Friday, February 10, 2017

Writing 'A Pair of Blue Eyes'

The cover to a recent mass-market edition
of Thomas Hardy's third novel
A Pair of Blue Eyes.
A Pair of Blue Eyes was Thomas Hardy's third novel. It is an interesting transitional book in that contains, like the two prior to it, conceptual threads of his never-published first effort The Poor Man and the Lady. Unlike those books, it was written entirely after his introduction to his future wife, Emma Gifford, and it was published under his own name. Before digging into the substance of the novel itself, it may prove valuable to examine the circumstances under which it was produced.

Hardy had completed Under the Greenwood Tree in what one might characterize as a weakened position in terms of his ability to bargain. His first novel, Desperate Remedies had ended up costing him money and had slipped into the remainder bin prior to the release of his follow-up. After fumbling for some time to find a publisher for his finished manuscript for Greenwood, he finally settled it with the same publisher, Tinsley, but only by selling the copyright for a mere £30, a pittance more than the sum he'd lost on his first book.

It was a dynamic time in Hardy's life. He was living between four places: his family home near Dorchester; Weymouth, where he pursued architectural work; London, where he mixed architecture and publishing business; and St. Juliot, where he was pursuing a future with someone who seems to have loved him as unequivocally as he loved her. It was a romance conducted largely by correspondence, punctuated by intense periods of dreaming together about the possibilities of the future. Emma became his sounding board and his copyist and, depending on how seriously you decide to take her later claims, his collaborator.

Reviews and sales on his second book had been stronger than his first and it was Tinsley this time who came to Hardy, in late June of 1872, interested in tying up his next effort for serialization and eventual publication. Hardy had already told him of a new story he was working on, drawn, at least in part, from his recent excursions to Cornwall. Tinsley offered him 200£ for the serialization and rights of a novel called A Pair of Blue Eyes to publish the novel but the first installment had to be published in September.

It was real money but it came with real demands from him as a writer. Some sources suggest Hardy had as many as five chapters written before he made the agreement with Tinsley. Taking that at face value, it represents about 10% of the book that was to be serialized monthly until its end in April of the following year. He completed the first installment by the first of August 1872 and then embarked for a visit, his first, with Emma's parents to discuss the prospect of her hand in marriage.

That visit is one of the black holes that Hardy installed in his own biography by destroying all references to it and speaking of it only in the vaguest terms. Emma's father, impoverished but apparently still possessing all the class prejudice of his upbringing, rejected Hardy outright and the grudge-bearing author never saw either of Emma's parents again. As A Pair of Blue Eyes has a ill-fated love between a low-born but ambitious man and a liberal-minded but tradition-bound heroine sitting at its core, it's a challenge not to project that narrative on to the void Hardy constructed around this devastating moment in his life.

Emma's parents may have rejected Hardy but Emma did not. It was their foolhardy attitudes about class and money that had abandoned her to become a maid-servant to her sister, who had married a septuagenarian clergyman under the duress of a similar paucity of options. Hardy loved her. He had ambition. He had talent. It was a gamble but, given her precarious position, it was, perhaps, the wisest bet available to her.

Unfortunately, Emma's parents were not the only parties opposed to the union. Hardy's mother, Jemima, was opposed to any of her children marrying and there was nothing about Emma that appeared to inspire feelings to the contrary. She seemed to resent the implication that her Thomas wasn't good enough for someone else's family and rejected Emma on similar grounds. The pair of lovers were faced with a future unendorsed by either of their respective families.

It was in this highly-uncertain but, doubtless, highly-emotionally charged period that Hardy completed his obligations (by March of 1873) to Tinsley LIKE A BOSS. A Pair of Blue Eyes was Hardy's first novel to be published under his own name and, by my reckoning, also the first that has moments (long stretches, even) where we encounter the full power of Thomas Hardy, the novelist. It sold well, was reviewed well and led immediately to the development and creation of Hardy's first great novel, Far from the Madding Crowd.


  1. Thank you for this splendid evaluation. I really appreciate the biographical context.

  2. Very generous of you to take a moment to share your impressions. Hardy wore his experiences on his sleeve and it's impossible not to see them in his work. I think it's appropriate to read his work through the lens of his biography though there are schools of criticism that differ. I'm not really approaching this reading journey as a critic so I don't have a dog in that fight.

  3. Great review. I am always enthralled by the incredible depth of Hardy's writings (novels and poems).
    This insight to the conception and writing of A Pair of Blue Eyes is simply invaluable. Thanks.

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Abbya. I'll be breaking the novel down in greater depth over the next few weeks so please stop back in and share you thoughts as it unfolds.

    2. I will be looking forward to more on A Pair of Blue Eyes, which is my favourite of Hardy's novels. I was 18 years old and a student of English literature when I first read this novel. I remember I couldn't sleep for three nights trying to find a different and happier ending to the novel but ended up liking the ending and all of it as I grew and read it again and again. Thank you for your efforts

    3. Latha,

      Thank you for sharing that memory of your first time reading A Pair of Blue Eyes! It is definitely a sad ending but there was something so poetic about learning Elfride's fate after the men travelled together to place themselves before her to choose. Neither of them deserved her and, as Hardy might say, her destiny lay beyond this world.