Given the fact that I don’t read his works quite as often as those of some other classic writers, I forget how much I enjoy reading a Thomas Hardy novel. I also forget how frustrating they can be, resulting in the urge to yell, “No, no, don’t do it!” at characters about to make the fate-changing mistakes that play key roles in his stories. The events depicted in A Pair of Blue Eyes were no exception to this, although they were slightly less dramatic than the action of some of his other novels, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Hardy’s heroine in A Pair of Blue Eyes in Elfride Swancourt, a twenty-year old girl who leads a sheltered life with her widowed clergyman father. Excitement enters her rural country world in the form of Stephen Smith, a young, guileless architect from London who comes to stay with the Swancourts while working on the restoration of the local church. He quickly falls in love with Elfride, who returns his affections largely out of proximity and novelty, and agrees to become engaged to him. When it’s revealed that Stephen is actually the son of some of the lower-class tradespeople in the village, Elfride’s father, who places a great premium on family lineage, withdraws his support for the match. This obstacle increases Elfride’s love for Stephen and she agrees to secretly elope with him. After travelling by train to London, Elfride has second thoughts and insists on returning home. In a twist that seems like nothing from our modern perspective, the fact that she travelled alone, unmarried with a man is potentially more damaging to her reputation than if she had gone through with a secret marriage. She and Stephen agree to keep their trip a secret and to maintain their engagement, hoping that Stephen can win her father over after earning fortune and success working in India.
During the year that passes with Stephen away in India, Elfride’s father remarries a wealthy neighbor, throwing Elfride into a higher sphere of society. Through her new social position, she meets Londoner Henry Knight, her stepmother’s cousin and, coincidentally, Stephen’s former mentor and friend. Unaware of her connection to Stephen, Henry finds himself drawn to Elfride’s innocent manner. Although she briefly tries to maintain her loyalty to Stephen, Elfride eventually becomes engaged to Henry without so much as a word to Stephen, leaving him to discover that he has been snubbed upon his return from India. Despite feeling hurt and angry, Stephen tries to protect Elfride by keeping quiet about their past relationship. But, this being a Hardy novel, the truth eventually comes out in a way that makes Henry question his feelings and assume the worst about Elfride.
Like many Hardy novels, the mistakes and misunderstandings that drive the plot are often the result of small choices, and often come out of social norms that can feel very dated, almost quaint, to the modern reader. Yet the secrets, romances, and tragedies that result from them seem just as entangled and dramatic as any modern-day soap opera. A Pair of Blue Eyes wouldn’t be the Hardy novel that I’d recommend to someone just starting to read his work, but it is an interesting read if you’re looking for a lesser-known classic to tackle.