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A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)

by Thomas Hardy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,4032210,916 (3.79)53
Elfride Swancourt is the daughter of the Rector of Endelstow, a remote sea-swept parish in Corwall based on St Juliot, where Hardy began A Pair of Blue Eyes during the beginning of his courtship of his first wife, Emma. Blue-eyed and high-spirited, Elfride has little experience of the worldbeyond, and becomes entangled with two men: the boyish architect, Stephen Smith, and the older literary man, Henry Knight. The former friends become rivals, and Elfride faces an agonizing choice.Written at a crucial time in Hardy's life, A Pair of Blue Eyes expresses more directly than any of his novels the events and social forces that made him the writer he was. Elfride's dilemma mirrors the difficult decision Hardy himself had to make with this novel: to pursue the profession ofarchitecture, where he was established, or literature, where he had yet to make his name. This updated edition contains a new introduction, bibliography, and chronology.… (more)
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What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

Elfride Swancourt is a vicar’s daughter, unschooled in the world, who falls in love with two men. Her first is a young impressionable boy himself and her second a more worldly, but dare I say no more emotionally developed, man of letters. At a number of junctions in the novel, Elfride might save herself a bad experience by being honest, but she elects to withhold the truth, for easily understandable reasons, and it is her undoing. Like Tess, she is doomed to heartbreak by the unreasonable expectations of men and the societal pressures put upon women.

Hardy never fails to surprise me with his understanding of the female characters he paints. They are full-bodied and thoughtful, and they breathe life. His men are so often cruel in exacting standards that a saint would be hard to live up to and that beg for the rules to be bent, if not broken.

Never were conditions more favourable for developing a girl’s first passing fancy for a handsome boyish face--a fancy rooted in inexperience and nourished by seclusion--into a wild unreflecting passion fervid enough for anything. All the elements of such a development were there, the chief one being hopelessness--a necessary ingredient always to perfect the mixture of feelings united under the name of loving to distraction.

I found here the same elements that have always made me such a avid fan of Thomas Hardy. There is such a feeling of doom, of having the cards stacked against happiness, and that tearing desire to whisper to the characters as you go, “don’t do this, listen to your gut, you are about to step off the edge of a cliff.”

Speaking of cliffs, this story has the distinction of being the source of the term, “cliffhanger”. When first produced in its serial form, it ended on a scene in which a major character is literally hanging from the side of a cliff by fingernails, and readers had to wait for the next installment to discover the fate ahead.

A lovely read for any fan of Thomas Hardy, which can rank alongside many of his other works for both plot, interesting characters and style. It seems to be less known, but I have no idea why, since it delivered for me on all levels.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Read as part of the Hardy Readers Reading Group.

Elfride and her father have lived in their community (where he is the vicar) for about 18 months when the architect Stephen Smith comes up from London to put into progress the rebuilding of the church tower.

Smith and Elfride fall in love, but when Smith asks her father for her hand he refuses, having found out that Smith is a local boy and of a lower social class. Elfride and Smith elope but she finds she cant go through with it and returns home. Here she finds her father, rather hypocritically, has married a woman of a higher social class than himself. Smith returns to London and gets posted to Bombay to try and get experience and money.

Nearly a year later, and being with her stepmother has widened Elfride's world view a little, and brought her a wider circle of acquaintance. Whilst out in London one day, they come across Henry Knight, a distant relative of the new Mrs Swanscourt. Elfride is aware that he is a friend of Smith (but he doesn't know she knows or who she is as Knight and Smith have lost contact), and it becomes clear that he is more intellectually superior to his friend (he plays chess better for a start). He falls in love with her, the two get engaged, but he finds out that she has been engaged before - and had another admirer who subsequently died - and he breaks off the engagement.

Meanwhile, Smith has become a much more successful and richer man with better prospects, probably because of rather than in spite of his broken engagement. Through a chance meeting in London, Knight finds out the whole truth from Smith, and the two men find out how much they have lost.

