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he Well-Beloved was published serially with illustrations of Walter Paget as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved: A Sketch of a Temperament, simultaneously in the Illustrated London News and Harper’s Bazaar from October 1 to December 17, 1892. The text was considerably revised and reissued in book form in March 1897 as the seventeenth volume in Osgood and McIlvaine’s edition of the Wessex novels. Although Hardy conceived the idea of the novel much earlier, some sketches of The Well-Beloved can be found in the writer’s diary in 1884 and 1889 (Florence Hardy 215, 285), he finally decided to publish it in book form almost a decade later when aestheticism began to permeate English fiction. Therefore, The Well-Beloved can be regarded as Hardy’s last novel.

Three illustrations of the novel by Walter Paget. Left: Jocelyn began his narrative. Middle: Jocelyn Sprung Up To Leave the Room. Right: "I am very, very sorry!" Jocelyn exclaimed." . [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The novel, which is thematically significantly different from Hardy’s previous Wessex novels, was underestimated for a long time. D.H. Lawrence described it as “sheer rubbish” (189). Albert J. Guerard dismissed it as “not the worst book ever published by a major writer. But it is certainly one of the most trivial” (68). Recent criticism has paid more favourable attention to this minor novel which reveals an artist’s frustrated craving for the eternal feminine ideal and permanence in love. In her book, Thomas Hardy and Desire: Conceptions of the Self, Jane Thomas describes The Well-Beloved as “an intensely personal novel, dealing as it does with the artist’s struggle to create, out of the raw material of life, an art that will exceed or transcend the limits of its form, and gives access to what Lacan calls a transgressive jouissance” (145).

Although the novel’s style is sometimes awkward, it presents a very original and unusual exploration of the relationship between romantic, idealised love and art. The artist lover makes a quest for the eternal feminine ideal, his Well-Beloved, in three generations of women and eventually fails to find it. The novel also gives some clues to the understanding of Hardy’s lovers in his major fiction and in his personal life.

The Well-Beloved, set in the limestone Isle of Slingers (the old name for Portland in Dorset), one of the most remote parts of Hardy’s Wessex, and occasionally in London, concerns the sculptor Jocelyn Pierston, who quests for an incarnation of perfect beauty in a woman. In the Preface, Hardy describes the peculiar characteristics of the island:

The peninsula carved by Time out of a single stone, whereon most of the following scenes are laid, has been for centuries immemorial the home of a curious and well-nigh distinct people, cherishing strange beliefs and singular customs, now for the most part obsolescent. Fancies, like certain soft-wooded plants which cannot bear the silent inland frosts, but thrive by the sea in the roughest of weather, seem to grow up naturally here, in particular amongst those natives who have no active concern in the labours of the ‘Isle’. Hence it is a spot apt to generate a type of personage like the character imperfectly sketched in these pages — a native of natives — whom some may choose to call a fantast (if they honour him with their consideration so far), but whom others may see only as one that gave objective continuity and a name to a delicate dream which in a vaguer form is more or less common to all men, and is by no means new to Platonic philosophers. [3]

Jocelyn, the son of a well-to-do stone-merchant who lived at East Quarriers, in the Isle of Portland, becomes attracted successively to three generations of women: at 20 he falls in Platonic love with Avice Caro, his boyhood sweetheart; next at 40 with her daughter Anne Avice, whom he calls Avice, and at 60 with her granddaughter, another Avice, who resembles her grandmother only physically. His romances are never fulfilled by marriage. As an artist, he looks for form and not personality in each of the women. Eventually, Jocelyn turns to an old flame and local beauty, Marcia Bencomb, the daughter of his father’s greatest rival in the stone trade, whom he met years ago on the island. She nurses him through a severe illness and after recovery he settles down in Portland, where Marcia lives too. Having realised that his relentless pursuit for the Well-Beloved was fruitless, Pierston marries the aged and invalid Marcia although he is not in love with her any more.

