Thomas Hardy's third novel “A Pair of Blue Eyes” is one of the few set outside his beloved Wessex, in Cornwall. I was reminded of it by author and critic David Lodge, as I am currently reading his book The Art of Fiction, in which he quotes the opening line: “Elfride Swancourt was a girl whose emotions lay very near the surface. Their nature more precisely, and as modified by the creeping hours of time, was known only to those who watched the circumstances of her history.”
Apparently Hardy revised the opening page many times before coming up with one of my favourite passages of character description: “One point in her, however, you did notice: that was her eyes. In them was seen a sublimation of all of her; it was not necessary to look further: there she lived. These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance - blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked INTO rather than AT.”
Elfride Swancourt, a beautiful and impulsive country girl, is the daughter if the local parson. She lives a life of seclusion until the arrival of two strangers shatters her peace and tranquillity. In A Pair of Blue Eyes Hardy explores Victorian class-consciousness, courtship and love. Hardy’s blue-eyed heroine, Elfride, is of course based on Emma Gifford, Hardy's first wife, who he married a year after the book was published in 1874. Like his character, Stephen Smith, Hardy trained as an architect and travelled to Cornwall to 'take a plan and particulars' of the dilapidated church in the tiny hamlet of St. Juliot near Boscastle, which is now forever associated with his novel.
It was in St Juliot, in March 1870, that he met Emma Gifford, who was the Rector's sister in law. Emma was described as having "a rosy, Rubenesque complexion, striking blue eyes and auburn hair with ringlets reaching down as far as her shoulders" and worked towards raising funds for the restoration of the old church by selling her watercolour sketches of it. It has often been reported that there was an age difference between them, (possibly through confusion with Florence Dugdale, his second wife) but they were both aged thirty at the time.
David Lodge reminded me that A Pair of Blue Eyes is credited with the origination of the term ‘cliffhanger’ and has the ultimate ‘cliffhanger’ scene. Read it for free on Kindle - and see if you agree.
A Pair of Blue Eyes is available as a free Kindle download from Amazon UK and Amazon US and the full text is also available as a pdf from The University of Adelaide Library