I have to admit I did struggle with this book and it took me much longer to read than it should have. I did enjoy Hardy's descriptions of nature and the wild isolation of much of the landscape. I did however struggle with the heavy angst of the humans which could go on for paragraphs or pages. His dialogue between Elfride and Knight often seemed forced and I did glaze over occasionally (P&P and even Jane Eyre does the 'banter' between couples better). There were a few good passages, such as when Knight and Elfride are playing chess for the first time. The double standards set against men and women and varying classes are well played out. ( )
  nordie | Apr 18, 2022 |
"If only ..." is a phrase that comes to mind when reading most Thomas Hardy novels. If only Tess had done this or not done that. If only Jude had made better choices. Bad choices are also at the heart of one of Hardy's early novels, “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” published in 1873.

The pair of blue eyes belong to Elfride Swancourt, who gets caught in a difficult love triangle. But she isn't the only one who makes bad choices. The same is true of the two young men, Stephen Smith and Henry Knight. (Actually there are also two other men who love Elfride, but they play relatively minor roles.)

Elfride meets Stephen first and falls desperately in love with him. They even run off secretly to be married, but she changes her mind at the last minute and returns home, but now with a compromising overnight stay with a man with whom she is not married. Then Stephen sails away to India for several months, a terribly unwise move as it turns out, for Elfride then falls in love with Knight, a casual friend of Stephen's.

Stephen returns to find the woman he thought he was engaged to now engaged to another man. He remains silent, as does Elfride, and Knight believes he will be marrying a totally innocent woman, one who has never even been kissed. Gradually the truth leaks out, and he feels betrayed and abandons Elfride.

Months pass, the two men meet and discuss the situation, then each independently races back to Elfride in hopes of a second chance.

All this might make a delightful romantic comedy, but this is Thomas Hardy, in whose books bad choices almost always lead to tragedy. Some critics have rated “A Pair of Blue Eyes” among Hardy's best. I wouldn't go that far, but it is a fine, if wordy, novel that offers a revealing glimpse into an earlier time so different from our own. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Mar 25, 2022 |
Wearing over all...bit annoying ,some good passages,but why did Hardy have to kill her,after all that she could have been allowed to enjoy her marriage.... ( )
  SarahKDunsbee | Aug 2, 2021 |
I really enjoyed this early Thomas Hardy novel. In some ways it reminded me of Under the Greenwood Tree and the themes of his later novels, esp. the tragic consequences of a seemingly hasty decision were very evidently developing here. However, there were also more almost comedic elements that I didn't expect. Elfrida can be an exasperating heroine but her shining moment I really loved, telling Knight that perhaps he could have fallen in love with her for who she was and not who he wanted her to be. Just one brief paragraph but really made the whole novel for me.
  amyem58 | Jan 26, 2021 |
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» Add other authors (36 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hardy, Thomasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bentinck, AnnaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dalziel, PamelaEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Douglas, HazelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wickham, PeterNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
No more.'
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Elfride Swancourt was a girl whose emotions lay very near the surface.
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Elfride Swancourt is the daughter of the Rector of Endelstow, a remote sea-swept parish in Corwall based on St Juliot, where Hardy began A Pair of Blue Eyes during the beginning of his courtship of his first wife, Emma. Blue-eyed and high-spirited, Elfride has little experience of the worldbeyond, and becomes entangled with two men: the boyish architect, Stephen Smith, and the older literary man, Henry Knight. The former friends become rivals, and Elfride faces an agonizing choice.Written at a crucial time in Hardy's life, A Pair of Blue Eyes expresses more directly than any of his novels the events and social forces that made him the writer he was. Elfride's dilemma mirrors the difficult decision Hardy himself had to make with this novel: to pursue the profession ofarchitecture, where he was established, or literature, where he had yet to make his name. This updated edition contains a new introduction, bibliography, and chronology.

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