Now that I’ve read most of Thomas Hardy’s most well-known books, I’m turning my attention to his lesser-known works. Not being a particularly systematic reader unless I’m reading a series, I ended up reading his last novel, The Well-Beloved before looking at his first ones. (Although one could argue that this wasn’t his last novel, as it was published in serial form under the title The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved before Jude the Obscure was published.)
The title character in The Well-Beloved is actually a figment of sculptor Jocelyn Pierston’s imagination. Jocelyn, the main character in the novel, see the “Well-Beloved” as the perfect woman, but she exists in many different women, moving from one woman to another, rarely staying in any one place for long. Jocelyn cannot predict when or where she will appear, but when he catches a glimpse of her in a new acquaintance’s face or manner, he is helpless; he must pursue her. And when she leaves that woman’s body, Jocelyn’s affection leaves, too.
This, of course, gives him the appearance of being fickle, but he doesn’t see it that way. He’s faithful to his Beloved, wherever she may be:
Fickleness means getting weary of a thing while the thing remains the same. But I have always been faithful to the elusive creature whom I have never been able to get a firm hold of, unless I have done so now. And let me tell you that her flitting from each to each individual has been anything but a pleasure for me—certainly not a wanton game of my instigation. To see the creature who has hitherto been perfect, divine, lose under your very gaze the divinity which has informed her, grow commonplace, turn from flame to ashes, from a radiant vitality to a relic, is anything but a pleasure for any man, and has been nothing less than a racking spectacle to my sight. Each mournful emptied shape stands ever after like the nest of some beautiful bird from which the inhabitant has departed and left it to fill with snow. I have been absolutely miserable when I have looked into a face for her I used to see there, and could see her there no more.
Yeah, that’s rough, fella. My heart bleeds for you.
Of course, no woman is going to live up to Jocelyn’s fantasy. He’s not looking for a real woman. He’s Pygmalion looking for his Galatea. His sculptures don’t satisfy, but a living woman can’t, not if she is to be a real, living woman.
Much of Jocelyn’s attention falls on three generations of women from a single family, all three named Avice. He becomes engaged to the first Avice, even though he’s not certain that the Well-Beloved resides in her. The engagement ends when Avice decides she cannot go through with the country custom of attempting to become pregnant before marriage to ensure the bride’s fertility. The fact that Jocelyn meets a woman who appears to be the current residence of the Well-Beloved just after he learns of Avice’s decision seals the deal (or unseals it, as it turns out). He later attempts to recapture that lost relationship by courting Avice’s daughter and then her granddaughter. But all three women choose their own fates. They will not be molded according to his desires, and they won’t simply be a vessel for his Well-Beloved.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Hardy’s novels is the way he writes women. I don’t always like the women in his books, but I like that they can’t be pinned down into Victorian archetypes. Even Tess, the virginal yet fallen woman, bursts forth from the bonds of the stereotype in the end (with disastrous results, but still, she did it). In this book, his interest in writing full-bodied, realistic women turns didactic, and the novel suffers for it. These women seem designed to teach Jocelyn a lesson and are less interesting in their own right than most of Hardy’s other women. Interesting that that should be the case in a book that seems to be all about how women are not to be treated merely as characters in a man’s story. But on further consideration, I wonder if what’s happening is that these women’s lives are so far separated from Jocelyn’s story that we can catch little more than glimpses of who they are. Jocelyn never experiences them as complete people, and we’re immersed in Jocelyn’s life, so we never experience them as real people either.
The edition of the book that I read also included the original serialized version of the novel, The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved. I read both versions, and I preferred the original, mostly because it’s a little edgier and make Jocelyn a little less likable. His rejection of the first Avice, for example, is cast in a darker light. There’s also a plot development that’s similar to something that happened in Jude, so I can understand why he came up with a different story for the final version of this novel. That particular development mostly adds a bit of salaciousness that isn’t necessary to the story—although it certainly makes it more dramatic. I like it when Hardy gets all dramatic, so I missed that element of his storytelling here. That lack of drama is, I suspect, what has kept this from being one of Hardy’s most well-beloved novels.