My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Published in 1873, A Pair of Blue Eyes is Thomas Hardy’s third novel, and the first to carry his real name. He is believed to have drawn from his own experiences during his courtship of his wife, as he formulated this novel of romance and social restrictions. Less dense and melancholy than his later work, this book is set in Cornwall, and, as always, the setting plays a definitive role in the story.
Budding young architect Steven Smith is hired to consult on the renovation of Endelstow Church, where the Reverend Swancourt is pastor. When Steven meets his daughter, Elfride, he is instantly smitten, and within a few days, they decide to marry. But her father objects and sends him back to London, when he learns that Steven is the son of the local mason, too lowly a status for his only daughter. The pair pledges undying love and devotion, as Steven departs for India to make his name and fortune. During his lengthy absence, Elfride meets an older man, Henry Knight, and when she is obliged to rescue him following a fall from a cliff, they become romantically attached, with the blessing of Rev. Swancourt. Better a Mrs. Knight than a Mrs. Smith. What she doesn’t know is that Mr. Knight was once Steven’s mentor. What Knight doesn’t know is that Steven was once Elfride’s suitor.
By far the most richly developed of the characters is Elfride, who, at 19, is on the verge of womanhood. She is intelligent, educated, and well intentioned, but, in the struggle the ensues between her principles and her emotions, she desperately needs a mother’s good counsel. But her mother died when Elfride was a child, and now she makes many mistakes in judgement.
Hardy’s considerable poetic talents are evident throughout the novel, in his descriptions not only of the landscape and the people, but also of the inner lives of his characters. Nature is viewed as “as a person with a curious temper… who does not scatter kindness and cruelties alternately, impartially, and in order, but heartless severities or overwhelmng generosities in lawless caprice.” While all of the characters make some bad decisions, in the end, it is circumstances that determine their fates.