A synopsis of A Laodicean – a neglected Thomas Hardy novel – and an introduction to its themes
In our pick of Thomas Hardy novels, we included A Laodicean, not because we consider it among his very best (it isn’t) but because it’s such an unusual novel in his oeuvre.
Thomas Hardy’s novel A Laodicean (1881; the title is pronounced ‘LAY-oh-du-SEE-an’) is subtitled ‘a story of to-day’, and although the ‘to-day’ referred to is 1880-1, when the novel was serialised in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, there are several ways in which the novel continues to speak to us as a modern novel. Just as photography can be misused by Will Dare in the novel to give the false impression that George Somerset is in a scandalous state of drunkenness, so the modern tabloids are adept at taking photographs of politicians and celebrities which portray them in a certain (biased and/or false) light. In the novel, new communications networks are brought under close scrutiny: telegraphy is shown as an unreliable force, carrying the potential to be misinterpreted and misused, and again this has its modern counterpart in the ongoing debate over online communication and social media. Since their invention in the mid-nineteenth century, photography and various means of rapid textual communication have carried the potential to be misused, mistrusted, and misunderstood, and this is something that A Laodicean is partly out to highlight.
The reputation of A Laodicean
A Laodicean is one of Hardy’s lesser novels and has largely been neglected by critics and readers – it has been called ‘a fairly disastrous failure’ and a ‘potboiler of the worst sort’ (and they are some of the kinder criticisms), and in 1889 J. M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) dismissed A Laodicean as one of Hardy’s ‘dull books’ which are ‘here and there, nasty as well, and the besom of oblivion will soon pass over them’ (i.e., they’ll soon be swept under the rug along with the other rubbish). Sure enough, this and several of Hardy’s other ‘lesser novels’ were out of print until the 1970s, and even now there are far fewer editions of this novel than there are of, say, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.
One of the recurrent criticisms of this novel is that the latter sections deal far less satisfactorily with the core themes than the earlier portions of the story. The latter sections of the novel are less thematically focused than the earlier parts, a result of Hardy’s illness at the time (which necessitated the dictating of the remainder of the novel to his wife, Emma). The writing of the novel deteriorates towards the end, partly because Hardy wasn’t literally ‘writing’ the novel, and partly because he lacked the time and the energy to revise and redraft it; thus we get such howlers as a character pronouncing, ‘I suffer from attacks of perspiration whenever I sit in a consecrated edifice’, and a kiss being described as a ‘long-drawn osculation’ (how romantic!). Yet despite the novel’s evident flaws and relative critical neglect, A Laodicean is worth considering precisely because it is such an oddity in his career: it deals with more modern subject-matter than any of his other novels (including up-to-the-minute photographic techniques which form an essential part of the plot), it was the only one of his novels Hardy didn’t ‘write’ (that is, he dictated it to his wife instead), and it reads like nothing else in his oeuvre.
Plot summary of A Laodicean
The basic plot (spoilers alert) is as follows: a young architect, George Somerset, is employed by Paula Power, heir to her railroad tycoon father’s fortune, to undertake some restoration work. Power is a modern woman in many ways: she refuses to be baptised in the local church (she is thus the ‘Laodicean’ of the novel’s title: the Laodiceans were a Biblical people who were lukewarm in their faith), has modernised the castle she has inherited by having telegraph wires and machines installed, and she is possibly … er, shall we say, more than just good friends with her best friend, Charlotte. Yet at the same time, Paula has a romantic attachment to the medieval past, which is embodied by the building, de Stancy castle, which she has inherited from her father. (The castle’s name is a nod to the fact that it was originally owned by the de Stancy family, until the last owner lost it in a card game with Paula’s father!)
George Somerset finds himself up against rivals for Paula in not one, but two ways: first, as her employee (Paula hires a local architect to undertake preliminary work on the castle, as well as London-born Somerset), and then, as her suitor (Paula develops feelings for Somerset but is also attracted to Captain de Stancy, because he embodies the old traditions of medieval England). The Captain’s suit is helped along by his illegitimate son, William Dare, who uses his skills with the newly invented photographic camera (and his knowledge of telegrams) to sully Somerset’s reputation, with a view to installing his father as lord of de Stancy castle once more (as Paula’s husband). Specifically, and in a very early version of Photoshop, Dare doctors a photograph of Somerset to make it appear as though the poor clean-living architect is actually a drunkard. He then sends fraudulent and incriminating telegrams to Paula, purporting to be from Somerset (surely the Victorian version of ‘fraping‘). Despite Dare’s best efforts and a plot that seems to have come out of a 1860s sensation novel by Wilkie Collins, Somerset ends up with Paula – an unusually happy ending for a Hardy novel. But Paula loses her castle in a fire, and ends the novel wishing that the man she was marrying was not plain old ‘Somerset’ but a de Stancy. (Trust Hardy to dampen the mood at the end.)
