Knight Exacts Explanations
James Abbott Pasquier
Tinsley's Magazine, Vol. XII, chapters XXXII-XXXVI, p. 316
Illustration for Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes
11.4 cm wide and approximately 17.6 cm high
[See commentary below]
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"Knight Exacts Explanations" -- (Vol. XII, chapters XXXII-XXXVI) [p. 316 in the Penguin edition] --is a condensed version of "Elfride did not even now go on with the explanation her exacting lover wished to have, and her reticence began to irritate him as before. He was inclined to read her a lecture. Why don't you tell me all?' he said, somewhat indignantly" from serial chapter XXXII (the first of five in the June 1873 instalment). In fact, the plate may well illustrate the entire "cross-examination" scene on that October evening in the church, which covers several pages of letter-press, beginning with "Rays of crimson" and ending with "She made no reply" (Penguin 315-318) Aside from the scene of the putative wedding that the couple contemplate as occurring here ("this place we sit on is where we may hope to kneel together soon," as Knight remarks), the plate calls into the reader's mind three previous scenes, namely Hardy's introduction of the church in Ch. IV, Elfride's pique on the church tower in Ch. XVIII, and the description of Felix Jethway's tomb of startlingly white stone by which Stephen fruitlessly awaits Elfride in Ch. XXIV.
The caption (not an exact quotation) of the plate and Elfride's apparently calm manner erroneously lead the reader-viewer to conclude as the tenth instalment opens that she will finally reveal the extent of her intimacy with Stephen and name him as the second lover. However, her downcast gaze, her failure to look Knight in the eye as she had intended to confront the Widow Jethway, and the rubble of stone tracery at her feet--betokening the destruction of the tower, representing the edifice of their relationship, for she describes Knight as her "strong tower" (Ch. XXXI, Penguin 313) in the letter-press just before the literal tower of Endelstow Church collapses after repeated assaults on its integrity--are subtle indications that she fails to satisfy the "exacting" Knight. Her inability to address Knight's chief concern, that she is "second-hand" (Penguin 322), lacking in virginal "freshness" (Penguin 321), and possibly even as a marriageable commodity damaged goods because she has already acquired the carnal knowledge he does not possess, stems from some natural delicacy, or diffidence, rather than from any willful determination to avoid telling the truth. Knight's failure to elicit the truth under the depicted cross-examination is all the more ironic given his profession, but middle-class morality prevents him couching the appropriate question. The failure in communication which the tenth plate depicts is the result of the characters to understand what the other means, a failure in the complementary acts of speaking and listening that reflects their defective understanding of how each other thinks. The narrator notes her failure to grasp that "had she been more assertive to any degree, he would not have been so peremptory" (Ch. XXIII, Penguin 320).
As Jo Devereux remarks in "Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes: The Heroine as Text" in the spring 1992 number of the Victorian Newsletter, "Elfride's inarticulateness dramatizes her enforced exclusion at the level of language from the 'male' realms of thought and action" (21). Elfride's reticence to express herself succinctly in oral communication is all the more surprising in one who, at the beginning of the novel, wrote better sermons than her clergyman-father, but that activity seems connected to Elfride's ability to put words into others' mouths (as in the writing of the romance The Court of King Arthur's Castle) rather than her own. The tenth and eleventh plates underscore ElfrideÕs gradual movement under KnightÕs influence from independence in behaviour, thought, and utterance "to the silence and stasis" (Mary Rimmer, "Gender in A Pair of Blue Eyes," 209) of the Luxellian tomb, which of course lies where Elfride is unconsciously gazing in the tenth illustration--underneath the church floor.
