‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy 1873 French title: Les yeux bleus.
Although I haven’t read a Thomas Hardy for a while, I’m still in my project of reading all his books chronologically. So, after Under the Greenwood Tree came A Pair of Blue Eyes. What a delight!
Elfride Swancourt is the daughter of a vicar who lives in a remote village in Wessex (of course). Her father wants to have the church renovated and hires a London architect to come and have a look at the place and propose renovation plans. When Stephen Smith, sent by the said London architect arrives at the vicarage, the vicar is stuck in bed by gout and Elfride has to welcome the visitor on her own. Stephen is rapidly smitten by her pair of blue eyes, her easy manners and they quickly fall in love. Stephen is nice and a bit mysterious, which kindles Elfride’s imagination. He behaves strangely and has curious manners sometimes. He’s educated but pronounces Latin wrong. He seems to be a gentleman but can’t ride a horse. Elfride’s father encourages their time alone and enjoys the young man’s company very much but when he discovers that Stephen is actually the son of a working man from the nearby domain, he doesn’t want him to marry his daughter or to accept him as his acquaintance. Stephen and Elfride try to elope but she refuses to marry him secretly. Stephen leaves England to take a position in India in the hope to come back wealthy and marry her with her father’s consent.
Meanwhile, Mr Swancourt has secretly courted his neighbor, a widowed rich lady. He goes on a trip and comes back married to her. Elfride’s life changes, moving to a nicer house and staying in London during the season. It’s precisely there that Mrs Swancourt gets reacquainted with her cousin Mr Knight. He’s invited to stay some time with them in the country. When he eventually comes, he becomes close to Elfride, enjoying her conversation. Mr Knight is a bachelor who doesn’t intend to get married. He’s the contrary to the Austenian assertion that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. He’s not flirtatious but Elfride wins him over with her quiet beauty and her personality. He enjoys teaching her things and challenging her. He falls for her in spite of him. (The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love., that’s as nicely put as a Flaubert sentence). She’s in awe with him and falls for his personality. Stephen Smith can’t measure up with Mr Knight.
How will she sort this out and who will have her in the end?
As always with Hardy, the plot description may seem nice and proper, 19th century equivalent of chick lit. Sorry if that blunt comment shocks the purists. And as always, it’s deceptively simple and romantic. While I was reading, I started noticing that roles were somehow reversed: Elfride behaved like a man and Mr Knight and Stephen had women’s traits. Let me explain this curious thought but beware that there will be spoilers after this part. Here’s Elfride explaining Stephen why she loves him:
I know, I think, what I love you for. You are nice-looking, of course; but I didn’t mean for that. It is because you are so docile and gentle.’ ‘Those are not quite the correct qualities for a man to be loved for,’ said Stephen, in rather a dissatisfied tone of self-criticism.
What? Stephen is nice-looking, docile and gentle. As he notices himself, these are more qualities sought for in a woman, aren’t they? And there’s this incredible scene where Elfride saves Mr Knight’s life in quite a manly manner, a scene that seemed the exact opposite of the one where Willoughby helps Marianne. Knight is suspended in a very dangerous way to a cliff and she makes a rope with her clothes to pull him up. How ironic that a character named Knight (like the best man character in Emma by Jane Austen, btw) is saved from a horrible death by a young girl. So the Knight in distress is saved by a damsel in shining amour. Interesting. Even more interesting is the following paragraph:
On reaching home after the perilous adventure by the sea-shore, Knight had felt unwell, and retired almost immediately. The young lady who had so materially assisted him had done the same, but she reappeared, properly clothed, about five o’clock. She wandered restlessly about the house, but not on account of their joint narrow escape from death. The storm which had torn the tree had merely bowed the reed, and with the deliverance of Knight all deep thought of the accident had left her.
Hmm. Now the man is more delicate than the girl. Hardy doesn’t push as far as putting Knight to bed with a fever or a headache but still, the girl’s resistance is stronger. Elfride keeps her head and wants to be loved for her mind and not for her nice looks. She’s realistic in her love for Stephen:
Stephen, I fancy I see the difference between me and you—between men and women generally, perhaps. I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness.’
It’s like A Pair of Blue Eyes is a negative from an Austen novel. Stephen doesn’t forget her during his stay in India and his love is unshakable. Usually, you would have a poor girl pining at home for a man who doesn’t remember her. Mr Knight is jealous of the other men who courted her. He would like her to be untouched territory, as he is himself. He behaves like a virgin; he has never sought the company of women before. He’s the innocent person in their couple while Elfride appears to be the more experienced. Quite a change of scenery from other books. We’re far from men corrupting innocent women; Elfride is the one with a secret that backfires on her.
In addition to characters that don’t seem extraordinary at first sight but are if you think of them twice, Hardy excels in describing his beloved Wessex, like here, on a grey morning:
It was breakfast time. As seen from the vicarage dining-room, which took a warm tone of light from the fire, the weather and scene outside seemed to have stereotyped themselves in unrelieved shades of gray. The long-armed trees and shrubs of juniper, cedar, and pine varieties, were grayish black; those of the broad-leaved sort, together with the herbage, were grayish-green; the eternal hills and tower behind them were grayish-brown; the sky, dropping behind all, gray of the purest melancholy. Yet in spite of this sombre artistic effect, the morning was not one which tended to lower the spirits. It was even cheering. For it did not rain, nor was rain likely to fall for many days to come.
The book is full of lovely descriptions of the countryside and the seaside. Peasants speak patois and I had sometimes a hard time understanding them but I’m getting used to it. I noticed that ladies and gentlemen use French words when they speak (“honouring her by petits soins of a marked kind” or “‘Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?’”). In Is That a Fish in Your Ear? David Bellos explains that at the time, speaking French was the trademark of a good education. Translators always left French words in their English translations from the French because they knew that either their readers would know enough of French to understand them or they would be flattered to read a bit of French and attach themselves to the life style of the upper classes. Hardy’s style gives life to social differences and aspirations through accents and the choice of the words he puts in the characters’ mouths. Clever and realistic. Comments about the English society escape from his pen, taking the novel as an opportunity to write down the changes he catches in his environment:
‘My dear, you mustn’t say “gentlemen” nowadays,’ her stepmother answered in the tones of arch concern that so well became her ugliness. ‘We have handed over “gentlemen” to the lower middle class, where the word is still to be heard at tradesmen’s balls and provincial tea-parties, I believe. It is done with here.’ ‘What must I say, then?’ ‘”Ladies and MEN” always.’
‘Every woman now-a-days,’ resumed Mrs. Smith, ‘if she marry at all, must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father. The men have gone up so, and the women have stood still. Every man you meet is more the dand than his father; and you are just level wi’ her.’
It seems that the middle class was climbing the social ladder, mimicking the language and manners of the upper class. Necessity led the aristocracy to trade titles against money (women must expect a father-in-law of a rank lower than her father) and the aristocracy tries to abandon old ways to the middle class and find new standards to differentiate from common people. Hardy is a keen observer of the world he lives in and uses it as raw material for his literature with a cheeky angle. I love that, it’s both enlightening and entertaining.
As I said before, this novel sounds like a simple romance but there’s a lot more to it than an easy read, although it is also that. Next step: Far From the Madding Crowd.
PS: I chose the French cover for this post but I read the book in English. I like the English covers less than the French one. I didn’t see Elfride in those.