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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.
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on 12 January 2011
It is often said that Hardy was more accomplished as a poet than as a novelist. Hardy himself admitted that whereas his novels brought him financial stability, poetry was his first and true love.

I, however, by far prefer his prose. Hardy's poetry is fixated on the same old, tired topics, and seems far too interested in versification to enable to it be well-rounded and deep. It's messy and disorientated. But, in prose, free from contrivedly experimental verse-form and the pattern of rhyme and meter, Hardy's brilliance as a writer is exposed.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is not, I suppose, on the same level as Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, but it is clean and direct, simple and earnest. Being an early novel, it seems more natural and less laboured in its presentation.

The characters are not always sympathetic, but they are rendered to the reader with such honesty that even if you do not come to like them, they at least have lasting impact. Interestingly, we have no hero or heroine. At first you might think it is Elfride Swancourt, the beautiful clergyman's daughter with the blue eyes of the title (an obvious interpretation of Hardy's first wife, Emma Gifford. Both she and the Cornwall setting of the novel are immortalised in such poems as Beeny Cliff and At Castle Boterel), but then Stephen Smith (who echoes Hardy somewhat), the thoroughly good and naive architect, comes onto the scene. Yet he cannot be the hero is the novel--he is absent for most of it!

Smith is the most sympathetic of the characters, and it is made a victim of, and wronged. But hang on--I don't want you to think that this novel is about good and bad people, wrongdoers and victims. As I have said, the characters are far too rounded for that. Elfride could have been presented as the typical meddler of men's hearts - she is beautiful and spoilt, she hates to lose and she is deceitful. But it is nearly impossible to hate her. I found myself recognising my own traits in her. Smith is youthful and kind, but at the end of the novel shows the selfish aspects of grief. Henry Knight, who believes himself to right in every area, and the man who comes between Elfride and Stephen, is nonetheless probably the most interesting and captivating of the lot.
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VINE VOICEon 31 July 2010
I'm loving Thomas Hardy more and more with every book of his that I read. A Pair of Blue Eyes was one of his earliest books, originally serialised in Tinsley's Magazine from September 1872 to July 1873. Although this is not generally noted as being one of his better novels and is certainly one of his least well known, there was something about it that appealed to me - and I would even say that of all the classics I've read so far this year, this might be my favourite.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is the story of Elfride Swancourt, a vicar's daughter living in a remote corner of England, who is forced to choose between two very different men. One of these, Stephen Smith, is a young architect whom she meets when he is sent by his employer to survey the church buildings. At first, the vicar approves of Stephen and encourages his daughter to spend time with him. It soon emerges, however, that Stephen has been hiding an important secret from the Swancourts; something that could put his relationship with Elfride in jeopardy. Later in the book, another man arrives at Endelstow Vicarage - Henry Knight, an essayist and reviewer from London - and Elfride has to make a difficult decision.

As you might expect with this being a Hardy book, nothing goes smoothly for any of the characters. I would describe A Pair of Blue Eyes as being similar in some ways to the later Tess of the d'Urbervilles, though not as dark and bleak - and not quite as tragic either.

The descriptions of scenery in this book are stunningly beautiful and bring the setting vividly to life. If you're familiar with Hardy you'll know that he sets most of his works in the fictional region of Wessex in the southwest of England. This story actually takes place in Off-Wessex or Lyonesse, which equates to Cornwall. I had no problem at all in picturing the lonely vicarage, the windswept hills, and the dark cliffs towering over the sea below. Speaking of cliffs, it is thought that the term 'cliffhanger' originates from a scene in this book, though I'm not going to say any more about it than that!

Another interesting aspect of this book is that it's loosely based on Hardy's relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford, though unfortunately I don't know enough about Hardy to have picked up on all the allusions and references to events in his own life.

