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#93 A Laodicean - Thomas Hardy (1881)

Although I had read this before, it was one of the Hardy novels that I hadn’t remembered which is nice – as it is rather like coming to it for the first time. Hardy was an architect before he was a novelist and again in this novel we have a young architect who appears to resemble the young Hardy.

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.

One of the things I so love about Hardy is what is often called his pastoral scenes, and as this is not in any way a pastoral novel, I did miss that a bit. A Laodicean is rather an unusual Hardy novel, in some ways it doesn’t feel quite like I expect a Hardy novel to feel, although I did enjoy it very much. There is something rather reminiscent of Francis Brett Young in A Laodicean. When I have read Brett Young novels, I have often fallen into describing them as being a little Hardyesque. There were moments in this novel that put me rather in mind of Francis Brett Young’s ‘White Ladies’. One recurring theme in many Hardy novels of course is the demise of traditional ways of life juxtaposed with the new world that was emerging at that time. A Laodicean is very much about that new world, there is no nostalgia for the old.
The Laodicean (someone whose beliefs are “lukewarm”) of the title is Paula Power (even the character’s name to me has a more modern sound to it) who longs to be a part of the modern world. Her father made his fortune as a railway contractor, and bought the ancient castle De Stancy, that Paula is passionately determined to restore. Paula has the telegraph connected to the castle – and uses it all the time in the course of the story.
George Somerset is a young architect – who is invited to compete for the chance of the commission to restore the castle, falls in love with Paula. George represents the new nobility of “talent and enterprise.” However the brother of Paula’s great friend Charlotte De Stancy – of the ancient aristocratic family that once owned the castle – returns, and aided by his villainous illegitimate son, sets out to win Paula for himself, by any means. Paula likes the idea of being a De Stancy, but is drawn to George from the start. As so often with Hardy heroines, Paula keeps her options open in matters of the heart, although in every other way knows her own mind completely and is a strong modern woman. The various machinations of De Stancy and his son allow this fast paced novel to become quite a page turner – and for me it was a quicker read than I might have expected.
In a novel which sees the frequent use of telegraphing and photography and where characters journey back and forth to the continent with the ease that characters in other novels journey to Casterbridge, the feel is altogether different. Although central to the story, Paula is seen through the eyes of others far more than she is observed by the reader, and so she is seen at something of a distance.
This could never be my favourite Thomas Hardy novel, but it is interesting for its differences and really very readable. Hardy was obviously interested in the new technologies that were all around him, I can imagine him meeting someone who had a telegraph in their home – and finding out all about it, how it worked, maybe having a go at sending a message – boys and their toys! Maybe things don’t change that much after all.
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