Technology and A Laodicean
Let’s start with the novel’s treatment of modern technology, and in particular the figure of the electric telegraph, which was a mid-nineteenth-century invention and so relatively new in 1881. Tom Standage, in his book The Victorian Internet, draws a comparison between the modern phenomenon of the world-wide web and the nineteenth-century invention of telegraphy: the telegraph enabled fast and efficient communication at an international level, transformed business practice, created new forms of crime, and revolutionised the opportunities for long-distance romances; people tried to regulate the new technology, and argued over how much social and cultural impact this technology actually had. The telegraph was, in short, a ‘Victorian Internet’. But as Standage goes on to acknowledge, and as Hardy’s novel suggests, technology is always apt to be misused.
Certainly, A Laodicean taps into what was for some a deep-seated suspicion of the morality of such new technology. Much of the technology behind telegraphy was only vaguely understood by most Victorians: one story tells of a woman in Karlsruhe (incidentally, one of the places which Paula visits in her tour of Europe) who went into a telegraph office in 1870 and asked the assistant to wire some sauerkraut to her son, who was busy fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. When the operator informed her that it was impossible to send food via the telegraph wires, the woman responded by pointing out that she’d heard recently of soldiers being ordered to the front by telegraphy. ‘How could so many soldiers have been sent to France by telegraph?’ she challenged.
Many Victorians also believed the messages made an almost supernatural or ghostly noise as they travelled along the wires, like an aeolian harp (Somerset hears ‘the singing of the wire’ when tracing the telegraph wire to the castle-keep): Alfred Lord Tennyson reported how he once stopped under a telegraph post ‘to listen to the wail of the wires, the souls of dead messages’. By 1881, telegraphy was more widely understood by the general public, but there was still a sense that this was a new technology that could not be fully trusted or relied upon, and this is something A Laodicean highlights.
It’s worth underlining the fact that the faceless or impersonal nature of the telegraph is what makes it possible to send fraudulent messages purporting to be from someone else: Dare’s scheme with the forged telegram could not have succeeded in an age solely reliant on handwritten letters, for the handwriting (for a long time, another word for handwriting was ‘character’) would reveal the deception. The new technology of photography, too, makes something possible which had previously been unthinkable: you could now show a lie, rather than merely tell it. Photography appears to get closer to the truth of something: while you can write a false libellous character assassination of someone, a photograph requires some show of visual truth in the first place – and it is therefore more dangerous (because a photograph, seen as visual ‘evidence’ of depravity, is more likely to convince someone: seeing is believing, as the phrase has it).
The novel’s depiction of photography has led some commentators, such as Peter Widdowson, to interpret Dare’s role as self-reflexive and symbolic: cast in the role of villain-photographer, he represents a ‘satire’ (Widdowson’s word) on the realist novelist, such as George Eliot (and Hardy himself in some of his fiction), who purports to offer writing which depicts real life (‘photography’, we should recall, means literally ‘light-writing’) but in actual fact always manipulates or alters real life in the representation. Realist fiction, like Dare’s photography, seems to be real and true, but it is merely that: seeming.
Both photography and telegraphy are to be feared for the havoc they can wreak in the wrong hands – Dare and his trick-photography and fraudulent telegraphy – but then there is also the moment with the delayed telegram, which suggests technology can be ineffectual or inefficient, too (the failure of the telegraph to do exactly what it should: i.e., send news of one’s imminent arrival ahead of one’s arrival). At one point, Hardy reveals Somerset’s ambivalent attitude towards the telegraph: ‘Such short messages were in themselves poor substitutes for letters, but their speed and easy frequency were good qualities which the letters did not possess’. Telegraphy sped up long-distance communication (indeed, when Arthur B. Sleigh founded a new daily newspaper in 1855, he cast around for a name which would convey the sense of news being transmitted speedily; that newspaper is known as The Telegraph to this day), but it scaled it down, too: you now had to be even more economical in sending messages (which, as a result, often contained such nineteenth-century text-speak as ‘GA’ for ‘go ahead’ and ‘SFD’ for ‘stop for dinner’), so there was less room to explain your meaning, and consequently more room for your meaning to be misapprehended.
