A Laodicean
or, The Castle of the De Stancys.
A Story of To-Day.

by Thomas Hardy

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Harper's Magazine, December 1880 - December 1881

Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington: London, 1881
312 + 276 + 268 pages; b&w illustrations

Henry Holt: New York, 1881

January 2014

An uncertain romance or a half-hearted novel?

The odd thing about A Laodicean is that Thomas Hardy doesn't seem to have written the novel he thought he was writing. Of course any artist capable of complex and subtle situations is likely to include undertones of which he isn't consciously aware; but in this case, Hardy clearly states his intent in the title. Thus his heroine is uncertain or half-hearted by nature, and this is reflected in her feelings and actions.

The meaning comes from the Bible; the Revelation to John includes the following message to the Church in Laodicea, a Roman Empire city with a tepid water-supply, on the partly subterranean river Lycus in western Anatolia:

14  "And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 'The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation.
15  "'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!
16  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
17  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
18  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.
19  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.
20  Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
21  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
22  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'"

Revelation 3:14-22
Bible: English Standard Version  (ESV)

In earlier novels, Hardy also deploys the pejorative "Laodicean" with more-or-less churchly mentions in Desperate Remedies (1871), Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1874).

The heroine of the novel at hand, Paula Power, is the "Laodicean" of the title. There is an explicit discussion of her stern Baptist heritage, and her vacillation on the brink of taking the plunge. So here is a precise application, although given what we early learn of the heroine, we may question whether a belated recognition of principle is vacillation or a maturing and firming of character. Hardy himself seems to suggest it is the latter. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible calls the church of Laodicea "the last and worst of all the seven Asian churches", which would be quite harsh if extended to Paula.

We have assorted other instances of Paula's wavering or changing her mind, which do comprise reasonable allusions to the titular theme. But now we have a problem.

The main line of the story is a romance, with Paula's suitors being Somerset, an architect under consideration to fix up De Stancy Castle which her late father, a railroad builder, purchased from a declined family; and De Stancy, heir to the title but not to the castle or lands. Somerset represents modernity, De Stancy is tradition. Paula loves her old castle but has installed a telegraph line and instrument, which she operates herself, to keep her connected to London and the world. Surely this is one of the earliest fictional examples of telegraph operation by a woman on her own behalf, and exemplifies her decisively communicating modern ideas into a medieval setting.

In the vital heart of the novel, the romance, Paula is not uncertain, indecisive, lukewarm, or half-hearted. There are a plethora of occasions of mis-communication and mal-communication — she is deceived and otherwise lied to — so it is no wonder that the hopeful course of love is wayward. Paula herself is clear enough, guardedly warming as she goes. Paula is cautious and circumspect, as becomes a proper young Victorian maiden; her love is delayed, hindered, baffled, and diverted by circumstantial confusion and by others' dishonesty — but I would not call this Laodicean.

The completed novel overran its planned length by a third, and would have benefited hugely from thinning the to-and-fro journeys and chases in the West of Europe during the latter part of the book, as F. B. Pinion points out in A Hardy Companion. Hardy's characters are clear and striking, if less riveting than his best; we have some interesting aspects of practical architecture and working architects, and there are flashes of fine landscape. The main weakness is in Hardy's own wavering or uncertain authorial tone, as though the to-and-fro journeys and chases represented his own feelings.

The sun blazed down and down, till it was within half-an-hour of its setting; but the sketcher still lingered at his occupation of measuring and copying the chevroned doorway — a bold and quaint example of a transitional style of architecture, which formed the tower entrance to an English village church. ...

There are few in whom the sight of a sunset does not beget as much meditative melancholy as contemplative pleasure, the human decline and death that it illustrates being too obvious to escape the notice of the simplest observer. The sketcher, as if he had been brought to this reflection many hundreds of times before by the same spectacle, showed that he did not wish to pursue it just now, by turning away his face after a few moments, to resume his architectural studies.

The sentiment above comprises part of the paragraphs beginning the novel, stamping a tone of melancholy finality upon a prospect of creative and industrious activity in a pleasantly warm and bright landscape. We must make allowance for Thomas Hardy being almost mortally ill during the composition of A Laodicean. My own recurrent impression at the beauty of a sunset is of its beauty. The undergoing of the Sun in glory at the close of a day, completes that day only.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

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