I was long overdue for a Hardy Novel, but I couldn’t decide which one to select. Finally I choose The Well-Beloved. This is not my favourite Hardy–although it’s close, but it is one I think about quite often. It’s an unusual novel, and it’s certainly not perfect. I suspect that the novel that was an attempt by the author to expurgate some issue or ghost in his life, and in the Introduction, it’s explained that the novel was influenced by Shelley and his pursuit of the Platonic Idea.
The novel’s two dominant themes are the search for the “perfection of womanhood” and aging– “the effects of the passage of time.” Originally published in serial form under the title The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved in 1892, this work followed just one year after Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Well-Beloved includes some excellent descriptions of the landscape, but ultimately, I am fond of this novel for its depiction of the unchanging aspects of human nature.
The human nature under scrutiny in the novel is that of Jocelyn Pierston. When the novel begins he’s a young man of 20 with dreams of becoming a famous sculptor. The novel doesn’t follow Jocelyn for every moment in his life, but instead focuses on three critical periods. These episodes occur at twenty year intervals and involve romantic relationships with three generations of women from the same family.
In the first episode, “budding sculptor” Jocelyn has been away from home for over three years. He returns to the “isle” which is really a peninsula, the “Gibraltar of Wessex” to visit his father. My battered old Oxford Classics version contains several useful maps of Hardy’s Wessex, and these maps help to illustrate the isolation of Jocelyn’s native region. This is important as the issue of intermarriage between “island” families rears its head later in the novel.
When Jocelyn returns, he meets Avice Caro, a sweet-natured young woman who lives in a nearby cottage. She was a child for their last meeting years before. Jocelyn is immediately taken with Avice, or should I say immediately intoxicated and obsessed. Jocelyn’s problem, and I’m going to call it that since it does plague Jocelyn throughout his life, is that he suffers from a “migratory, elusive idealization he called his Love.” For as long as Jocelyn can remember this emotion, this feeling “had flitted from human shell to human shell an indefinite number of times.” We know there are going to be problems when we read the list of women Jocelyn considered The One–only to discover that feeling rapidly vaporise. And that’s exactly what happens with poor Avice Caro. She falls in love and commits herself to Jocelyn, but she’s disappointed in love when his transitory idealization moves on all too swiftly to another woman.
Each of the three critical periods in Jocelyn’s life is a period of crisis as he thinks that he’s finally found the ideal woman. That’s not to say, however, that these are the sole occasions that he imagines he’s finally found his ideal as this obsession is an on-going non-stop problem. But at these twenty year intervals we as readers see how Jocelyn is faring in his “pursuit of the Well-Beloved.”
To his Well-Beloved he had always been faithful; but she had had many embodiments. Each individuality known as Lucy, Jane, Flora, Evangeline or whatnot, had been merely a transient condition of her. He did not recognize this as an excuse or a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps 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.
Jocelyn is not initially a particularly sympathetic character. He sees the damage he causes, the human debris he leaves behind as his attention flits like a butterfly from one woman to another, and in spite of the fact he recognizes that he has a problem, he makes no effort to curb this flaw. He fails to grasp the lasting consequences of his actions although he breaks hearts and alters lives while he moves on unscathed. In later years, however, when he ages and the tide turns, Jocelyn becomes much more sympathetic for his shifting obsessions which deny him true involvement with life, companionship, passion and at least a shot at happiness.
One of the considerations here must be Jocelyn the Artist. Is part of his desire to seek eternal perfection in Woman connected to his sculpting? Does he seek the physical embodiment of the artist’s muse? He objectifies the women he attracts even as he minimises the results of his actions.
As I mentioned earlier, The Well-Beloved is not a perfect novel. There are times when the author discusses Jocelyn’s search for the perfect woman in very awkward terms. For foreign readers, the dialect that makes Hardy at times rather difficult, is at a minimum here.
In some ways this is a novel about contrasting attitudes to love and this is seen best contrasted through the friendship of Jocelyn and the painter, Somers–a man who states:
“You will be caught some day, my friend,” Somers would occasionally observe to him. “I don’t mean to say entangled in anything discreditable, for I admit that you are in practice as ideal as in theory. I mean the process will be reversed. Some woman, whose Well-Beloved flits about as yours does now, will catch your eye, and you’ll stick to her like a limpet, while she follows her Phantom and leaves you to ache as you will.”
“You may be right; but I think you are wrong,’ said Pierston. “As flesh she dies daily like the Apostle’s corporeal self; because when I grapple with the reality she’s no longer in it, so that I cannot stick to one incarnation if I would.”
“Wait till you are older,” said Somers.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this tale is that Jocelyn ages, but the image of his “Well-Beloved“stays the same. Thus she becomes more and more elusive as Jocelyn leaves youth behind and refuses to compromise in his quest.
Although I have a paperback copy, this novel is also available FREE on the Kindle.