At Stancy Castle, the telegraph wire is fed into the building through an arrow-slit, merging the old (the ancient Norman lineage of the English aristocracy, embodied by the castle’s walls and foundations) and the new (the technology of the electric telegraph, only a few decades old in 1881). If the novel is intended partly as tongue-in-cheek satire (as some critics have suggested), then it is significant that A Laodicean seems wryly reserved about the powers that new technology is invested with: we are told that the ‘telegraph had almost the attributes of a human being at Stancy Castle’, and therefore, we must conclude, it has its failings just as all human beings do. This is confirmed shortly after, when Charlotte de Stancy receives Paula’s message via the telegraph announcing that she is on her way home, and immediately after this Charlotte and Somerset see Paula’s carriage arriving – surely the nineteenth-century equivalent of sending a text message informing your friend that you’re running late, only to find, upon arriving at the pub, that they haven’t yet received your text. As Charlotte says, ‘Oh yes – it is past four – the telegram has been delayed’. So much for modern technology.
Other themes in A Laodicean
At the same time, it would be easy to look at various moments in the novel and conclude that A Laodicean is all about the unreliability of old-fashioned visual experience just as much as it is about the unreliability of newfangled long-distance technology: our eyes deceive us, or fail to provide us with clear information, or cause us to misunderstand something. Nobody can decide whether Will Dare looks more like a boy, or a man, or an Indian, or an Italian, or a Canadian. During the performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the audience seem unsure as to whether De Stancy and Paula are acting as themselves, or as the characters from Shakespeare’s play. Characters are forever misreading, or failing to read, the motives or emotions in other characters’ faces. There is a telling moment when Captain De Stancy spies on Paula while she is exercising in her gymnasium: she may be unaware that she is ‘performing’ for him (as if inhabiting an early sort of live-action peep show), but she is aware that she is being watched by Charlotte, and as numerous critics have shown, Paula and Charlotte certainly seem to be remarkably close in their ‘friendship’.
So, the photograph which Dare produces – which portrays Somerset in an apparent state of drunken abandon – can easily be interpreted as an example of technology being used (or misused) to feed a wider, pre-existing uneasiness about the reliability of visual perception: the photograph, in other words, encourages people to perform the same act of visual misreading which they are doing elsewhere in the novel already. Similarly, even before Dare sends his fraudulent telegram purporting to be from Somerset, he and Paula’s long-distance correspondence (conducted through letters as well as the electric telegraph) is fraught with insecurity, misapprehension, and friction on both sides. What the modern technology highlights in the novel is not that technology itself cannot be trusted, but that it can be used to encourage people’s natural disposition to misread things, to get the facts wrong. This is where the novel reveals its debt to sensation fiction and melodrama, where characters are often misunderstanding the actions or intentions of others.
A Laodicean and Hardy’s other novels
Hardy classified his novels into three categories: ‘Romances and Fantasies’ (including his tale set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, The Trumpet-Major, the novel written immediately prior to A Laodicean); ‘Novels of Character and Environment’ (into which class he put all of his major novels, including Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles), and ‘Novels of Ingenuity’. A Laodicean was placed in the last of these categories, highlighting its implausible and contrived ‘ingenious’ plot.
A Laodicean and Christianity
Hardy was profoundly aware of the discoveries that were being made around him, and the underlying reasons behind the decline in Christian faith during the nineteenth century. In A Laodicean, the reduced importance of religion is shown not only through the titular ‘Laodicean’ Paula Power, but also through some of the other characters. Consider Will Dare, whose very name seems to be a verbal phrase rather than a mere name. To ‘dare’ is to take a chance, and tellingly Dare carries about with him a ‘Book of Chances’ which is ‘as well thumbed as the minister’s Bible’. The simile invites a contrast: it highlights how, for Hardy as for many Victorians, the idea of a divine hand guiding their affairs had begun to give way to a more widespread alternative conception of the world as fundamentally random, governed by chance, accident, and uncertainty, rather than Christian Providence.
The old and the new in A Laodicean
Hardy’s novel carries not one, but two subtitled: ‘The Castle of the de Stancys’ and ‘A Story of To-Day’. The first suggests the novel’s (and its protagonist Paula’s) attachment to the pre-industrial past, while the second emphasises the novel’s modern elements. In the novel there is an uneasy and complicated convergence of the old with the new: although ostensibly the Powers represent the new (Paula’s father had ‘made half the railways in Europe’) while the de Stancys (who include Will Dare as a member by blood-relation) embody the old, this clear-cut piece of symbolism is undercut by, on the one hand, Paula’s romanticised longing for the past and, on the other hand, William Dare’s use of up-to-the-minute photographic techniques.
