The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty. Neither nymphy, nor sweet in my opinion.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Blue Eyes

The photograph above, The Mountain Nymph, Sweet Liberty, graces the Penguin edition of Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, which Alison sent me recently. The girl in the photograph is, in my opinion, no great beauty. In fact I would say that she is borderline ugly. And while you cannot see the color of her eyes, they are focused on the viewer in a peculiarly penetrating way.

When I apply for teaching positions I apply either as a Victorian specialist or as a Modern specialist. Both are half true. My specialty is George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) who spans the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m really more comfortable with 20th century novels and poetry than I am with the Victorian era. So I’m not totally in sympathy with Hardy.

The story centers around Elfride and her relationships with two men, Stephen Smith and Henry Knight. Elfride, the daughter of an Anglican minister, meets and falls in love with Stephen, who works in an architectural office. When it is revealed that Stephen’s parents are poor her father objects. Now here is one point where I lack sympathy for the situation. While class distinctions do exist, and are of some importance in American society, they do not have the kind of importance that they do in Britain. The social distinction between a country parson and a stone mason or a stone mason’s son seems pretty negligible to me. Obviously they weren’t to Hardy or to Victorian England.

Stephen and Elfride don’t work out, and he is replaced in her affections by his friend and mentor Henry Knight. It develops that Knight has no experience with women and also has very high ideals regarding the woman he is to marry. He cannot accept the fact that a woman such as Elfride might have had a beau before. This leads to the dissolution of the relationship.

Hardy describes both Stephen and Henry as being Elfride’s lovers. A lover, in current usage, has a more sexual implication than it did for Hardy’s era. Now this is another point on which my sympathies diverge. I was born in 1945, and so I came of age during the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I think that while it was expected that good Catholic girls did not fool around, that most of the people I went to high school were sooner or later to be found watching submarine races,* and engaging in risque and risky behavior. So we weren’t bothered by the notion of purity like Hardy’s heroes are in this novel. Considering what our girlfriend’s got up to Elfride’s exchange of kisses seems pretty minor.

*In the period when I went to college the best spot to watch the submarine races was Hains Point, near East Potomac Park. If you don't know what submarine races, think about it from the standpoint of a hormone addled teenager.

Hardy’s style is, to my mind that of an autodidact. He is anxious to show off his knowledge and his extensive vocabulary, so we have him using words like:

The ending, in which Stephen and Henry discover the truth of their relationship to Elfride seems rushed. Since there is a third suitor for her hand, it would seem logical for there to be some kind of story about the third suitor, instead we get a narration by a non-participant in the Elfride-suitor relationship. Hardy is not the only author who suggests stories that might be more interesting than the story they present. Herman Wouk also fails to present a story for Leslie Slote’s OSS service in War and Remembrance, and like Elfride’s relationship with the third suitor that might have been as interesting, if not more so, than the stories that he does tell.

Next up will be Moliere’s The Misanthrope.That may be followed by a discussion of Don Juan & Don Giovanni, or by something else.