I’ve reached a stage in my career as a professional reader in which I feel free to pick up books and read them on a whim. Although I’m very serious about my reading–in fact, I find it very difficult to belong to a book club precisely because I cannot give up my freedom about what I will read and when I will read it–I no longer plan my reading along a program or a goal. For example, I used to try to read all the Dickens novels I’d missed, which is how I got through Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge, which are not bad novels, but certainly not Dickens’s best. (In fact, Americans especially might get a kick out of Chuzzlewit, because apparently not much has changed since the book was published; Dickens is a pretty harsh judge of American society.) These days, however, I just grab a book at random, or for the silliest of reasons.
I still focus on the Victorian novel in my spare time, even though I’ve been making forays into early 20th-century American literature, necessitated by the fact that I’m teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway. In this way, I’ve read The Good Soldier, The Sun also Rises, and The Great Gatsby in recent weeks. Of the three, I like Hemingway’s the best and think it the most important of the three works. I even tried watching the new film version of The Great Gatsby, and found, to my family’s disgust, that I needed to add it to my list of movies I could not watch: thirteen minutes into the film, my loud and muscular critique of it forced them to eject the DVD and hastily seal it in its envelope, to be mailed the next day. I didn’t even make it long enough to see Gatsby himself.
Last year at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Hardy is a bit late for me, as a scholar: I tend to focus more on early Victorian, even pre-Victorian novels than on the end of the period. But somehow I got the notion that in one of Hardy’s novels, he has a heroine, or perhaps a supporting character with my middle name–Avis. Aside from the car rental business, it’s a rare name, and I’ve always been curious about this character whom I’ve never encountered.
That’s why I picked up the novel, but not why I kept reading it. In fact, there is no character named Avis in the book, although the heroine’s name is the equally, or perhaps even more, unusual “Elfride.” (I will have to keep looking for Avis in his other novels, apparently.) A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy novel, and it contains some obvious weaknesses. For one thing, coincidence plays much too great a role in the novel. In addition, it’s garishly melodramatic: in the middle of the novel, a character falls off a cliff, and proceeds to dangle there while the heroine partially disrobes to make him a means of escape, giving rise to the term “cliff-hanger,” according to Wikipedia. But the end of the novel is lovely surprise, with a whisper of the kind of non-judgmental proto-feminism that Hardy will later become known for in Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
A Pair of Blue Eyes may not be as important a novel as Bleak House or The Sun also Rises, but it’s pleasant reading, and well worth the time spent on it during a season of relentless snow and ice. I look forward to the next Hardy novel I’ll be reading: Two on a Tower.