Having put a lot of Hardy’s lesser known books on my Christmas wishlist, I received quite a few from my parents. Of these, I still have Under The Greenwood Tree and Desperate Remedies waiting to be read. However, I try not to read them back to back lest I start to get them muddled in my mind.
Yet there is little danger of The Well-Beloved being mixed up with any other novels, as it stands apart as very different from the rest of Hardy’s Wessex novels. Set partly on the Isle of Purbeck, but also with scenes in London and other locations which are namedropped by Hardy in other works, the story follows the life of Jocelyn Pierston. The novel consists of three parts, where he is aged 20, 40 & 60 but in each is described as “a young man.”
When we first meet him he is search of his ideal woman, but not in a conventional manner. He has this strange idea that he pursues an ethereal spirit, named as one point as that of Aphrodite, which he refers to as the Well-Beloved. This spirit rests upon a young woman, imbuing her with an indescribable sense of beauty which Jocelyn perceives. However, the resting place of this spirit of the Well-Beloved is fleeting, and can depart its host as suddenly as it arrives, leaving the woman but a shadow of herself. Yet this is seemingly imperceptible to all but Jocelyn.
As he pursues this ideal, we see how poorly he treats women, losing interest in them and discarding them with little regard to their feelings or circumstances. The modern reader may well, as did I at first, consider this simply an elaborate critique of male fickleness in lust, though I am not convinced that this was Hardy’s intention. Indeed, of all of Hardy’s works that I have read, this seemed to have aged far less well. Though his themes of love foiled by circumstance may be considered timeless, the way in which he approached The Well-Beloved may look quite out of date now.
Of his various lovers, we are asked especially to take note of Avice. The reason for this is because the rest of the book continues Jocelyn’s love affair with separate generations of Avice. So when he is 40, and the first Avice has died, Jocelyn becomes obsessed with her daughter, also named Avice. Yet just as Jocelyn is on the verge of redeeming his past mistakes with the first Avice, circumstances prevent him from marrying the second Avice.
In the final part of the story, Jocelyn is now 60, the second Avice is still very much with us and we are introduced a third Avice, who it is Jocelyn’s intention to marry. However, just as things did not work out with either her mother or grandmother, so once again Jocelyn is thwarted once more.
The book could be read in a number of different ways, especially as viewed through 21st century eyes, which may well be far from what the author intended. In some ways Jocelyn is a figure of great romance, pursuing the ideal for years and years before finally realising what is truly beautiful and which he had considered a great thorn in his side for many years. Yet it is hard to not think of him as a bit of a creep, jumping from girl to girl. I was reminded of the character of Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice who was able to change the object of his desire from Jane to Elizabeth in the time it took for Mrs Bennett to poke a fire.
With that said, it is still a very good read, though not one of Hardy’s finest. Whereas, in his more famous novels, he evokes a very strong sense of place (probably not better than in The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge), this is scaled back in The Well-Beloved. The little turns of phrase which usually evoke such great insight into a person’s character and circumstance are noticeable by their absence.
Definitely an intriguing read, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your introduction to Hardy.