A reading of an early Hardy novel
A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) was Tennyson’s favourite of all Thomas Hardy’s novels, and the poet Coventry Patmore (author of The Angel in the House) was enthusiastic about it, although he wished it had been written in verse. The working title for the novel was ‘A Winning Tongue Had He’ (a line from an English ballad called ‘On the Banks of Allan Water’); Hardy thought better and renamed it A Pair of Blue Eyes. This early Hardy novel has been unfairly neglected in the Thomas Hardy oeuvre, and deserves closer attention and analysis.
Although this novel is not usually included in lists of Hardy’s ‘great’ novels alongside Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, it’s oddly representative of Hardy’s art and might even be said to mark the start of his maturity as a novelist. In this novel we find the seeds of his later novels being sown, most notably Tess, which is to some degree a reworking of the plot and themes of this novel. But at the same time, this novel shows Hardy returning to the very start of his novel-writing career, and his first, unpublished novel. So A Pair of Blue Eyes represents, weirdly, both very early Hardy, and the very late Hardy of Tess – it looks both forwards and backwards.
A Pair of Blue Eyes was Thomas Hardy’s third published novel, but not his third novel. This is because the very first novel he completed, he never published, and in fact he destroyed the manuscript. No page of this novel, which was called The Poor Man and the Lady, remains. However, it is believed that elements of this discarded novel found their way into Hardy’s later fiction, including A Pair of Blue Eyes. His first two published novels had been Desperate Remedies (1871), a late example of the genre known as sensation fiction (best exemplified by Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon), and Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), a bucolic tale of romance. A Pair of Blue Eyes is similarly a romance, but it is possible to see the influence of melodrama, too, that element of sensation which had been predominant in Hardy’s first published novel, two years earlier. What’s more, although it was his third novel to see print, A Pair of Blue Eyes represents a series of significant ‘firsts’ in the novelist’s career. It was Hardy’s first real commercial success in fiction; it was the first of his novels to carry his name on the title-page; and it was the first to be serialised in magazine form before being published as a book, and t he serialisation of the book earned him the not insubstantial sum of £200.
So A Pair of Blue Eyes was, in many ways, a key turning point for Hardy: the success of the novel convinced him that writing could be a commercially viable career. He promptly resigned from his job – which was as an assistant architect (a job that obviously feeds into the source material for the novel itself, given Stephen Smith’s occupation). His future wife Emma Gifford first met Hardy in 1870, when he showed up at her house as a young architect’s assistant to arrange for restoration work to be undertaken on the local parish church. Before this, he had been torn between literature and architecture as his two potential career paths: whichever proved more satisfying and economically viable would win out. In the end, thankfully, it was literature that won out. The book appeared in monthly instalments in Tinsley’s Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873, with a 3-volume book edition following later that year. This is significant and helps to explain why the novel seems to lie somewhere between a ‘Novel of Character and Environment’ (that is, something approaching realism) and a ‘Romance or Fantasy’, to use Hardy’s own categories for his fiction.
How should we read, and analyse, A Pair of Blue Eyes? We might analyse the novel biographically, with Elfride standing in for Emma Gifford, the woman who became Hardy’s wife the year after the novel was published, and Stephen and Knight representing, respectively, Hardy’s dual trades as assistant architect and man of letters. Of course, this may be too simplistic a biographical reading: for one thing, Henry Knight is a reviewer rather than a poet and novelist, and he equates more closely to Hardy’s friend Horace Moule than to Hardy himself. (Moule was ten years older than Hardy, just as Knight is ten years older than Stephen, so perhaps Stephen and Knight might be seen as versions of, respectively, Hardy and Horace Moule – though again, we should be wary of pursuing such a biographical analysis any further.) Yet again, however, although the courtship between Emma and Hardy was most definitely an inspiration for A Pair of Blue Eyes, the subsequent events of the novel bear little relation to this real-life relationship.
It’s also worth considering why Hardy kills Elfride at the end of the novel. He faces two obvious choices: he could kill her off, and he could marry her off. In the end, he does both, but he marries her off not to either of the two male protagonists who have won her heart but to a relatively unknown third man whom she marries to please her father. Romantic novels typically have several suitors vying for the attention of the heroine, and in the end she must choose one of them, and usually she’ll make the right choice and live, as they say, happily ever after. Hardy’s narrative ‘resolution’, viewed this way, is oddly unsatisfying. So why does Hardy choose to end his novel in this way?
One obvious answer can be found by returning to that key word for Victorian fiction: realism. Life, Hardy would respond, is not like that: heroines do not always marry one of the two men who have captured their heart; often, especially in the nineteenth century, love does not triumph over financial expediency, and a marriage of convenience must be undertaken and sometimes people die of complications relating to pregnancy, especially before the medical advancements of the twentieth century.
