jueves, 28 de enero de 2016

A Pair Of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

A Pair Of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy was first published in the eighteen seventies. It is a romance of the Romantic era. A cursory glance from today’s perspective might suggest that the book has little to say about our own time, and that its significance, if it retains one, is purely historical. It could thus be read purely as a nineteenth century tale of manners, suitors, marriage pursued and formalised via the route of platonic encounter. But Thomas Hardy, if he be nothing else, was always a keen observer of social mores, airs and graces, and so A Pair Of Blue Eyes provides for the contemporary reader and intriguing picture of life as it might have been lived a century and a half ago. Where Hardy’s novel certainly does speak to our own times, however, is in its portrayal of social class in English society.

Elfride is an attractive young woman. She is middle class and apparently worried beyond her years that she may already be on the shelf. She is portrayed as rather fickle, sometimes less than focused, thoroughly aware of her social face, but strangely self-obsessed at the same time. She seems permanently to be analysing whom she might marry, and for what reason, but often from a standpoint of her own perceived standing. Her parents are keen that any suitor should possess commensurate status and have sufficient assets or prospects. This is where a young man called Stephen Smith falls short.

Stephen has as yet made neither a name nor a fortune. We learn that he is well educated, but has followed a curriculum far removed from that prescribed as a social passport by the prestigious schools. He is of low birth, since his father is nothing more than a manual labourer. Even a status elevated to that of the self-employed late in the story cannot make amends for having spent most of a working life as a mere employee. Elfride, however, seems to be besotted with Stephen Smith. He is of her age, and somewhat the wiser of the two. She is young, inexperienced, retiring but determined, and not a little myopic. They decide to elope when Elfride’s family declare their opposition. The couple travel to London by train, an act that in itself could easily compromise Elfride’s future marriage prospects, but Elfride immediately has second thoughts she declares she wants to return to England’s west country on the next train out of Paddington. Stephen insists on doing the right thing and accompanies her to preserve her safety. Stephen decides he must make his way in life before Elfride or, more importantly, her parents will accept him. Elfride declares she will wait, faithfully.

Thomas Hardy tells us that “…when women are secret they are secret indeed; and more often than not they only begin to be secret with the advent of a second lover.” Elfride does not seem to be too secret about anything when Mr Knight appears on the scene. He is a decade older than her, rather stiff and correct, but also solvent. With Stephen away, out of sight becomes almost out of mind and things duly progress.

There is a strange episode when Elfride saves Knight’s life on a cliff top. We are reminded perhaps that this is more soap than opera when there is an even stranger episode when Elfride is, conveniently for the plot, blamed for the death of a young lad who, unknown to her, became obsessed for distance. There is always a need to write letters in romantic novels. Characters always need to commit their thoughts, requests and accusations to paper. And, in an age without instant communication, words thus committed to the permanence of paper can be read, and also re-read or misread by anyone who cares to scan them. And so when Knight presses Elfride on her past, words both spoken and written are misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Stephen returns and meets Knight. Stephen has been in India and has done well for himself. Here is another truth of the time in that it is easier to climb socially via the colonies. In the end there are surprises for both men and for the reader as life takes all the characters along paths they believed to be familiar but eventually lead them into unknown territory.

“Of course; a sensible woman would rather lose her wits than her beauty,” is another of Hardy’s gender musings, an area where the book might grate with many a modern reader. But equally there is much in A Pair Of Blue Eyes that remains familiar. Even that last quoted opinion retains significance in an age that is perhaps more obsessed with personal appearance than any other, an age where cosmetic surgery transforms bodies as commonly as wisdom changes minds. Thomas Hardy’s novel ought to remind us that there are perhaps some universal truths, despite the fact that their appearance may change.

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