Elfride Swancourt is the daughter of the Rector of Endelstow, a remote sea-swept parish in Cornwall 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 world beyond 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.
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 can’t 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.