Saturday, 9 July 2011

Review:- Thomas HARDY – “A Pair of Blue Eyes ”

Year Published: - 1873
Where the book was from:- My own copy
ISBN: - 978-1-85326-277-7
Pages: - 305pp
Genre: - General Fiction – Victorian Romance
Location:- The West Country
How I came across it: - Serendipity
Rating: - ***** ****

One sentence summary:- A wonderful Victorian romance set in Cornwall with the standard love triangle plot enhanced by some bits of drama and a variety of quotable sections.

Describe the plot without giving anything away:- Eflride Swancourt, a pretty and innocent Rector’s daughter in a remote West Country parish, is courted by a ypouing and naive visiting architect. Having secretly engaged herself to him (because her father disapproves of his low origins) she then meets his friend and mentor, a writer and intellectual, and falls in love with him.

At one stage one of the characters is left hanging over the edge of a cliff for a couple of chapters leading to the use of the phrase ‘cliff-hanger’ for such dramatic episodes in Victorian (and subsequent) literature.

Unusually, in my experience, one’s sympathies do not automatically sit with one of the suitors but alternate back and forth as the story progresses.

General comments:- This was the first of Hardy’s novels to be published in his name – His previous two (Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree) having been published anonymously.

The novel was created at a time when Hardy was torn between his career as an architect and his desire to change his metier to that of writer (particularly poet) and was therefore of considerable significance in his history.

Twenty years later Hardy was to describe ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ as being immature but admitted any attempt to re-write it, even were that possible, would lose it its freshness. In my view its freshness is its charm and what makes it one of his best works. It lacks much of the deep sombre thinking of his later works.

The Cover
I wonder how many books we read or reject because of the cover? This is the second copy of ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’ I have owned; the first got sent to a charity shop after years of sitting unread ion my shelf. I’m sure the cover had something to do with it.

Mine – the Wordsworth edition – has a beautifully crafted cover by Robert Mathias using ‘The Seashore’, an oil on canvas by William Henry Margetson (1861-1940).

Some of the other editions have had covers which are nowhere near as attractive and/or fail to summon up the atmosphere of the book. My previous one was the Pengui Classics edition with the black and white picture of a girl’s face – a girl who was too old and battered to be the heroine and too young to be the villainous grieving neighbour (the only other woman with a substantial role in the book).

It is worth noting that the other Penguin Classics edition – with the girl and dog looking out over the sea - whilst quite attractive is inaccurate, there being no dog in the book. (Though Elfrida does look out to see from the cliffs with both her lovers). I do like the cover to have some semblance of reflecting the plot.


Every woman who makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene, which seems ordained to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his memory. As the patron Saint has her attitude and accessories in medieval illumination, so the sweetheart may be said to have hers upon the table of her true Love’s fancy, without which she is rarely introduced there except by effort; and this though she may. On further acquaintance, have been observed in many other phases which one would imagine to be far more appropriate to love’s young dream.

“Mamma can’t play with us so nicely as you do. I don’t think she ever learnt playing when she was little.”

I have learnt the language of her illegitimate sister – artificiality; and the fibbing of eyes, the contempt of nose-tips, the indignation of back hair, the laughter of clothes, the cynicism of footsteps, and the various emotions lying in walking-stick twirls, hat-liftings, the elevation of parasols, the carriage of umbrellas, become as ABC to me.

Probably there cannot be instanced a briefer and surer rule-of-thumb test of man’s temperament – sanguine or cautious that this: did he or does he ante-date the word wife in corresponding with a sweetheart he honestly loves?

In truth, the essayist’s experience of the nature of young women was far less extensive than his abstract knowledge of them led himself and others to believe. He could pack them into sentences like a workman, but practically was nowhere.

(on earrings)- Not if they were like the ordinary hideous things women stuff their ears with nowadays – like the governor of a steam-engine, or a pair of scales, or gold gibbets and chains, and artists’ palettes, and compensation pendulums, and Heaven knows what besides.”

It was to him a gentle innocent time – a time which, though there may not be much in it, seldom repeats itself in a man’s life, and has a peculiar dearness when glanced at retrospectively.

To such girls poverty may not be, as to the more worldly masses of humanity, a sin in itself; but it is a sin, because graceful and dainty manners seldom exist in such an atmosphere.

Bravery is only obtuseness to the perception of contingencies.

AUTHOR Notes:- Thomas Hardy, OM (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) regarded himself primarily as a poet who composed novels His novels were written mainly for financial gain, his poems for pleasure and satisfaction. During his lifetime he was much better known for his novels, such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd, which earned him a reputation as a great novelist. The bulk of his fictional works, initially published as serials in magazines, were set in the semi-fictional land of Wessex (based on the Dorchester region where he grew up) and explored tragic characters struggling against their passions and social circumstances.

Even though Hardy's poetry, first published in his fifties, has come to be as well regarded as his novels and has had a significant influence over modern English poetry since the 1950s it remains less famous than his novels.

P.S. Looking for cover illustrations led me to a book blog I haven’t visited before – Words and Peace. Most enjoyable and worth a visit.

1 comment:

  1. I also read this book recently, for the Victorian Literature Challenge, but my experience was not as positive as yours I guess. Here is my review:
    Emma @ Words And Peace


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