First published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1880-81, A Laodicean; or, The Castle of the De Stancys: A Story of To-Day is one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels and one that I very much enjoyed.
Architect George Somerset is exploring the countryside near the village of Sleeping-Green one evening when he stumbles upon a castle. He learns that this is Stancy Castle, the ancestral home of the De Stancy family which has recently been purchased by the wealthy railway contractor, John Power. Mr Power has since died, leaving the castle to his daughter, Paula, who is planning to carry out extensive renovations on the ancient building. When Paula is introduced to Somerset she considers commissioning him to do the work on the castle, but before the restoration even begins Somerset finds himself falling in love with her.
It seems that Somerset has a rival for Paula’s love, however – Captain De Stancy, an impoverished descendant of the aristocratic family who once owned the castle. The Captain’s son, William Dare, has seen a chance to get his hands on some of the Power fortune and is determined that his father must marry Paula, no matter what.
Paula herself is the Laodicean of the title, described by the local minister as ‘lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot’, like the people of the church of Laodicea in the Bible. Throughout the novel she vacillates between Somerset and De Stancy, attracted to both of them in different ways and unwilling to fully commit to one or the other. This reflects the way she feels about society in general. As an industrialist’s daughter who has installed a telegraph wire and a new clock at Stancy Castle, Paula represents science and progress but at the same time she likes the idea of marrying into an aristocratic family and becoming a De Stancy. The clash between tradition and a new way of life is one of the recurring themes that comes up again and again in Hardy’s novels.
Although Paula irritated me with her inability to make up her mind and give either man a definite answer, I found Somerset’s infatuation with her quite annoying as well – I wanted him to notice Paula’s friend, Charlotte, who I think would have been a much better choice for him! Irritating characters aside, I found the story very entertaining, mainly because of the machinations of William Dare, who will stop at nothing to ensure Paula chooses his father. He uses forged telegrams, fake photographs and all sorts of other devious tricks to try to get what he wants and this makes the book more of a pageturner than I’d expected at first.
A Laodicean doesn’t really have the pastoral feel of most of Hardy’s other novels; in fact, most of the second half is set in Europe where the various sets of characters wander around the casinos of Monte Carlo, the spas of Baden and the busy streets and squares of Strasbourg. Things do become a bit far-fetched in this section, with lots of coincidental meetings, but I enjoyed reading something different from Hardy after so many books set in his Wessex countryside.
Although this hasn’t become one of my favourite Hardy novels, it’s still a very good one. I think I only have three more of them to read, as well as some of his short story collections. Have you read this one? What did you think?
This is book 36/50 from my second Classics Club list.