When Elfride Swancourt meets Stephen Smith, she is attracted not only to his handsome face and gentle bearing but also to the sense of mystery which surrounds him. Distressed to find that the mystery consists only in the humbleness of his origins, she nonetheless remains true to their youthful vows. But societal pressures, combined with the advent of the intellectually superior Henry Knight, eventually displace her affections. Knight, however, proves to be an uncompromising moralist who, obsessed with fears about Elfride’s sexual past, destroys her happiness.
In writing of this poignant struggle between classes and sexes, Hardy drew heavily on his own relationships with his family, fiancée, and closest friend. In the Introduction to this new edition, Pamela Dalziel discovers fascinating parallels between Hardy’s life and his art, and probes the paradoxes lying behind his portrayal of these complex characters and the society which shapes them.