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‘Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies,’

January 12, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

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!

Hardy_Yeux_BleusElfride 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.’

Or:

‘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.

Hardy_Blue_2Hardy_Blue_1Hardy_Blue_3

  1. Brian Joseph
    January 12, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Great commentary Emma.

    I have not read Hardy but I want to. Based upon your reviews and other things that I have heard his style sounds like it is calm and relaxing on the surface yet deep.

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    • January 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      Guy is probably more qualified than me to recommend a Thomas Hardy. I started with Life’s Little Ironies, which is a collection of short stories and I was hooked.

      I think his style might be difficult and awkward, if I think about some of the comments English speakers left on my entry Is that a Frog in your ear? Let’s play with translations. The third quote was by Hardy. I really like his style and his wry sense of humour. It’s difficult for me to read when I reach passages in patois. I need to concentrate and try to pronounce the sentences in my head to understand where he’s going. Otherwise, it flows well, at least for me. But I come from the French…

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  2. January 12, 2013 at 1:42 am

    “The superfluity had become a necessity, and Knight was in love.”
    I adore this line. Sums up the psychology of love in a single sentence. Brilliant.

    Thanks for the review.

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    • January 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm

      I love this line too. It reminded me of Flaubert in Madame Bovary, when Emma gives herself to Rodolphe: Elle s’abandonna. Two words encapsulate a radical change in life, a big decision, a conscious choice of giving up everything for this man.
      Knight experiences the same thing there: it’s like a light bulb, in a sharp second he realizes his life is changed because he’s in love.

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      • January 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm

        Ooh, translate that please? I can just about make out what it might mean, but I’d like to know. It sounds beautiful.

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        • January 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm

          It means She gave herself away and/or She surrendered and/or She gave herself away knowing she was losing a battle. There’s the idea of giving herself body and soul unconditionnally, irrevocably and after giving up the fight against morality and sensuality.

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  3. January 12, 2013 at 5:13 am

    Thanks for your review Emma, the cliff scene is brilliant so I think it’s a shame it’s not better known!

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    • January 13, 2013 at 6:10 pm

      The cliff scene is incredible. It’s suspenseful (it’s Hardy so happy ending isn’t the only option for the outcome), quite funny and the change in roles between man and woman is new, at least for me.
      The novel has flaws from a literary point of view but I tend to start his novels with an open mind for coincidences.

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  4. January 12, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Just a brief point – “Do I seem like LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI?” – might not be so much a reference to French as a reference to the Keats poem of the same name, which would have been quite popular at the time Hardy was writing.

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    • January 13, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks for this. I’m not good at British poetry. I’m going to look for this poem.

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  5. January 12, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    So glad you enjoyed this Emma. It’s a 5 star book for me, but then again, I’ve never read a Hardy novel that I didn’t like. Every Hardy is a winner–although Jude the Obscure, I have to say is extremely depressing. I’d still give it 5 stars as it is an incredible book and the topic for the time was sticky to say the least.

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    • January 13, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      I’m looking forward to discovering Tess but I’ll have to wait for the end of my journey with Hardy. It will be the reward.

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  6. January 13, 2013 at 1:42 am

    “Calm and relaxing” is a long, long ways from my own experience with Hardy’s style. Keeps me on the edge of my seat, it does.

    Guatambhatia is right – that’s Keats: “O what can ail thee knight at arms \ Alone and palely loitering?” – hey, there’s an other knight for you.

    The cliff scene does sound quite good.

    The Penguin Classics cover is hilarious, and also creepy.

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    • January 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm

      Why that comment about Hardy’s style? You seem to find it difficult and Guy also says it is. Why?

      Thanks for the poem. I’ve just looked for, it seems written in another language than English. I didn’t understand it so I looked for the French translation. Either the translation is awfully bad or I’d better steer clear of Keats…Not my thing. But I understand the link with A Pair of Blue Eyes, for the references to nature. However, I didn’t think of Elfride as an ethereal elf or fairy.

      The cliff scene is a new thing for me. You’re better read than me in 19thC literature, is there any other book where a woman literally rescues a man?

      I also found this cover creepy. Elfride seems to be some sort of Grace Poole. She’s the opposite, very healthy and grounded.

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      • January 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm

        http://www.bartleby.com/126/55.html – Keats. It’s nowhere near among his best, though.

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        • January 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm

          Well, I don’t understand it in English. I read a French translation and I can’t say I was blown away by it.

