Did Thomas Hardy Base Elfride Swancourt, the Heroine of A Pair of Blue Eyes on His Fiancée Emma Lavinia Gifford?

Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Emma Lavinia Gifford, aged 30 (1870). This photograph is reproduced with the kind permission of the Dorset County Museum. Click on picture for a larger image.

Even though Thomas Hardy asserted that he had sketched the outline of the novel's plot long before he met Emma Lavinia Gifford in March of 1870, various correspondences exist between his fiancée, an excellent equestrian with literary aspirations, and the heroine of his third published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, even though Elfride Swancourt is at least ten years younger. In Hardy (1994), Martin Seymour-Smith dismisses the tendency on the part of many Hardy enthusiasts over the years to identify Emma as the original of Elfride as "mostly superficial, and [concludes that ] Elfride cannot be taken as an exact portrait, except of Emma's appearance and circumstances and certain of her characteristics" (154). She and Horace Moule, whom Hardy acknowledged to be the basis of Stephen Smith's rival, Henry Knight, never in fact met, so that Seymour-Smith's conclusion seems reasonable when applied to the novel's plot. However, in an interview with Saturday Review editor George Dewar shortly after Emma's death in 1912, Hardy admitted that Elfride's character was "largely" drawn from that of his late wife in the early days of their courtship; that "court" is the latter part of the heroine's surname may allude to that engagement, although the implications of the homonym "caught" cannot be overlooked in connection with the pursuit of Elfride by four men.

Paul Turner in The Life of Thomas Hardy (1998) points out that the sum of two hundred pounds that Stephen deposits in Elfride's St. Kirrs Bank account from his work in India may have been suggested to Hardy by the advance that he himself negotiated with William Tinsley for writing the serial and three-volume novel that he would re-title A Pair of Blue Eyes. Further, Turner notes that Emma's snobbish father (John Attersoll Gifford) was at least as contemptuous of Hardy's proposal for his daughter's hand as is Rev. Swancourt of Stephen's. Turner speculates that the incident on the Cliff-Without-a-Name (in reality, Beechy Head on the English Channel) may have had its origin in a near-fatal accident that had befallen Emma at Tintagel. He concludes that "it was doubtless the heroine's association with Emma that made Hardy so fond of this particular novel" (36).

Neither Seymour-Smith nor Turner seems to have been aware when writing their biographies of Sulieman Ahmad's determination that Emma assisted Hardy materially in the composition of the novel by making fair-copy of his rough drafts and even by editing the diction of a number of passages. Biographer Robert Gittings convincingly argues that the fledgling novelist in 1872 mined his own conversations and correspondence with Emma Gifford for some pieces of Elfride's dialogue:

if more of Emma's letters and diaries survived, it is likely that the resemblance would be startling. For instance, one of the few fragments from an Emma letter to Hardy is her comforting comment on her attitude toward such a reserved and withdrawn character as Hardy was:

I take him (the reserved man) as I do the Bible: find out what I can, compare one text with another, & believe the rest in a simple lump of faith.

In the middle of the novel, when Elfride is talking to the reserved and withdrawn literary man, Knight, who becomes unknowingly the younger architect's rival, she says

I suppose I must take you as I do the Bible--find out and understand all I can; and on the strength of that, swallow the rest in a lump, by simple faith.

Since this is copied into the novel with only minor transpositions of words, we probably have a great deal of Emma's actual sayings in Elfride's dialogue, if we could recover them. [Gittings, 235-56]

Although it is unlikely that the magazine illustrator met either Hardy or his fiancée during the period when the artist was working on A Pair of Blue Eyes, the similarity of the Elfride of the early plates and the Emma that the young architect Thomas Hardy encountered when he rang the bell at the St. Juliot Rectory on the night of Monday, 7 March 1870 is interesting: Gittings (echoing Hardy's own recollection) speaks of her as "a full-bosomed creature with a high colour, bright blue eyes and masses of blonde hair" (180). Even if Hardy may have found his new title for the novel in Sir Toby's drinking song in Act Three, Scene Three, of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, a London production of which the novelist may well have seen in the summer of 1872 (Ahmad, Notes and Queries 24: 430), it is highly unlikely that Elfride's most stunning feature, her "bright sparkling blue-gray eyes" (A Pair of Blue Eyes, Ch. II) bear no relationship to Emma's since the opening chapters of the novel "are a word-for-word reconstruction of [Hardy's] own first experience of the St. Juliot Rectory" (Gittings 235).

References

Ahmad, Suleiman M. "Emma Hardy and the MS of A Pair of Blue Eyes." Notes and Queries 26 (1979) : 320-322.

_____. "Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes and Sheridan's The School for Scandal. Notes and Queries 24 (1977) : 430.

Gittings, Robert. Young Thomas Hardy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Hardy. London: Bloomsbury, 1994.

Turner, Paul. The Life of Thomas Hardy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.


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Last modified 19 July 2003