When I did my English Major at Cap, my concentration was English Lit., as in the literature of England. And while this inspired my deep love for Jane, and Paradise Lost, and I read many wonderful Shakespeare plays, we didn't get to a few authors (we're talking about more than a thousand years of lit--that's gonna happen). One of them was Thomas Hardy, who wrote Tess of the D'Ubervilles. So I took it upon myself to read him.
I've read Tess, as well as The Mayor of Casterbridge, and just finished one of his early novels, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Hardy's novels take place in the fictional country of Wessex, usually, but this one is based near the seacoasts of Plymouth (also known as the home of Mr. Pratt in S&S).
Our heroine (because there is always a heroine in Hardy) is Elfride Swancourt (yes, a rather outlandish name), the daughter of the local curate. She has led a fairly sheltered life, which is abruptly upended with the arrival of a Stephen Smith, a young London architect who has come to assist Rev. Swancourt in the renovation of his parish church.
Elfride falls in love with him, and he with her. But her father does not approve because Stephen is the son of servants on the nearby Luxellian estate--indicating that he is of low class, and therefore unfit to marry Elfride. The two try to elope, by Elfride panics and returns home. Stephen heads to India, where he swears to make his name and fortune, and thereby make himself worthy of marrying Elfride.
While Stephen's gone, Rev. Swancourt marries a rich, local woman, whose cousin, Henry Knight, comes for a visit. But Mr. Knight was also Stephen's former tutor, and has taught him Latin and how to play chess, among other things. Initially uninterested in Elfride, he falls in love with her, too! Elfride eventually falls for him, but cannot break her secret engagement to Stephen.
In the third part, Knight and Smith meet up and realize they both loved the same girl. They go back to her home to find her and confess their love.
Whoops--they find out that Elfride has married Lord Luxellian (she was very close to his two small daughters) and has died, all in the space of five months. They are too late, and instead stand over her grave, remembering the woman they both loved.
Now, Hardy's novels do tend toward the slight ridiculous, but I enjoyed this one. Elfride is a lovely character--a young woman coming into maturity, and torn between what is right to do, and what her heart tells her. I would have chosen Stephen, because he's nicer and closer to her age. Henry is sort of a curmudgeon.
It's easier to read than Tess and Casterbridge (although I recommend those, too), and is a good way to start investigating this author.