These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance – blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.
I’m loving Thomas Hardy more and more with every book of his that I read. A Pair of Blue Eyes was one of his earliest books, originally serialised in Tinsley’s Magazine from September 1872 to July 1873. Although this is not generally noted as being one of his better novels and is certainly one of his least well known, there was something about it that appealed to me – and I would even say that of all the classics I’ve read so far this year, this might be my favourite.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is the story of Elfride Swancourt, a vicar’s daughter living in a remote corner of England, who is forced to choose between two very different men. One of these, Stephen Smith, is a young architect whom she meets when he is sent by his employer to survey the church buildings. At first, the vicar approves of Stephen and encourages his daughter to spend time with him. It soon emerges, however, that Stephen has been hiding an important secret from the Swancourts; something that could put his relationship with Elfride in jeopardy. Later in the book, another man arrives at Endelstow Vicarage – Henry Knight, an essayist and reviewer from London – and Elfride has to make a difficult decision.
As you might expect with this being a Hardy book, nothing goes smoothly for any of the characters. I would describe A Pair of Blue Eyes as being similar in some ways to the later Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though not as dark and bleak – and not quite as tragic either. Although I didn’t find Elfride particularly likeable, I thought she was an interesting character. Her lonely, secluded life gives her a childlike innocence and vulnerability and at one point Hardy draws a comparison with Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – both characters have little knowledge of men and a male visitor is a big event (and Elfride even plays chess with Stephen Smith and Henry Knight as Miranda did with Ferdinand in The Tempest). Of the two men, Stephen was the only one I had any real sympathy for. Knight, although another interesting character, annoyed me almost as much as Angel Clare in Tess annoyed me.
The descriptions of scenery in this book are stunningly beautiful and bring the setting vividly to life. If you’re familiar with Hardy you’ll know that he sets most of his works in the fictional region of Wessex in the southwest of England. This story actually takes place in Off-Wessex or Lyonesse, which equates to Cornwall. I had no problem at all in picturing the lonely vicarage, the windswept hills, and the dark cliffs towering over the sea below. Speaking of cliffs, it is thought that the term ‘cliffhanger’ originates from a scene in this book, though I’m not going to say any more about it than that!
Another interesting aspect of this book is that it’s loosely based on Hardy’s relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Hardy to have picked up on all the allusions and references to events in his own life. I would like to eventually read a biography as I think it would help my understanding of both this book and his work as a whole.
I found A Pair of Blue Eyes very easy to read. I thought the pacing and flow of the story were perfect and the pages flew by in a weekend. It’s so sad that this book has been ignored and underrated to the point where, until not long ago, I hadn’t even heard of it. Maybe it won’t appeal to everyone and it might not be the best introduction to his work, but I loved it and would highly recommend it to all Hardy fans.