In Albert C. Baugh’s A Literary History of England (1967), the following comment appears: ‘criticism of A Laodicean... is disarmed by the fact that, having been contracted for, it was composed during convalescence from a severe illness. It is quite worthless.’1 What does it mean to make such an absolute negative judgement? At bottom, that the novel simply does not fit the critical stereotype of Hardy as the great tragic novelist of ‘Character and Environment’ and of ‘Wessex’. Indeed, together with The Hand of Ethelberta, A Laodicean is probably the most execrated and disregarded of all Hardy’s novels. Even more recent sympathetic editors and critics have presented it as ‘certainly not one of Hardy’s great novels’; ‘an experiment that failed’; as providing ‘little evidence of the imaginative fire which characterizes Hardy at his best’; grudgingly, ‘not the complete failure it is usually taken to be’.2 What these commentators commonly propose is that the novel is, nevertheless, part of the great man’s work; and so its ‘very crudities have an interest, and invite comparison with the finer workmanship in other novels’; ‘it possesses an intrinsic interest to any student of his mind and methods of writing... but... more important... a number of the technical problems which he set himself, but failed to solve here, found more complete and satisfactory expression in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure’.3 Please note — for I will return to the point — that the ‘crudities’ and ‘failed technical problems’ are not regarded as fundamental components of Hardy’s fictional discourse, but simply as showing up the ‘finer’, ‘complete and satisfying expression’ of later and/or greater works.
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