Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Well-Beloved

The Well-Beloved
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 13+

This comparatively short novel was first published as a serial in 1892. It is known now in the revised version of five years later, which in a way makes it later than Jude the Obscure and thus Hardy's "last" novel. Typically as to Hardy's body of work, it portrays a tragic romance that challenges traditional sexual morals such as, in this case, monogamy. Added to this is a poetic sense of fate, giving the storyline a touch of magical symmetry, like that of a fairy-tale or a folk legend. At the center of the tragedy is a sculptor named Jocelyn Pierston, whose eye for beauty is both a gift and a curse. For, whether you read it as a literal truth or merely as the self-justifying whimsy of a faithless man, he considers himself the faithful lover of an ideal of womanhood—he calls her the Well-Beloved—who possesses one woman after another, never staying long in the same fleshly tabernacle.

And so we look in on Jocelyn's career at three stages in his life: as a young man of twenty, a young man of forty, and a young man of sixty. You know he doesn't deserve it, but the years are kind to him. He really keeps most of his youthful good looks, so that even at sixty women find him reasonably attractive, and would be surprised to learn his true age. But he pays dearly for this, and for his artistic eye. It begins when he jilts a girl from his native Isle of Slingers (based on the Isle of Portland in Dorset, U.K.), a lovely being named Avice, with whom he has been a sweetheart off and on since childhood. Breaking their engagement to be married proves to be the great mistake of his life, but he is carried away by an appearance of the Well-Beloved in the statuesque figure of Marcia. Their marriage plans don't come off either, so Jocelyn throws himself into his art.

Twenty years later, and another twenty years again, we drop in to find Jocelyn being captivated by successive generations of Avices. Both the daughter and the granddaughter of the original captivate him as much as the original. A sad sense that the first Avice was really the love of his life, and regret for things that should have been but can never be, smolders beneath the tragedy of a man whose true love passes between three generations of the same family. The wrong that he did to the first Avice is repaid with interest—and with a beautiful symmetry that an artist must appreciate—as Pierston's desire to possess their great beauty is denied again and again. And when the vision finally deserts him, it is such a strange mixture of blessing and injury that it will stir both thought and feeling.

I read this book by way of Robert Powell's audiobook narration. In a medium I have known to reach fifty CDs, this book fit comfortably on six disks. Within these very modest dimensions, however, Hardy brings to life a memorable and distinct corner of his fictional county of Wessex: a wind-tousled, surf-spattered spit of stone, haunted by history, inhabited by gritty folks who have intermarried every-which-way and who all know each other's business. It is a striking setting for a tale that touches on the brevity of youth's bloom of freshness and beauty, the sportive pranks of a genius that endures through one fleeting representative after another, and the length (for some) of a life full of regret.

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