She had lived all her life in retirement—the monstrari gigito of idle men had not flattered her, and at the age of nineteen or twenty she was no further on in social consciousness than an urban young lady of fifteen.
This statement is no compliment to urban young ladies of fifteen. To say Elfride is immature is an understatement. Yet she is the central point of a love triangle between two reasonably intelligent men, perhaps captivated by those eyes that are “blue as the blue between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning.”
The first of the suitors we meet in this book is the architect Stephen Smith, who comes to Elfride’s village to advise her minister father on the restoration of a church tower. Despite hints that Stephen has some secret in his past, the two embark on a courtship that ends after Stephen reveals his humble beginnings and earns the scorn of Elfride’s father. At that point, their romance can continue only in secret.
Later, after Stephen has gone to India to make his fortune in hopes of winning back Rev. Swancourt’s esteen, Elfride meets Stephen’s good friend Henry Knight. Their relationship begins with an intellectual tussle that soon turns to romance.
The trouble with this novel is in the character of Elfride. She’s almost entirely unbearable. She has some book learning, enough to write her father’s sermons. (One pleasing comic moment involves her confession to Stephen that she does this.) She plays a decent game of chess and writes a novel that finds a publisher but is poorly reviewed. Intellectually, she’s a good match for Stephen, who may be the only likable person in the novel. But she lacks any sense of proportion and maturity. When Stephen praises his friend Henry, she proclaims,
“I don’t care how good he is; I don’t want to know him, because he comes between me and you. You think of him night and day, ever so much more than of anybody else; and when you are thinking of him, I am shut out of your mind.”
After she meets and falls in love with Henry, she has a fit when she cannot beat him at chess. She then stays up all night studying chess moves, insists on another games, and completely flips when Henry appears to be letting her win, only to make herself so sick when she loses that a doctor orders her not to play chess again.
Henry, I should note, is no great prize himself. He’s Elfride and Stephen’s intellectual superior, but he comes across as arrogant and full of himself. His love of Elfride makes almost no sense until it becomes evident that he is inexperienced in love and likes the idea of being with someone he believes to be even more of an innocent in this area than he. There’s a conversation between them that reminds me a bit of Tess and Angel from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, although their precise situations are different. But a comparison of the two novels could be fruitful. They seem to echo each other in interesting ways.
As with Desperate Remedies, I can see why this is a minor Hardy novel. I generally admire the way Hardy writes women, but Elfride is an exception—and Henry fares little better. The bits of the story that prefigure Tess made it interesting to me as a Hardy fan. There are also moments in the story that approach the grand fatalism of his later books, where accidents of timing seem to direct the characters’ lives as much as their own decisions do. And there are some amusing moments. I especially enjoyed Elfride’s daring cliff rescue, as well as the Swancourt’s family’s conversation about criticism of Elfride’s novel, in which Rev. Swancourt declares that he’d like to write to that critic (who happens to be Henry Knight) and set him straight because, “critics go on writing, and are never corrected or argued with, and therefore are never improved.”
Perhaps Elfride’s story is an early cautionary tale about the perils of authors responding directly to their critics (or encouraging their fans and family to do so).