Elfride Swancourt is the only daughter of a minister in the secluded seaside village of Endelstow. A church restoration project sees a handsome young architect named Stephen Smith visit from London and sure enough, Elfride and he fall in love.
There seems to be a mystery surrounding Stephen, who claims to know no one locally and yet is seen by Elfride with a woman and who has some unusual manners and unexpected gaps of knowledge for a gentleman. In time and by chance, it is revealed that Stephen is of quite humble antecedents, which causes snobbish Mr Swancourt to change his mind and oppose the match.
When Mr Swancourt goes on an unexplained but apparently important journey, Elfride and Stephen rashly elope. Their ignorance of the law results in unexpected obstacles and causes Elfride to change her mind. So much time has elapsed though, that their train journey back to Endelstow is through the night. Elfride then realises, but too late, that “Appearances are woefully against me. If anybody finds me out, I am, I suppose disgraced.” By the standards of the time, “It was wrong to go with you at all; and though it would have been worse to go further, it would have been better policy, perhaps.”
In the morning, at the station, Elfride worries that Mrs Jethway, a poor widow with a grudge against her for spurning her son, has seen the lovers together. She tells Stephen “You had better not be seen with me, even here where I am so little known. We have begun stealthily as thieves, and we must end stealthily as thieves, at all hazards. Until papa has been told by me myself, a discovery would be terrible.” The lovers part, but the surprising explanation for her father’s absence prevents Elfride from confiding in him.
Soon after, Stephen accepts a job in India, hoping to make his fortune and return home a wealthy man acceptable to Elfride’s father. Promising to be faithful to each other, the two part for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for Stephen, Elfride is “a girl whose emotions lay very near the surface”, and her feelings for him are only a first girlish fancy which she erroneously calls love. Nine months after their parting, she meets and gradually falls in love with Henry Knight, an older friend of, and mentor to, Stephen who is unaware of the secret engagement. Elfride struggles with her desire to be faithful to her first love and with her newer, stronger passion. Once the decision is made “she began to take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the sacrifice of herself to the man whom a maidenly sense of propriety compelled her to regard as her only possible husband. She would meet him, and do all that lay in her power to marry him.”
Until that is, in a tense and thrilling couple of chapters (which you can read online here), Hardy has fate intervene. An almost deadly experience on a neighborhood cliff sees Elfride and Knight declare their feelings for each other. From this point on, the questions that keep the reader on tenterhooks until they’re answered, are:
* How will Stephen react when Elfride breaks off the engagement?
* Will Knight find out about the relationship (including the failed elopement)?
* If so, how will he react?
* And above all, what will Elfride’s fate be?
Questions I won’t answer and you’ll have to read A pair of blue eyes to find out!
Hardy is one of my favourite novelists, and this novel is as good as any of his more famous works. It’s plainly but beautifully written and its plot convinces and surprises in equal measure. At it’s heart is the question which Elfride asks: “Am I such a- mere characterless toy- as to have no attrac- tion in me, apart from- freshness?”.
As a postscript, it’s interesting to note that A pair of blue eyes draws upon considerable autobiographical material, as discussed in my Penguin classics edition’s introduction by Pamela Dalziel. Like Stephen Smith, Thomas Hardy was a young man of humble origins keen to better himself, an aim which was aided by a male mentor (Horace Moule in Hardy’s case). Hardy met his first wife Emma Gifford ( a clergyman’s sister) on an architectural trip to the wilds of Cornwall in 1870, although they didn’t marry until 1874 owing to her family’s disapproval. I look forward to finding out more when I read the Hardy biography by Claire Tomalin.