The titles of the three parts of the novel (“A Young Man of Twenty,” “A Young Man of Forty,” and “A Young Man of Sixty”) suggest that Jocelyn wants to remain young like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. However, Pierston’s pursuit for the Well-Beloved always vanishes before the real fulfilment because he is attracted not by a real woman but by his own notion of feminine beauty.

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 as a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps of 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. [16]

The basic theme of this semiautobiographical Künstlerroman (a novel about an artist) is not merely sexual desire or infatuation, but the quest for the platonic ideal of perfect female beauty, the Eternal Feminine. Pierston compulsively tries to find in each of the women his unattainable ideal of a woman. As the narrator says:

The study of beauty was his only joy for years onward. In the streets he would observe a face, or a fraction of a face, which seemed to express to a hair's-breadth in mutable flesh what he was at that moment wishing to express in durable shape. He would dodge and follow the owner like a detective; in omnibus, in cab, in steam-boat, through crowds, into shops, churches, theatres, public-houses, and slums — mostly, when at close quarters, to be disappointed for his pains. [50]

Finally, Pierston gives up his obsessive pursuit for the Well-Beloved because he has come to realise that the Eternal Feminine ideal exists only in his artistic imagination and not in real life. The concept of the Eternal Feminine, introduced by the German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe at the end of Faust, roused the imagination of many artists and writers. The Eternal Feminine impersonated beauty, truth, pure love, as well as the sublimated sexual energy. The Platonic and pagan sources of the Eternal Feminine, which idealised an immutable concept of woman, were particularly attractive to Hardy’s philosophical and artistic views. He believed, it seems, that men and women have different, invariable features that cannot be altered by time or environment. In his major novels Hardy sought for the essence of femininity in his memorable characters such as Bathsheba, Eustacia, Thomasin, Tess, and Sue.

Clearly, this novel resembles a kind of modern allegory or fable like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Typically, Jocelyn, like most Hardy’s characters fails to experience a lasting and satisfactory love relationship. His romantic love, or rather infatuation, is essentially narcissistic (Hyman 145). As Thomas Hetherington observes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel:

The search for an Ideal at the expense of the real was not a new concept for Hardy. Angel Clare in Tess of the d'Urbervilles has some of the same qualities as Pierston. He loves Tess ‘dearly, though perhaps rather ideally and faincifully’. At the time of her marriage to Clare, Hardy describes her as ‘a sort of celestial person . . . one of those classical divinities Clare was accustomed to talk to her about’. After Tess’s fatal confession to Clare, Hardy tells us that ‘Clare’s love was doubtless ethereal to a fault, imaginative to impracticability. With these natures, corporeal presence is sometimes less appealing than corporeal absence; the latter creating an ideal preset that conveniently drops the defects of the real’. Fitzpiers in The Woodlanders is introduced by Hardy as a man who ‘much preferred the ideal world to the real’ and his name seems to be deliberately recalled to the reader by Pierston’s in its revised spelling. Knight, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, ‘loved philosophically rather than romantically’. All demand a particular kind of perfection from the women of their choice; all are themselves disastrously flawed as lovers; and all eventually become aware of this. [xiii]

Likewise, Geoffrey Harvey points out that

this schematic fable contains a strong element of psychological realism in the way Hardy traces the compulsive rhythmic patterns of obsession and reveals its underlying insecurities. There is a deep fear of personal commitment behind Jocelyn’s passivity as a lover and his discovery that his hauntings are always fleeting. A generous and humane man, he embarks on a spiritual quest that is accompanied by perpetual frustration and genuine suffering. His urge to return to the place of his birth, the Isle of Slingers (Portland), is symptomatic of a search for a deeper sense of identity. The symbolic solidity and changelessness of the Isle of Slingers is a point of reference for charting Jocelyn’s increasing sense of the transience of life, as Hardy tactfully shifts the focus of the narrative from the migration of ideal beauty from woman to woman to the preoccupation with lost love, and the bitter recognition of the ineluctable truths of age. [111]

