In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle doffs his hat to a half-forgotten Victorian sensation
Here’s a question for you: what was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era? And who wrote it – Dickens perhaps? George Eliot? Robert Louis Stevenson? It was none of these, though they all enjoyed huge sales. Instead, the accolade arguably goes to a man who was principally known, not as a novelist at all, but as a cartoonist. (I say ‘arguably’ because reliable sales figures for nineteenth-century books are not always easy to find.)
The cartoonist’s name was George du Maurier and the novel is Trilby (1894). Du Maurier had made his name as an illustrator: in 1895 he was responsible for the famous ‘curate’s egg’ cartoon (with its complaisant curate assuring the vicar, concerning the bad egg he’d been served up, that ‘parts of it are excellent’), and he’d even been responsible for coining the phrase ‘bedside manner’ in a medical cartoon of 1884. But owing to failing eyesight, du Maurier had begun to complement his illustrating work with novel-writing as a way of continuing to make a living from his pen. He certainly succeeded: Trilby would become the sensation of the age, not just in Britain but in the United States. In time, even when the novel was largely forgotten, its title would be immortalised in the name of a hat. Read the rest of this entry
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. Read the rest of this entry
A summary of an overlooked Hardy novel
Here’s a question for you. What was Thomas Hardy’s last novel? Easy, some might say: Jude the Obscure, the 1895 book whose hostile reception convinced Hardy to abandon novel-writing and return to his first love, poetry. But in fact, Jude wasn’t Hardy’s last ever novel – at least, not exactly. For in 1897, two years after Jude’s appearance, a final novel was published: The Well-Beloved. It’s an overlooked novel, but deserves more attention and analysis – not to mention a wider readership – than it tends to receive.
We say ‘not exactly’ because The Well-Beloved wasn’t an entirely new work. Instead, it was a reworking of an earlier novel, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, which had been serialised in 1892. The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved: A Sketch of a Temperament appeared in the Illustrated London News between October and December 1892, but was only reprinted when Penguin Classics reissued both the original serial version and the later 1897 rewrite, The Well-Beloved. This is the edition we recommend for the devoted Hardy fan: The Pursuit of the Well-beloved and the Well-beloved (Penguin Classics). There are suggestive plot differences between the two versions of the novel. Read the rest of this entry