The novel’s engagement with the medieval world is grounded in the very foundations of the castle, which, as Somerset proves in his first showdown with rival architect Havill, dates from the medieval period. The castle which is the architectural centre of the novel reminds us that the foundations on which much of English legal and social convention is based were laid by the Normans. Havill points out that the castle is mentioned in the Domesday Book (the great audit of English property undertaken by William the Conqueror in the wake of the Norman Conquest), and this brings home to us that the novel is about, in one sense, the legacy of Norman customs and Norman laws: specifically, the tradition that the eldest son inherits everything (as Captain De Stancy inherits his father’s baronetcy when Sir William dies), marriages are organised around property and wealth (this is why De Stancy has his eye on Paula’s assets), and illegitimate sons (such as Captain de Stancy’s son, William Dare) are legally entitled to nothing. (When Somerset learns, or thinks he has learnt, that Paula and De Stancy have married, he symbolically undertakes a ‘journey to Normandy’, birthplace of these archaic medieval customs. The night before the wedding, when he goes to bed, we are told he ‘might as well have gone to battle, for any rest that he got’, a battle-reference that is imbued with medieval significance when, the next day, mention is made of the architectural ‘battlements’ of the castle.)
The De Stancys embody this old Norman way of life, but – like the architecture of the castle – they are worn-out. Both Captain de Stancy and his illegitimate son share the name William, the most Norman of names (and William the Conqueror was even known at the time of the Norman Conquest as ‘William the Bastard’, a reminder of his own illegitimate origin). But both of these Williams in the novel will fail in their attempts to conquer: William De Stancy will fail to conquer Paula, and William Dare’s schemes will fail to conquer Somerset’s persistence or Paula’s attraction to him. Dare even makes mention of his ‘strong Norman feelings’: he may have the feelings, but he no longer has the ‘power’ (to make the perhaps inevitable pun on Paula’s name). Indeed, each of the three successive generations of the De Stancy line present in the novel – each generation represented by a male bearing the name of William – demonstrates a weakening of the old aristocratic, and chivalric, ideal, as Sir William gives way to the weak and easily-led Captain De Stancy who in turn gives way to Will Dare (whose surname, and general unchivalric activities, point up his status as a bastard in both senses of the word).
The telegraph wire running through the castle, and out through the old arrow-slit which was erstwhile used to defend it against siege and invasion, is a reminder that, whilst the castle may remain, time has moved on. When Somerset first traces the telegraph wire to the castle-keep, the castle is described as a ‘fossil of feudalism’. At one point, Somerset encounters the clock at the castle, and realises that it is ‘new and shining, and bearing the name of a recent maker’. Old and new thus coexist, but the fact that the new clock is what is singled out here – that is, a piece of technology which marks the passing of time – suggests that their coexistence is sometimes an uneasy one. Greenwich Mean Time, which we use to keep time between October and March every year, became the legal standard time across Britain in 1880, the year A Laodicean began serialisation in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. As this novel shows, the clock will never stop ticking – and, whatever its contemporary significance, the ‘story of to-day’ will, soon enough, become yesterday’s news.
A Laodicean is a flawed novel but it is, we would venture, something more than a diversion ‘to while away an idle afternoon’, as Hardy put it in his Preface to a later reprint of the novel. It sheds light on Victorian attitudes to the past but also to the present, specifically new technology, a more widespread secularism, and changing attitudes to sex and marriage. It is also a must-read for any Hardy fan, for the light it sheds on his own views towards these things, and the way in which he treats them in his fiction.
The best edition of the novel is the Penguin Classics one: A Laodicean: Or the Castle of the De Stancys (Penguin Classics). John Schad’s ‘Introduction’ points up some of the unconventional subject-matter of this novel, and also how the novel fits into its Victorian context. Another good introductory discussion of the novel can be found in Richard Taylor’s The Neglected Hardy: Thomas Hardy’s Lesser Novels (London: Macmillan, 1982). Roger Ebbatson’s chapter on A Laodicean in his Heidegger’s Bicycle: Interfering with Victorian Texts (Critical Inventions) (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2006) is also useful. The Everyman edition of the novel from 1997, edited by Peter Widdowson, has a useful introduction which explores the non-realist aspects of the novel. (You can pick up a copy of Widdowson’s edition of the novel very cheaply online: A Laodicean: A Story of Today (Everyman Paperback Classics).) For a good recent summary of the role of communication in A Laodicean, see Kate Thomas’s brilliant reading of A Laodicean in her Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal, and Victorian Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Images (top to bottom): Thomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons, public domain; Title-page of the first edition of A Laodicean (1881); Thomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons; Thomas Hardy statue in Dorchester (author: Clemensfranz).