I was one of those inordinately strange children who loved reading Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Stranger in secondary school. I timidly mentioned that to a friend whom I'd always taken to be equally eccentric and was thrown off balance when he replied, "No! Not really? You're joking, right?"
This fellow had the tact and good sense to redirect the conversation quickly, and he asked if I'd read A Pair of Blue Eyes, which was said to be Hardy's own favourite of his novels.
First arrives the young Stephen Smith, an angel-faced architect's assistant come to look at the village church in preparation for repairs. Smith is quickly enamoured of Elfride, startled by her intelligence and beauty. He begins to court her avidly. At first she holds him at arm's length but eventually gives in to his effusive wooing. The catch? He finally reveals that he is the son of the local stonemason, gone up to London to try and make a good career for himself but still of no exalted bloodlines. He and Elfride realise that her father is unlikely to sanction their marriage. Elfride tries to reason with her father, expressing the belief that Stephen's aptitude is what counts. Her father, initially very fond of Smith, will have none of it and finds every reason -- including the young man's distaste for gravy -- to discount the suitor.
'Professional men in London,' Elfride argued, 'don't know anything about their clerks' fathers and mothers. They have assistants who come to their offices and shops for years, and hardly even know where they live. What they can do -- what profits they can bring the firm -- that's all London men care about. And that is helped in him by his faculty of being uniformly pleasant.'After a secret and failed attempt to elope, the couple returns. Elfride commits herself to wait patiently while Stephen goes off to India to build his fortune and reputation. Meanwhile, her father marries a witty, wealthy and perceptive widow who becomes Elfride's mentor and confidante. Here too it strikes me that Hardy's women are much more realistically complex characters than his men. Step-mum makes Elfride's father look like a rigid and self-absorbed fuddy-duddy. She encourages Elfride to complete and publish the historical novel she's been working on for years.
'Uniform pleasantness is rather a defect than a faculty. It shows that a man hasn't sense enough to know whom to despise.'
'It shows that he acts by faith and not by sight, as those you claim succession from directed.'
'That's some more of what he's been telling you, I suppose! Yes, I was inclined to suspect him, because he didn't care about sauces of any kind. I always did doubt a man's being a gentleman if his palate had no acquired tastes. An unedified palate is the irrepressible cloven foot of the upstart...'
Some time later, a negative review of the book comes to Elfride's attention. Her stepmother minimises the criticism and highlights the complimentary bits, ultimately encouraging the young woman to write to the reviewer, which she does. The reviewer, it turns out, is not only the stepmother's nephew, but also Stephen Smith's former tutor. At his aunt's invitation, Henry Knight comes to the village to visit his aunt and to meet the young author. Elfride's anger and wounded pride give way to admiration for Knight's erudition and confidence, which at times comes across only as arid pomposity. She sees in him a man who is older and more accomplished than Stephen, and harder to impress.
Their exchange about her future as an author tells worlds about both of them. It reveals him as a somewhat prudish man with very rigid ideas about a woman's place. The fact that Elfride does not dismiss him out of hand reveals her own openness of mind.
'You may do better next time,' he said placidly: 'I think you will. But I would advise you to confine yourself to domestic scenes.'Elfride becomes enamoured of Knight, and despite his rational thoughts on the matter, the attraction is mutual. Stephen Smith returns from India to find his love engaged to his former tutor. Eventually, however, Knight learns of Elfride's previous relationship and blanches to think she had kissed another before him, shattering his delusion that he was her first love, which was blindly based upon the fact that he had not kissed a woman before, despite being many years older. Unable to bear his disappointment that she has kissed others before him, the cowardly Knight flees the household without a word, leaving Elfride distraught.
'Thank you. But never again!'
'Well, you may be right. That a young woman has taken to writing is not by any means the best thing to hear about her.'
'What is the best?'
'I prefer not to say.'
'Do you know? Then, do tell me, please.'
'Well -- (Knight was evidently changing his meaning) -- I suppose to hear that she has married.'
Elfride hesitated. 'And what when she has been married?' she said at last, partly in order to withdraw her own person from the argument.
'Then to hear no more about her. It is as Smeaton said of his lighthouse: her greatest real praise, when the novelty of her inauguration has worn off, is that nothing happens to keep the talk of her alive.'
Too late, he realises that Elfride's social 'indiscretions' were the result of her propensity to wear her heart on her sleeve. But it is too late, for both of them.
...the unreserve, which was really artlessness without ballast, meant indifference to decorum; and what so likely as that such a woman had been deceived in the past? He said to himself, in a mood of the bitterest cynicism: 'The suspicious discreet woman who imagines dark and evil things of all her fellow-creatures is far too shrewd to be deluded by man: trusting beings like Elfride are the women who fall.'Her two suitors are such classic male stereotypes: Stephen Smith blindly worships Elfride, placing her on an unreasonably elevated pedestal. Henry Knight persists in seeing her as the virgin in her pastoral tower, never having been courted until he arrived. Poor Elfride! She was so exuberant and open, and they still failed to see her clearly.