beautifully described. Hardy’s skill as a novelist developed greatly between his second and third books. I can see elements of his capacity for working meaningful aphorisms into a text. He can be wise, but is generally so in a way that fits the story he has created so tightly that the aphorism loses most of its power out of context. Subtle details of plot, characterization and style are vastly improved over the atrocity that is Under the Greenwood Tree.
  • Hardy’s capacity for situational humor emerges. For example, in the churchyard Stephen chooses the flattest tombstone to sit on with Elfride. They have an intimate courtship conversation and plan their future. Stephen eventually asks her if anyone else has ever loved her before. She confesses that someone did (Remember Felix Jethway?) They banter on about it for a while. This conversation ensues:

‘“Where is he now?” he continued to Elfride.

“Here.”

“Here! What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that he is here.”

“Where here?”

“Under us. He is under this tomb. He is dead, and we are sitting on his grave.”’

I love my silly Elfride so much for kissing her new love on the grave of her old admirer.

  • I appreciate how Hardy humbles Stephen and Knight at the end of the story. I won’t describe exactly how he does it, but it’s quite a brilliant twist in the narrative.

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes Failures

  • Thomas Hardy wants us to see Elfride’s third suitor, Henry Knight, as an intelligent, humble, super moral guy. A hero that the reader should admire. Um, no. Nope. Henry Knight is the worst. He might be smart, but he’s an intellectual snob who publishes silly articles professing his own wisdom and moral superiority. Hardy wants us to see him as humble, but he’s actually so conceited that when he fears dying he thinks “such an experiment in killing might have been practiced upon some less developed life.” Because he thinks uneducated people are so far below him that they deserve to die more than he does. I could give many more examples of why Knight is a foul hypocrite and I will, upon request. I loathe him particularly because of his need to be “the first comer in a woman’s heart.” What is this? Why? I am supposed to admire this man for being a 30 year-old who is determined to marry a young, innocent, teenage virgin? What is there to admire in that? Nothing! Perhaps he can’t bear comparison with another lover. Perhaps he can’t bear the intellect and wisdom of a woman his own age. Perhaps he’s just a fetishist obsessed with virginity. I guess a lot of Victorians were. There’s nothing admirable in it. Nothing valuable in wanting to be with someone inexperienced. I loathe him. I love Elfride for standing up to him when he rejects her for having a previous lover with this sobbing speech “Am I such a—mere characterless toy—as to have no attract—tion in me, apart from—freshness?” She continues on from there, but that is her most cogent point. Exactly, Elfride! You got him. I will repeat, there is nothing admirable in Knight’s failure to recognize Elfride’s true value, because he is too busy being enraptured with the idea of “fresh lips” to kiss. Revolting.
  • Elfirde has significance only in her relation to men. I will provide two examples. First, her characterization changes when she is with different men. When Stephen courts her, Hardy portrays her as too smart and worldly for him. When Knight shows up, suddenly she’s not smart anymore. She becomes abjectly submissive to this “great” man. I know, barf. Other than that one despairing moment quoted above, she is nothing like the Elfride of the early pages of the novel. Secondly, after Stephen and Knight hear of Elfride’s death they bicker about who has the greater right to grieve for her. A woman has died! They are in the presence of her coffin and still using her as a chip in their male dominance game.

Here’s a little quote that I like:

He drew himself in with the sensitiveness of a snail.

 

Final Thoughts: I feel so ambivalent about this book that I can’t say whether I like or dislike it in total. I think I like it, but only a little. Anyway, I am certainly glad to have read it. Twice. Maybe three times; I can’t remember.  While I may have told you just about all there is to know about the plot, there’s a world inside this book and if you choose to read it, you’ll find plenty more than what I have described. Thomas Hardy is great and some of the elements of his greatness are on display in A Pair of Blue Eyes for all its flaws.

Victorian Literary Critics Tried to Destroy My Favorite Author!

