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A neglected gem
on 8 July 2007
A Pair of Blue Eyes has a special place in Hardy's fiction. It is his most autobiographical novel, being based in part on his youthful courtship of Emma Gifford, the woman who was to become his first wife. Indeed, while the novel was the third of his works to be published Hardy could never quite refrain from tinkering with the text all through his life. After Emma's death, and as remorse and regret for his cold neglect of her during her life took hold, Hardy returned to A Pair of Blue Eyes over and over again, almost as though he were reluctant to let it, and the memories of Emma it brought back to him, fade away into the dark.
The plot is a simple one. A young girl, Elfrida Swancourt - the owner of the sparkling blue eyes of the title - falls in love first with a young architect, Stephen Smith, and then, when Stephen travels to India to make his fortune, with Stephen's mentor, the learned and erudite Henry Knight. Elfrida's troubled indecision in choosing between her two suitors forms the focus of the novel, but what makes it soar way above so much romantic Victorian fiction is the beauty of Hardy's prose. The book contains dozens of superbly written dramatic episodes. Most famous of these is the incident where Henry Knight finds himself precariously hanging from the ledge of a cliff, his fingers gradually losing their hold, and with his life depending entirely upon whether Elfrida can find a way to rescue him. Of course she does, but only by removing a number of her undergarments (in the pouring rain of course) and knotting them into a rope so Henry can hoist himself to safety. And if the thought of a bedraggled under-dressed Elfrida lowering her clothes over the edge of a cliff for a gentleman to grapple with didn't have the Victorian serial-reading public (or the male half of it anyway) loosening their collars and avidly awaiting the next installment of the story then nothing ever would.
True, Hardy did write novels which are technically better, but he wrote none that I like as a story more than this one. The characters are likeable, the incidents are dramatic and the descriptions of the landscape with its churches, cliffs, over-grown graveyards and cottages are truly beautiful. Hardy could do landscape in prose like no-one else in the language, and the fact that this story was so intensely personal to him perhaps meant that he wrote in this instance more with his heart than with his head, resulting in a more gentle and likeable work of fiction than is the case with much of his later, more powerful but rather somber work.
If you're new to Hardy's novels then you might be better off starting with, say, The Return of the Native or Far from the Madding Crowd, but if you want to wander a little from the well-worn track of Hardy's fiction and explore one of his less well known works then A Pair of Blue Eyes would make an excellent choice.
Lyrical, gentle and with a great deal of humour this novel is an absolute gem.