Saturday 12 September 2015

Review: A Laodicean, Thomas Hardy (1881)

The title page to Hardy's A Laodicean (1881)
The subtitle of Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known 1881 novel, A Laodicean, is ‘A Story of To-day’. This nods to one of the main points of difference between this novel and much of Hardy’s canon – nostalgic, and so often a swansong for a dying rural way of life.

A Laodicean is a novel whose plot relies on modern technology – on an exchange between lovers carried out via telegraph (and as fraught with misunderstandings as many text conversations today), on an altered photograph (possible even in the art’s early years, pre-Photoshop), and on the ability for its characters to race around Europe, almost colliding with each other in a series of missed connections.

The heroine at its centre, however, Paula Power, is, like Hardy, not so sure whether her loyalties lie with the past or the future. The daughter of a self-made railway magnate, she nevertheless lives in the decayed splendour of Castle de Stancy, a mediaeval pile fallen into dilapidation, and finds herself increasingly attracted to the hereditary grandeur it represents.

What is Paula? Low church or high, practical or romantic, a representative of a new ruling class or a new-moneyed misfit lacking the necessary refinement for her role as mistress here? These questions are at the heart of Hardy’s story, and are played out most obviously in Paula’s choice of husband.

"But, My Dear Lady, You Promised", George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
There is young George Somerset, an architect with youth and ambition to recommend him, but then again there is handsome army captain William de Stancy, older, morally questionable, and surrounded by the reflected glory of his family’s antiquated past.

Readers hoping for emotional access to Paula as she makes her choice though are doomed to disappointment. The novel’s title comes from an early Christian church, the Laodiceans, addressed by John in the Book of Revelation thus:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Paula too remains lukewarm throughout the novel, inspiring sexual passion, rather than feeling it, and coming down on the side of modernity apparently more through chance, and the delinquent past of the aristocracy, than through any strong feeling for the modern age (and Somerset).

"What An Escape!" He Said., George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
This makes the novel feel, at times, like a comedy or errors (complete with villains who are either weak, scarred, or illegitimate), with only hints of Hardy’s usual tragic touch. Charlotte de Stancy, William’s sister and Paula’s confidante, and the castle itself are the martyrs to the coming age, with the happy couple blind to the suffering of the former, and in disagreement over the fate of the latter.

In the closing paragraphs of the novel, Somerset and Paula have the following conversation

[Somerset]: “We will build a new house from the ground, eclectic in style. We will remove the ashes, charred wood, and so on from the ruin, and plant more ivy. The winter rains will soon wash the unsightly smoke from the walls, and Stancy Castle will be beautiful in its decay. You, Paula, will be yourself again, and recover, if you have not already, from the warp given to your mind (according to Woodwell) by the medievalism of that place.”

[Paula]: “And be a perfect representative of ‘the modern spirit’?” she inquired; “representing neither the senses and understanding, nor the heart and imagination; but what a finished writer calls ‘the imaginative reason’?”

I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice to say, it is the indecisive Paul who is given the final word.

De Stancy Screened Paula With His Umbrella As They Stood With Their Backs To The Wind., George Du Maurier, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1880)
If you decide to read A Laodicean, you’re in for an uneven experience – expect irritating characters, an unsatisfying conclusion, and a tedious lovers’ correspondence which you could say, with some justification, finds a modern equivalent in the email drama of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). But you’ll find here too an unusual premise, a heroine who defies stereotypes, some breathtaking prose, a rich display Hardy’s architectural knowledge, and insights into the very modern world of the 1880s.

Have you read A Laodicean? I’d love to know what you thought of the novel. Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I read it many years ago, so I remember little of it, except that I thought it was not like any of his other novels. What was most familiar was the sense of place in the work, always a strong element in Hardy's works.