Milder, earlier Hardy
A Pair of Blue Eyes
by Thomas Hardy
There is an accepted belief that English writer Thomas Hardy wrote most of his novels to fund his first true love: poetry.
And while there could be some truth to that (he purportedly saw himself more as a poet than a novelist), it does provide a good indication as to the predominant style in which he wrote.
Although Hardy's plots tend to be somewhat rambling - relying heavily on overwrought verbosity to set a scene or a mood - one cannot deny the innate beauty of his prose.
However, Hardy can come across as a miserablist who is frustrated with the world and his lot. His stories are full of recurring themes that tend to deflate rather than inspire: unrequited love; the struggle between the classes; the loss of innocence; and a desire to return to a simpler, more idyllic age.
At best he could be described as deeply romantic (a Romantic author in the traditional sense), but his romance is always tinged with pervasive melancholy and regret. To take this idea further, two of his best-known novels, 1874's Far From the Madding Crowd and 1895's Jude the Obscure, feature a central protagonist who is fighting desperately against class prejudice to seek what he truly desires, usually to no avail; respect is rarely won, love is constantly refused him.
Hardy depicts a cruel and unforgiving world. As most scholars tend to view his male characters as embodiments of Hardy himself, it is hard not to feel the author's anguish and pain. In Jude the Obscure - derided by many as obscene and unremittingly morbid, lauded by others - the tragedy of the relationship between the two main parties culminates in miscarriage, murder and suicide. It's bleak stuff, and not for the faint-hearted.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is a much gentler evocation of relationships, while still remaining within the realms of traditional realism. It's based partly on Hardy's first marriage and follows the beautiful young daughter of a local parson who is torn between two suitors: a humble architect's apprentice, Stephen Smith (an obvious stand-in for the author), and his mentor, Henry Knight, altogether a nobler and more respectable gentleman.
Alongside the evocative descriptions of the semi-fictional county of Wessex there lies a somewhat plodding ménage-a-trois between the main players. Hardy's gift is certainly not in dialogue, and at times A Pair of Blue Eyes seems to drag. It was never considered one of his better novels, but is still held dear by many who admire its sincere depiction of Victorian rural life.
Jude the Obscure is certainly a more complete novel, but really it is Hardy's poetry that sets him apart as one of England's greatest writers.