Painting Thomas Hardy’s Novels: Elfride and Stephen Fall in Love

Dr Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury presenting a series of paintings inspired by the novels of Thomas Hardy
Dr Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury with her paintings at the Thomas Hardy Society study day A Pair of Blue Eyes, at The Corn Exchange, Dorchester, in March 2018. A version of this series of blog posts was first presented at this conference.

After completing her PhD in December 2017, Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury decided to turn her critical knowledge of Thomas Hardy into visual art, and to develop paintings inspired by Hardy’s third novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. In this first of a series of four posts and paintings, she explains how the project got started and introduces us to Stephen and Elfride.

A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) is a particularly interesting novel to consider as inspiration for paintings. Thomas Hardy’s ability to present the ‘vivid apprehension of a visual experience as an accompaniment to intense emotion or a moment of crisis’, as Norman Page puts it, can be observed repeatedly in the novel. This is particularly true of the famous cliffhanger scene, which has been regarded by critics like Carl Weber as ‘the first indication in the novels, of Hardy’s ability to sustain interest in a tense situation by the sheer power of vivid description.’

The vivid descriptiveness of Hardy’s words remained the characteristic feature of his literary technique throughout the rest of his novelistic career. I decided therefore to explore Hardy’s visuality through paint, to lend colour to the words, of A Pair of Blue Eyes.

At the heart of the novel resides a love triangle between a young woman Elfride and her two suitors: Stephen Smith, the socially inferior, but upwardly striving young man who adores her and connects her with her country past, and Henry Knight, the respectable, established, older man, who represents London society. In true Hardy-esque fashion, Elfride is torn between multiple expectations (those of the men, her parents, and society) and the varying hues of her own desires, which are also contradictory and confusing.

Elfride and Stephen Fall in Love

Painting of Stephen and Elfride at the piano. Stephen in a dinner suit gazes into the eyes of Elfride, dressed in striking blue.
Copyright (c) Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury.

The first scene I chose to paint was the moment Stephen found himself falling in love with Elfride. When Stephen first sees Elfride, she is ‘in the prettiest of all feminine guises, that is to say, in demi-toilette, with plenty of loose curly hair tumbling down about her shoulders.’ Quite soon after their first meeting he requests her to sing to him, and she obliges:

Selecting from the canterbury some old family ditties, that in years gone by had been played and sung by her mother, Elfride sat down to the pianoforte, and began, “Twas on the evening of a winter’s day,’ in a pretty contralto voice.

‘Do you like that old thing, Mr. Smith?’ she said at the end.

‘Yes, I do much,’ said Stephen – words he would have uttered, and sincerely, to anything on earth, from glee to requiem, that she might have chosen.

And during the span of a few mellow tunes in Elfride’s lilting voice, Stephen falls in love with her – the moment immortalized by Hardy in an epic snapshot in words:

Every woman who makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene, which seems ordained to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his memory… Miss Elfride’s image chose the form in which she was beheld during these minutes of singing, for her permanent attitude of visitation to Stephen’s eyes during his sleeping and waking hours in after days. The profile is seen of a young woman in a pale gray silk dress with trimmings of swan’s-down, and opening up from a point in front, like a waistcoat without a shirt; the cool colour contrasting admirably with the warm bloom of her neck and face. The furthermost candle on the piano comes immediately in a line with her head, and half invisible itself, forms the accidentally frizzled hair into a nebulous haze of light, surrounding her crown like an aureola.

There is a strong undercurrent of eroticism in the frozen moment of contemplation from Stephen as he gazes at Elfride at the piano, suddenly shifting his position from her right hand to her left, squeezing himself into a nook and gazing wistfully into Elfride’s face:

So long and so earnestly gazed he, that her cheek deepened to a more and more crimson tint as each line was added to her song.

Hardy, in his signature style, brings this significant, intimate moment of his characters’ lives alive through his words and creates a vision that I have attempted to reproduce in paint, showing Elfride and Stephen by the piano, exchanging a shy smile and a moment of light flirtation. Elfride, in a most un-Victorian fashion in my rendering, is even flashing a bit of stockinged ankle and calves!

The relationship between Stephen and Elfride is an uneven one as he is conscious of the difference in social rank between himself and her, and comes to idolize her, calling her his ‘queen’ and vowing to die for her. Elfride finds this power imbalance exhilarating, ‘a proud moment’ when ‘[s]he was ruling a heart with absolute despotism for the first time in her life’. Their brief romance comes to a symbolic end, as Elfride remains an unattainable ideal for the insufficiently masculine Stephen, who is defeated symbolically in chess by Elfride, and defeated in his ambition to marry her by the social prejudices of her father. Stephen is quickly replaced by the formidable opponent appropriately named Knight who makes a strong statement in another series of chess games which become, for Elfride at least, a sexual battleground, defeating her easily. The cards have turned and it is Elfride now who is the damsel in distress needing to be saved by the Knight: ‘She had, indeed, given up her position as queen of the less to be vassal of the greater’.

In the next post in this series, Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury evokes the famous ‘cliffhanger’ scene. 

About the Author

Sreemoyee’s PhD thesis was a metacritical survey of the criticism on Sue Bridehead’s portrayal in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, from the time of its publication in 1895 to now. The project engaged with over one hundred years of literary criticism to show how analysis of Sue’s portrayal functions as a Rorschach test, making readers and critics commit to certain positions, thus creating a plurality in the critical responses.

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