The structure of my favorite Hardy novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge, is flawlessly classical: he applies the figure of speech chiasmus to the underpinnings of the narrative. But even we Hardy fans realize he can be heavy-handed: in Jude the Obscure, the famous novel that incurred the fury of critics, he enraged his audience by the ferocity of his attack on marriage laws–and I think he manages that more subtly in The Woodlanders.
And that’s why I often prefer his early novels: they are less elegant, but more entertaining. One of my favorites is A Laodicean, a relatively light novel which reminds me of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley–in other words, not the best in either author’s canon, but each portrays a rich, charming, independent heroine whose money gives her control over her life and loves.
Hardy begins A Laodicean, his seventh novel, with a sunset and an architect (and couldn’t that be emblematic of his work in general?). George Somerset is sketching a Norman castle, and is so engrossed he does not notice the “brilliant chromatic effect of the sunset.”
The sun blazed down and down, till it was within half-an-hour of its setting; but the sketcher still lingered at his occupation of measuring and copying the chevroned doorway—a bold and quaint example of a transitional style of architecture, which formed the tower entrance to an English village church. The graveyard being quite open on its western side, the tweed-clad figure of the young draughtsman, and the tall mass of antique masonry which rose above him to a battlemented parapet, were fired to a great brightness by the solar rays, that crossed the neighbouring mead like a warp of gold threads, in whose mazes groups of equally lustrous gnats danced and wailed incessantly.
Hardy is lyrical, but a master of plot. Somerset has arrived at just the right time: the rich, gorgeous heroine, Paula Power, has inherited the castle from her father, a railroad magnate, and is looking for an architect, because she intends to live at the castle. The two are very taken with each other, and soon become romantically involved, but there is some confusion about the work: the local architect, Mr. Havill, expected to get the job. And so there is a competition between their finished designs.
Paula’s father made his money building railroads, and her money is respected. But she is still educating herself to be a lady, and learns about architecture from Somerset. Her closest friend is Charlotte de Stancy, whose father sold Mr. Power the castle. Charlotte has no sense of herself as an usurped aristocrat, so she does not resent Paula. Although Somerset never notices Charlotte, she is in love with him. I wondered if Hardy thought of Charlotte Bronte as he wrote this: in Shirley, two women, Shirley and Caroline, become inseparable friends, but Shirley is so beautiful and witty that Caroline, the weaker and more delicate, is seldom noticed by men.
Soon Paula has a second suitor, Charlotte’s brother, Captain de Stancy, who falls in love with her at first sight. Will Paula marry Somerset or Captain de Stancy? Perhaps neither: she takes a trip abroad, and though she corresponds with Somerset by telegraph (she is a modern woman), and the captain tags along, she is more interested in seeing Europe than conducting a romance.
Many critics find fault with the plot: they consider the trip to Europe rambling (and it does happen that Hardy and his wife had recently taken a similar trip), but I enjoyed it. Hardy became very ill while writing A Laodicean, and dictated much of it to his wife, Emma, because it had to be done for the serialization. All things considered, I think it’s quite good. Paula’s character is a bit too formal at times, and Somerset and de Stancy seem more believeable, but I loved it.