Thursday, February 9, 2017

She was indescribable - Thomas Hardy's The Well-Beloved

Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved was published twice, serially in 1892 and as a book, revised – much revised? – in 1897, placing it among his problematic late novels, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).  By “problematic,” I mean the problem facing Hardy, his frustration with the form of the novel, which was proving incapable of doing some of the things he wanted it to do.  Like a number of his contemporaries, he wanted prose to do what poetry did.  Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes not.  Eventually, he realized it would be easier to just be the greatest living English poet.

But now he is still writing odd Shelley-steeped novels.

All now stood dazzlingly unique and white against the tinted sea, and the sun flashed on infinitely stratified walls of oolite,
                                      The melancholy ruins
                    Of cancelled cycles…
with a distinctiveness that called the eyes to it as strongly as any spectacle he had beheld afar. (I.i.)

A little bit of “Prometheus Unbound” there.  That rock, that sea, they’re part of the rugged, stony “Isle” of Portland, a Wessex setting handled with as much art as in Hardy’s better known books.

The canine gnawing audible on the Pebble-bank had been repeated ever since at each tide, but the pebbles remained undevoured…

…  he stood once again at the foot of the familiar steep whereon the houses at the entrance to the Isle were perched like grey pigeons on a roof-side.  (III.i.)

“Canine gnawing,” that’s good stuff, yes?  Hardy mines the setting for all of the thematic weight it can carry.  The protagonist is a sculptor, the son of a quarryman, a child of the famous Portland stone.  He escapes to London, to art, to the Academy, but is constantly pulled back to his childhood home by self-pity and girl trouble, specifically his notion that he falls in love not with individual women but with an abstract Well-Beloved who temporarily inhabits specific women.

Essentially she was perhaps of no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips.  God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not.  She was indescribable.  (I.ii.)

Embodiments in three women from his home, twenty years apart, Avice, her daughter, and her granddaughter, make up the story of the novel.  In his twenties, he is a dog; in his forties, pursuing the twenty-year-old daughter of an old flame, he is creepy; in his sixties, engaged to the granddaughter of the first Avice, he becomes merely pathetic, and thus learns something about loving individual people rather than idealized figures and abstract ideas.

The novel is a long critique of Pierston’s tendency towards abstraction and desire for perfection.  The idealistic artist is constantly pulled down into the messier form of the novel.  The governing idea, the three sections, twenty years apart, the small cast, make this a strange kind of novel.  A chamber piece.  A romance in the sense of a fantasy, although in a solid setting.

Eight years ago, I had read one of Hardy’s books.  Now I have read twelve of them, and The Well-Beloved is the first one where I thought: Boy I am glad I did not read this one first.  It helped to have read some of the books around it.

Tomorrow I will extend or justify or at least mess with a couple of these ideas.


  1. I loved this one--although like you I'm glad I didn't come to it as a first Hardy novel

  2. It would give such an odd picture of Hardy, all on its own. The real / ideal split would be hard to understand.

  3. A few years ago a novel came out: "Winter," by Christopher Nicholson, that deals with a very old Hardy, his second wife, and a young woman who is playing "Tess" in a local production. It's based on a real event in Hardy's life. Now, it's a novel, but I think Nicholson gives us keen insight into the mind of a writer who could have created "The Well-Beloved." The aging Hardy is clearly unable to diagnose the problems with romantic inclinations toward a character he created years earlier, and the VERY young woman who is to portray her, much as Pearston/Pierston confuses the real with the ideal. I give Hardy credit for having a reach that exceeds his grasp. While I consider The Well-Beloved lesser Hardy, it is, nonetheless, Hardy, and therefore more interesting than many authors' better works. It shares with James's The Awkward Age the trait of seeing a writer on the brink of a great artistic burst of creativity, but still coming short of the mark.

    I have to wonder which Hardy novels you haven't read. I've done all of the novels, more than a handful of the short stories and poems. I've yet to conquer "The Dynasts." It's like Melville's "Clarel": not for the faint of heart, and only for completers, I suspect.

  4. Winter sounds quite wonderful.

    Your line at the end of the paragraph gets at my approach to literature. Once I become interested creativity, lots of minor works become pretty interesting.

    I guess I've read half of Hardy's novels now - this was the seventh. Then there are five books of lyric poems. I browsed The Dynasts and thought "Mmm, maybe someday." The subject is interesting.