Yet Elfride’s death is not treated melodramatically – it occurs ‘off-stage’, as it were, and is merely reported rather than shown – and doesn’t obey the usual rule of Providence that governs much Victorian fiction, whereby the good live happily and the bad die horribly. Is there a moral reason why Hardy’s original readers would have expected Elfride to die? There were other acceptable ways for him to end the novel. Hardy famously stated that ‘comedy is tragedy if you only look deep enough’, and it might be most accurate to say that A Pair of Blue Eyes is a comic novel that is infected by the idea of tragedy – notably, in the death of Elfride, the novel’s putative protagonist, at the close of the novel. But unlike a true tragedy, such as Hardy’s later novels, Elfride’s death is not written into the fabric of the novel before it happens: it is reported as an accident, almost as if Hardy had lost control of his own plot and real life, with its accidents and meaningless occurrences, had broken in. A good contrast here is Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where the title character’s death is foreshadowed throughout the novel. A key word for Hardy was ‘circumstance’: that is, things occurring not because of Providence or divine agency, but merely through chance and good (or bad) fortune.
So this novel is actually central to Hardy’s development as a writer, showing him developing his own distinctive voice, and making some unusual decisions regarding plot and character. The novel shows the constraints and demands which the fiction market – particularly the serial fiction market – placed upon an unknown writer, as Hardy was at this time. This isn’t simply the background to the novel, though: Hardy actually explores the status of Victorian fiction within the novel itself, through Elfride’s novel and the mauling it receives in the press from Henry Knight.
What is A Pair of Blue Eyes saying about masculinity? First, it is worth bearing in mind the novel’s status as a ‘romance’: that is, a novel dealing with romantic entanglements in a slightly less than realist fashion. What’s immediately noteworthy and revealing about Hardy’s use of romance here is that he overturns many of the usual gender roles found in romantic novels. Here it is not the woman who is seen as somehow socially inadequate for the man, but vice versa; it is the two male suitors, and not the novel’s heroine, who prove themselves to be insufficiently schooled in the ways of romance. This gender-reversal is undoubtedly most clearly seen in the moment when Elfride rescues Knight when he finds himself hanging precariously from the cliff; he may be the one called Knight, but she will prove to be his knight in shining armour, saving him (the male damsel in distress, as it were) from death.
And yet in all of these examples we can see that there’s something more complicated going on. Elfride is not exactly herself a high-born lady, and that it precisely why she – like her father – is pressured into making a marriage of convenience (something, indeed, which her father does altogether more readily than she does). As Elfride’s Arthurian romance novel shows, she herself is not all that savvy when it comes to the ways of the heart; she is one of George Eliot’s ‘silly lady novelists’ who write about love without really understanding it. Even Elfride’s rescue of Knight in the famous cliff-edge adventure involves the removal of her outer clothes, resulting in her objectification under the male gaze, as Knight, and the reader, are confronted with the erotically charged image of her standing in the rain with her undergarments clinging to her. And in any case this moment of rescue very deliberately echoes Knight’s earlier partial rescue of Elfride when she had almost fallen from the parapet of the church tower.
Indeed, the novel is not about two relationships, but three. In addition to the two heterosexual pairings between Elfride and Stephen, and Elfride and Knight, there is also that third relationship, between Stephen and Knight. In many ways the relationship between the two men is the most important in the novel, more so than either of the two short-lived romantic attachments to Elfride. The novel ends not with a man and woman together (as you might expect from a romance, or from a Victorian novel, e.g. the way in which many of Dickens’s novels end) but with two men walking off together. The train at the end of the novel bears the three principal characters back to Endelstow, just as it had first brought Stephen there in the second chapter. This final train journey also echoes Elfride and Stephen’s night in the train as a couple, but in this reprise of that train journey, Elfride is dead and it is Stephen and Knight who form the couple, not Stephen and Elfride. Critics have often mentioned how similar Stephen is to Elfride: both are held back but by different things (Elfride by her gender, Stephen by his class), both have their emotions ‘near the surface’, and – perhaps most significantly of all – both have an intense fondness for the third person in the love triangle, Henry Knight. Stephen wants to make himself ‘richer and better educated’ as much to impress Knight as to woo Elfride. Similarly, Elfride is like Stephen in that she wants to please Knight and live up to his naïve fantasies of what she should be, just as Stephen tries to meet Knight’s expectations of what a Victorian man should be.
Furthermore, Hardy suggestively tells us that Stephen’s eyes are blue-grey, thus subtly equating him with Elfride, whose blue eyes (of course) provide the novel with its title. That title is thus rendered slightly ambiguous, as though Henry Knight is drawn into two relationships with ‘a pair of blue eyes’, one romantic and doomed to fail, one homosocial and destined to survive the novel. Is that the real relationship at the core of this romantic novel – not, after all, a heterosexual one at all, but a homosocial one, between men?
In her influential study of this phenomenon in literature, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (Gender and Culture Series), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick highlights that such homosocial relationships are often part of an erotic triangle. Such a reading of the homosocial relations in the novel, if pursued carefully, does perhaps provide another explanation for Hardy’s decision to kill off Elfride.
In short, A Pair of Blue Eyes is a fascinating example of Hardy’s early fiction because it foreshadows so many things which he would revisit in his later, better-known work: the tragic wronged heroine, the erotic love triangle, and the way ‘circumstance’ often thwarts our dreams and desires. It is worthy of analysis for these and other reasons: it is the light half of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
We recommend the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel for study purposes and for general reading: it’s introduction is very helpful and the annotations help shed light on Hardy’s allusions: A Pair of Blue Eyes (Oxford World’s Classics).