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Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy, 1872

When his first published novel was harshly criticized by the Spectator, Thomas Hardy was deeply stung and wished he “was dead.” Hoping for commercial and critical success, Hardy focused on the one aspect of his writing that won universal praise: his charmingly rendered rustic dialogue.

I have written about my dislike of the Victorian penchant for condescending rural literature before. I wish I could stop writing about it. I’m weary of this trend. But, when those absurd Victorians take their love of feeling superior to quaint country people so far that they nearly ruin my favorite author, I must protest.

Hardy dutifully churned out exactly what his audience desired: a trite depiction of country folk doing, thinking, and discussing nothing of consequence. Under the Greenwood Tree is awful. The Victorians liked it, though. I just can’t fathom why.

The novel concerns itself with two questions. Will the church choir be canceled in favor of the more modern organ? Yes, it will. But, tradition! Will Dick Dewey get Fancy Day to marry him? Yes, he will. But, he hasn’t got much money! That’s it. Nothing else happens in this novel.

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I do feel a bit sad for the men who really enjoy being in the choir together. As for the romance, yuck. I’m insulted that Hardy thought fit to waste my time with the details of this courtship. Imagine that a young person who you’re only kind of friends with comes over and starts boring you with every trifling thought they have ever had about their significant other. I’m quite brusque enough to tell said young person that they and their lover are clearly both too immature and jealous to get married. Also, I’m too old to listen to this piffle. Alas, I can’t say that to Dick Dewey and Fancy Day, because they don’t exist.

I’m so dedicated to Thomas Hardy, that instead of chucking the book out the window, I read it twice. Yes, twice. It did not improve with a second read. Dick gets angry if Fancy cares about her appearance when he’s not there to see her. She doesn’t exist only for you to look at, Dick! Fancy gets jealous when he dances with another girl. That is the substance of this book. Long conversations centered on two adults behaving obnoxiously childish.

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The dramatic climax of the book occurs when the local Reverend, unaware of her engagement to Dick, asks Fancy to marry him. He describes all the lovely material goods he can provide her with. Little Fancy’s head is swayed and she agrees. She later backs out, because she just couldn’t hurt Dick so horribly. Well, I think she should have. She’s a frivolous girl who cares greatly for comfort. Dick wins her by appealing to her vanity. I suppose I’m meant to feel anxious for Dick’s possible broken heart, but I don’t care. He only loves Fancy for her beauty. He’ll get over it. I think Fancy would have been happier with the Reverend. Even though the point of the novel was the romance, I was not at all invested in it. My head was swayed by the idea of that carriage too, and, you know, generally not living in poverty just because some man tells you you’re pretty. The significant crisis of the book seems insignificant and my emotions run contrary to what Hardy would like. He’s still my favorite author, but I’m not his perfect reader for this book.

Anyway, I’m glad the book was a success during its time, because Thomas Hardy continued to write. In this novel, he succumbed to the Victorian need to laugh at quaint rustics. However, he was indeed from a rural area and he managed to write about such places without looking down on the inhabitants in his later novels. In fact, the next novel he wrote is possibly my favorite novel. His audience tried to squash his talent, but they couldn’t manage it. Take that, literary critics of yesteryear! You might have liked this tripe, but Thomas Hardy was just waiting to scandalize you with his advanced views of sex and marriage. He who confronts moral hypocrisy through literature laughs last.

You might like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • I don’t know, but if you do like it, I’m sorry for the strength of my dislike for it. I still respect you. To each her own.

You might not like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • It takes more than quaint words like “mumbudgeting” to impress you as a reader.

Final Thoughts: This ain’t a good book, friends! Here’s the only sentence I truly enjoyed “Dick said nothing; and the stillness was disturbed only by some small bird that was being killed by an owl in the adjoining copse, whose cry passed into the silence without mingling with it.” This is while Dick is about to ask Fancy’s father for her hand.