‘Gifted, even in November’: the Meanings of The Well-Beloved

  • Michael Irwin


The opening of The Well-Beloved will strike seasoned Hardy-readers as familiar. Place, time and season are specified. The location is the Isle of Slingers — very obviously Portland Bill. It is ‘about two o’clock, in the middle of the summer season’. Along a steep, dusty road walks a solitary pedestrian, revisiting his native place after an absence of several years. But the landscape appears strange to him:

What had seemed usual in the isle when he lived there always looked quaint and odd after his later impressions…. The towering rock, the houses above houses, one man’s doorstep rising behind his neighbour’s chimney, the gardens hung up by one edge to the sky, the vegetables growing on apparently almost vertical planes, the unity of the whole island as a solid and single block of limestone four miles long, were no longer familiar and commonplace ideas. All now stood dazzlingly unique and white against the tinted sea, and the sun flashed on infinitely stratified walls of oolite….1

Usually Hardy’s pedestrians traverse open country of a kind to be mentally visualised in terms of, say, a Constable landscape. Here Jocelyn confronts the strange geometry of an obstructive, populated rock, visually flattened and stylised after the manner of Cézanne. The strong verticals are offset by the implied horizontality of the ‘single block of limestone’. Hardy is signalling to the reader that this particular novel will be atypically distanced from the conventions of realism. As the narrative unfolds, the hint is developed: the Isle of Slingers is to be predominantly a figurative locale, characterised by ‘eternal saws… going to and fro upon eternal blocks of stone’ (12).


Serial Version Romantic Love Subsequent Reference True Love Stratify Wall 
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  1. 1.
    The Well-Beloved, ed. Tom Hetherington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 9. Subsequent references to this edition are given in parenthesis.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 522.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Far from the Madding Crowd, ed. Suzanne B. Falck-Yi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 100. Subsequent references to this edition are given in parenthesis.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    The Woodlanders, ed. Dale Kramer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 89.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 305. Subsequent references are given in parenthesis.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    See the Introduction to The Well-Beloved, ed. J. Hillis Miller (New Wessex Edition: London, 1975), p. 17.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Robert Graves, The White Goddess (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 24. Subsequent references are given in parenthesis.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2000

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  • Michael Irwin

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