If you were to ask the average person on the street to name 5 Thomas Hardy books, I doubt A Pair of Blue Eyes would appear very often in such a list. Being one of Hardy’s lesser known works, I began my reading in a state of perplexity as it has all the makings of as fine a romance as Hardy has written. The main character, Elfride Swancourt, is the owner of the titular eyes and is said to have been based on Hardy’s first wife.
A vicar’s daughter (oh, how I know the dangers thus!), Elfride soon attracts the attention of an architect from London, come to do some restoration on her father’s church building. But the path of love never does run smooth in Wessex and circumstances of family status conspire to confound them. Even an attempted elopement fails when Elfride’s fickle nature gets the better of her and she hastily retreats, though the couple retain their affection for one another while further circumstances ensure that they are physically apart for a while.
Hardy makes some slyly self-deprecating remarks in this book including, “The regular resource of people who don’t go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one.” This advice is offered to Elfride, unbeknownst that she already had and that a copy had made its way to a reviewer, a friend of the architect.
Though Elfride shows some affection to this reviewer, it is not reciprocated. Well, at least not at first…
I could continue but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. The more I read the more I was puzzled as to why this is not considered one of Hardy’s best works. The only reason I could think of was that there are early shadows of Tess here and that it comes second in a direct comparison between the two. Hardy’s sense of place, societal pressures and the passions of individuals are as strong as ever. It was a delight to read, with the ending leaving me a little choked up and possibly something in my eye too.