I found A Pair of Blue Eyes very easy to read. I thought the pacing and flow of the story were perfect and the pages flew by in a weekend. It's so sad that this book has been ignored and underrated to the point where, until not long ago, I hadn't even heard of it. Maybe it won't appeal to everyone and it might not be the best introduction to his work, but I loved it and would highly recommend it to all Hardy fans.
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on 4 January 2004
This is the only book I've read by Hardy up to now, so I can't compare it to any of his later, more famous works. However, I can say that I loved "A Pair of Blue Eyes". It was remarkable to me how strong was the softening influence of Hardy's poetical language on the story, which in its essence was intense, stormy and scandalous. The omniscient narrator draws the characters very accurately - and may I also say, passionately - apart from including some beautiful comments about life and love in general, like: "Love is faith, and faith, like a gathered flower, will rootlessly live on". This book was a great encourager for me to read more by Hardy and see what other things he wrote, so I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't know him yet.
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on 5 August 2008
Celebrated for its central scene which shocked and stimulated Victorian readers. Forever after it caused Hardy to be embroiled in arguments concerning the sexual morality of his novels in which he strove to show the stifling effects of social conventions on the human spirit. Rich with biographical echoes, this novel reveals the full emergence of the schematic ironies which characterize Hardy's later great works, and gives a suggestion of the tragic philosophy that came to dominate all he wrote.
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on 27 August 2013
If you were to ask the average person on the street to name 5 Thomas Hardy books, I doubt A Pair of Blue Eyes would appear very often in such a list. Being one of Hardy's lesser known works, I began my reading in a state of perplexity as it has all the makings of as fine a romance as Hardy has written. The main character, Elfride Swancourt, is the owner of the titular eyes and is said to have been based on Hardy's first wife.

A vicar's daughter, Elfride soon attracts the attention of an architect from London, come to do some restoration on her father's church building. But the path of love never does run smooth in Wessex and circumstances of family status conspire to confound them. Even an attempted elopement fails when Elfride's fickle nature gets the better of her and she hastily retreats, though the couple retain their affection for one another while further circumstances ensure that they are physically apart for a while.

Hardy makes some slyly self-deprecating remarks in this book including, "The regular resource of people who don't go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one." This advice is offered to Elfride, unbeknownst that she already had and that a copy had made its way to a reviewer, a friend of the architect.

Though Elfride shows some affection to this reviewer, it is not reciprocated. Well, at least not at first...

I could continue but I wouldn't want to spoil it for you. The more I read the more I was puzzled as to why this is not considered one of Hardy's best works. The only reason I could think of was that there are early shadows of Tess here and that it comes second in a direct comparison between the two. Hardy's sense of place, societal pressures and the passions of individuals are as strong as ever. It was a delight to read, with the ending leaving me a little choked up and possibly something in my eye too.
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on 16 August 2013
Having read and enjoyed several Hardy novels, and reading that he constantly revised this one, I expected a high quality product. In reality, however, this proved to be, in my opinion, the least interesting and his revisions seem to have served only to increase the amount of unnecessary descriptions which inhibit the flow of the narrative. I found 'The woodlanders', 'Far from the Madding Crowd' and 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' to be superior in all aspects.
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on 2 June 2013
The central character, Elfride Swancourt, is the victim of social class prejudice, in so far as her vicar father disapproves of her marriage to young architect, Stephen Smith, who is 'merely' the son of a local mason. The elopement of Elfride and Stephen fails and Stephen is obliged to venture to India where he hopes he may reconstruct his prospects.

In a cruel twist of fate, tragedy is brought upon the innocent, rather than on those who would be socially ambitious or fickle in love; for the vicar, still in love with his status in the class hierarchy, marries a rich woman, for advancement. Genuine affection is largely secondary, while in Elfride's case, she is not slow in following her father's ambitions for her to marry the more socially sophisticated Henry Knight, a lawyer and literary reviewer.

Stephen, returning from India and still longing to marry Elfride, discovers he is too late.

What is of key interest is the way all the characters then discover the harder realities caused by their putting a higher value on class status than upon genuine love.
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on 25 August 2012
a great read for people who understand literature, and equally for those who are just looking for an interesting novel to read.

although some critics believe that, being one of the earlier Hardy works, it lacks his usual maturity and texture, I think it is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed it. it is a book you would love to read in small bits in the evenings before you go to bed, or on your holiday - a light, engaging, captivating read, - a nice and realistic story with interestingly developed characters that rests on Hardy' questioning of social institutions and models of the 19th century.

the only missing ingredient for me is Hardy's references to Wessex nature that he so skilfully used in his later works.
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on 23 August 2007
I haven't read a great deal of Hardy's work, just the well-known novels mainly, however, i picked out this title from a list and bought it (mainly because the title interested me). The book felt less focused than others i have read and I didn't really feel anything for any of the characters so therefore wasn't really affected by the end. It has some beautiful dialogue between the characters and developes well as storylines go, however, feels very rushed towards the end.
The plot is very similar to other Hardy books therefore creating a predictability but i just didn't feel anything for any of the main charaters which lets the book down.
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