Painting Thomas Hardy’s Novels: Elfride Watching the Ship

Copyright (c) Sreemoyee Roy Chowdhury.

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 third in a series of four posts and paintings, she visits another scene that complements the cliffhanger of her previous post.

Hardy’s beautifully graphic descriptions of the cliff-faces and vales and ridges of Cornwall in this novel grasped my imagination so powerfully, that I felt a strong urge to choose another cliff scene for the third painting. The scene I chose was that of Elfride standing on the cliffs with her telescope to try and spot Stephen’s ship returning from India. I have taken more artistic liberties with this scene and departed from the description in the novel slightly to romanticise the scene more and render it as I visualised it while reading the novel.

In the novel, Elfride is depicted as being out on a walk with Knight by “The Cliff With No Name” and they watch the arrival of Stephen’s boat together, and this episode is immediately followed by Knight’s cliff-hanger scare.

In the painting, I have depicted a solitary figure, Elfride, in a flowing dress, with her long hair tumbling down in cascading locks and embracing her form, standing on the edge of a cliff face, telescope in one hand to catch a glimpse of the ship that is bringing Stephen back to familiar shores from India. As the ship draws nearer, increasingly gaining in shape, size and clarity and moving smoothly towards her over the calm seas, Elfride drops the telescope and continues watching it with an intermingling sense of anticipation and dread.

Hardy’s Elfride  is not a docile homebody: she is intimately familiar with the craggy coasts, vales and cliffs of the wild Cornish landscape, and roams the fields and hills, on foot, or on horse, in rain or in sunshine. Hardy describes her ‘slight girlish figure’ and her ‘impulsive, inconsequent’, and changeable temperament, suggesting a flightiness about her personality, a certain recklessness. Moreover, we detect a hint of sexual adventurousness about her, in the way she rides alone through the countryside sometimes spending the night away from home, which makes her a likely candidate to trudge up a cliff-face on her own, armed with a telescope to see if she can spot the ship that promises to bring Stephen back to shore.

See the other posts and paintings in this series. Tomorrow, the lost earring. 

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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