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      • January 13, 2013 at 7:14 pm

        Some of the novels always hit the Brit Lit curriculum Emma, and those tend to, therefore, be the ones that everyone reads whether they want to or not. The Return of the Native, Tess, and Jude the Obscure all contain dialect which puts off some readers. Readers put off by the more “famous” (as is selected repeatedly by academia) never explore the lesser-known Hardy novels. Jude is a wonderful novel, but bloody hell it’s depressing.

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        • January 13, 2013 at 7:18 pm

          It’s more a question of reading them too early in life, then. IMO, he’s a writer you appreciate better when you’re older.

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          • January 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm

            I agree with that sentiment Emma. I think I was 13 when we read Mayor of Casterbridge.

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            • January 15, 2013 at 11:06 pm

              Wow, that was young. It’s the age I started reading crime fiction.

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      • January 13, 2013 at 11:21 pm

        Difficult in the sense that some of his sentences make me gnash my teeth. Not difficult in the sense that they are hard to understand. Well, at times the subordinate clauses do wander pretty far from where a sentence started.

        Sometimes Hardy writes outstanding sentences. He is a puzzle. It is as if he could not hear the difference. This does not happen in his poetry.

        Good question about the “woman rescues man” idea. I can’t think of any, for what that is worth.

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        • January 13, 2013 at 11:24 pm

          Perhaps that, as his work was serialised, he lacked the time to re-read thoroughly and edit. A Pair of Blue Eyes was published in a newspaper.

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  7. January 13, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    This sounds like a novel I would like but unfortunately it’s not one of those I have…
    I think you’re probably right, that he isn’t for very young or younger readers. At least I think so from what I’ve read on your and Guy’s blogs.
    I like the idea of the reversed gender in this. That sounds interesting.

    Like

    • January 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      It’s available for free on ebooks.
      I thought this one was interesting. Apparently, it’s also autobiographical. Elfride has something of his first wife, Emma.

      Like

  8. January 14, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Lovely analysis Emma, really interesting to read about the undermining of gender roles in this one. How many Hardy’s is this now for you? The book sounds a delight.

    I agree on the French cover, the English ones are rather generic.

    Like

    • January 15, 2013 at 11:05 pm

      It’s my fifth Hardy. I’m not tired of him at all.

      This one started like a “classic” 19thC love story but yes, I enjoyed Elfride who wanted to impress Mr Knight and decided that the best way was to win him in chess. That scene is incredible. You’d think she’d sing, paint or play the piano but no, she wants him to be seduced by her quick mind. What a change to read about a woman who’s not obsessed with clothes.

      The French cover is neutral and reflects the time and the wonderful descriptions of the countryside. The English covers seem judgemental to me: they make you forge an opinion about Elfride before starting the book. That’s why I don’t like them.

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  9. acommonreaderuk
    January 15, 2013 at 10:40 am

    I am full of admiration for you in reading every Hardy novel and in chronological order. I have never even heard of this one but as usual, it seems to have a good story line and interesting characters. As always, your analysis is a fine resource for future readers.

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    • January 15, 2013 at 11:07 pm

      I don’t deserve admiration for this. I’m enjoying the books and reading in chronological orders helps watching his style bloom.

      Like

  10. January 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! Glad to know that you liked the book so much. Hardy is one of my favourite writers and I love his portrayal of his times and the way he took risks while portraying the characters in his stories. I liked the way you have analysed the characters and the way Elfride helps / saves the men who love her. Does the book have a happy ending? Normally people say that if we want a happy ending in a Hardy book, we should read the book from the last page to the first 🙂

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    • January 15, 2013 at 11:15 pm

      Your last sentence really makes me laugh but no, I won’t give in and tell you how it ends. What a tease I am.:-) (although if you really want to know, it’s on Wikipedia)

      I love Hardy for his sense of humour and his descriptions of his society. He doesn’t shy away from scandalous topics but he does it with light brushes. It won’t tell you anything and it’s an odd comparison but he reminds me of a French singer named Etienne Daho who sings pop songs in a soft voice but the lyrics aren’t as soft and polite as the music and his voice suggest it. I enjoy that, the gap between the bucolic countryside and his vision of humanbeings.

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      • January 21, 2013 at 9:49 pm

        I loved what you said about the gap between what Hardy says and what he means, Emma. Thanks for telling me about Etienne Daho. I will looks for his songs.

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