The motif of platonic love in The Well-Beloved is similar to that expressed by Percy Bysshe Shelley in “Epipsychidion” and in Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. In 1926, Hardy noted in his diary this striking resemblance, alluding that Proust might have been inspired by his novel. There is no evidence, however, that Proust is directly indebted to Hardy for the motif of platonic love but nevertheless, Hardy may have exerted some influence on Proust. Contrary to his major novels, The Well-Beloved is not much preoccupied with human predicaments or social issues, but as John Fowles has written in the Foreword to The Magus, it is the “most revealing of all modern novels about novelists” (10). In turn, Michael Ragussis points to a striking affinity between The Well-Beloved and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita:

Humbert’s crazy fantasy of the three Lolitas (from “Lolita the First” to “Lolita the Third”) has as its model a novel in which the same girl is in fact reincarnated over three generations. In Hardy’s The Well-Beloved (which Nabokov would have known at least through Proust’s discussion of it in A la recherche)… Hardy’s “nymph” shares with Nabokov’s “nymphet” a similar list of literary ancestors: Laura, Lilith, Eve, and so on. And, as in Lolita, Hardy’s allegory depends on the failure of the “specimen”. [328]

In his essay, “Hardy and the Hag,” John Fowles draws attention to an affinity between Pierston’s life and that of Thomas Hardy. In The Well-Beloved Hardy may have also expressed his own perceptions of ideal femininity. In his youth Hardy had been attracted by his three maternal girl-cousins: Rebecca, Martha, and Tryphena Sparks. Before he married Emma Guildford, she appeared to him as his Well-Beloved. However, gradually his fascination waned and he looked for feminine ideal in other women. A series of beautiful women including Mary Scott-Sidons, Helen Matthews, Rosamund Tomson, Florence Henniker, Helen Patterson Allingham, Lady Agnes Grove, Gertrude Bugler, and Florence Dugdale, respectively, could have become the reincarnations of the Well-Beloved.

However, the main concern of this “pre-Freudian pre-Freudian fable” (James R. Baker in Vipond 191) is artistic creativity or an allegory of self-realisation. Hardy’s aesthetic ideas in The Well-Beloved bring him close to those of John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, and Walter Pater. Besides, as Jane Thomas has observed in the introduction to the novel’s Wordsworth edition: “The Well-Beloved is also Hardy’s self-conscious novel because it is about the artistic temperament and the process of artistic creation” (x). In fact, the novel masterly reveals the author’s attempt to epitomise his artistic and erotic imaginations. Hardy revived Ovid’s famous story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue of a woman he had carved out of ivory. “The Well-Beloved subverts the myth of Pygmalion by asserting Galatea’s right to a fully independent existence” (Thomas xx). Thus, Hardy’s last and least realist novel anticipates the modernist debate about the relationship between art and gender.


Fowles, John.The Magus. London: Picador, 1988.

___. “Hardy and the Hag,” Thomas Hardy: After Fifty Years, ed. Lance St. John Butler.

London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978, 28-42.

Guerard, Albert J.Thomas Hardy: The Novels and Stories. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949.

Hetherington, Tom. Introduction to Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. New York: Macmillan, 1928.

Harvey, Geoffrey. The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

Hyman, Virginia.Ethical Perspective in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. London: Kennikat Press, 1975.

Lawrence, D. H.Selected Literary Criticism. London: Heinemann, 1956.

Ragussis, Michael. Acts of Naming: The Family Plot in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Thomas, Jane. Thomas Hardy and Desire: Conceptions of the Self. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

__. Introduction and Notes to Thomas Hardy, The Well-Beloved with The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved (1892). Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2000.

Vipond, Dianne L., ed. Conversations with John Fowles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

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Created 13 October 2015