The picture fails to dramatise the feelings of either of its subjects. Though determined to please Harry, Elfride defends her right to have a past (minimal though it may be in terms of relationships), and identifies by name neither the lover in the tomb (Felix Jethway) nor his successor (Stephen Smith). Nor does Pasquier capture Knight's frustration and indignation that Elfride is not "telling all"; he may be, as the caption suggests, an "exacting lover," but his courtroom-style of questioning yields him scant information about Elfride's romantic history. At the end of this stressful session in the church where they had thought to marry, Knight is none the wiser about the clandestine train journey to London. However, even though Hardy concludes Ch. XXXII with "She had not told," the reader anticipates that over the course of the four chapters remaining in the tenth instalment Knight's Fabian tactics will succeed.
The rubble at Elfride's feet reminds us (once we have encountered the passage realised) that the church tower has recently fallen of its own accord. The chunk of fractured stone tracery underscores the significance of the emotional stress to which Knight is subjecting Elfride, who had likened her fiancé to "a strong tower" in alluding to Psalm 6: 13 in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in response to her more learned lover's quoting Milton's Paradise Lost to reproach her for having deceived him about her never having had a relationship prior to meeting him: "Fool'd and beguiled: by him thou, I by thee!" (X, 880). Hardy's choice of quotations is highly appropriate to his conception of the characters of Elfride and Knight, for although she is unread in the great works of the English canon, as a clergyman's daughter (and writer of sermons) she knows the Bible well, while he, "the London literary man," enjoys flaunting his having read widely and his status as writer, critic, and reviewer for The Present. The passage from Milton which he quotes establishes his puritanical nature and misogynistic bias, while her quotation from Psalms reveals her complete emotional dependence upon Knight, and carries the reader back to her "freak" on Endelstow Tower, when he saved her from falling. Immediately after their exchange of quotations the literal tower collapses, just as Knight's love for Elfride has suffered a fatal blow by her revelation of previous "lovers." Since the couple were to have been married in Endelstow Church, its decaying arches and rubble-strewn pavement depicted in the tenth plate are consonant with Harry's subsequently canceling the engagement later in this penultimate instalment, when, having read the Widow Jethway's scathing indictment of his fiancée's sexual conduct and Elfride's note which seems to confirm the truth of the letter's accusations, Knight dismisses her ˆ la Paradise Lost, in the garden.
Taking his cue from Hardy's description of the couple's heads being illuminated by the hues of the "saints and angels" from the east window, behind the heads of the characters Pasquier has created haloes of light as if to imply that both are without blame, honourable and well-intentioned, and that circumstances alone are antagonistic to their happiness. A modern reader's construction of Harry Knight's conduct is far less sympathetic, while that reader will probably wholeheartedly endorse Elfride's notion that her fiancé should simply "drop" (Penguin 320) his investigation into her romantic past because, as she unequivocally asserts, he has "no right to question [her] so" (Penguin 321). Elfride, even according to the socially conservative narrator, is blameless except for a lack of candour; rather, the "smashing of [the] bright illusion" (Penguin 322) we assign to the intrusive Knight, who is anything but chivalrous in his treatment of his beloved. A modern reader's response is that he had no right to create and harbour such an "illusion" in the first place since a real woman has more complexity and substance than a stained-glass effigy. That a contemporary reader, encountering this scene in Tinsley's Magazine or in the final published text of the novel would not have been so severe in his or her evaluation of Knight here is supported by the review of the volume form of the novel in the Spectator for 25 October 1873, which praises Hardy's thorough "comprehension of the force and straightforwardness of her lover's [Knight's] utterly different and strictly manly characteristics" (cited in Pettit, page 3).
Devereux, Jo. "Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes: The Heroine as Text." Victorian Newsletter 81 (Spring 1992): 20-23.
Pettit, Charles P. C. "Merely a Good Hand at a Serial? from A Pair of Blue Eyes to Far from the Madding Crowd." The Achievement of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Phillip Mallett. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Macmillan and St. Martin's, 2000. Pp. 1-21.
Rimmer, Mary. "Club Laws: Chess and the Construction of Gender in A Pair of Blue Eyes." The Sense of Sex: Feminist Perspective on Hardy. Ed. Margaret R. Higgonet. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Pp. 203-220.
Last modified 12 August 2003