A Laodicean is, I'm afraid, another Hardy I could have done without: very unfortunate, as this came hot on the heels of The Trumpet Major, another Hardy novel I didn't care for. But there it is: not many authors produce greatness at every single attempt!
A Laodicean was first published in 1881: the title refers to one who is "lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics" (according to Merriam-Webster), neatly summing up Paula Power, the central character of the novel. She is, I do believe, the least appealing and least charismatic character not only out of Hardy's novels, but all novels, and I dare say all people (she would even strip John Major of his nickname "the grey man" were she a real person). One thing I must say though is Hardy was not a well man when he was writing it, and I do believe he was dictating it to his wife Emma.
The novel tells the story of the aforementioned laodicean Paula, and the two men she can't decide between: George Somerset, an architect who represents the 'modern' in the novel (who she first meets whilst refusing to be baptised), and Captain De Stancy, the son of the former owner of Paula's home, a medieval castle in Somerset, who represents the 'old ways'. Paula thus is quite literally torn between the old and the new. Things get yet more complicated when William Dare, the illegitimate son of De Stancy (a most dysfunctional relationship, this), intervenes on De Stancy's behalf to besmirch Somerset's reputation in the most modern of ways: photographs that make him appear intoxicated (these misleading photographs are commonplace today: see Ed Miliband's infamous bacon sandwich moment for a shining example) and falsified telegrams. The question is will Paula find out? Another question: would it matter anyway, to Paula, to Somerset and De Stancy, and to me, the reader? That I can answer: it would not.
Hardy in A Laodicean is not so much 'Homer nodding' as 'Homer in a drunken stupor'. This may sound particularly harsh given Hardy's ill-health, but Hardy did recover and go on to write Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and some of the finest poetry in the English language. Furthermore it does not follow that once something is written it ought to be published. It was a disaster - not well received at all. What saves it, in my eyes, is this always interesting description of this bridge between modernity and tradtion and the dilemma and even apprehension of embracing the new. That alone kept me going, but it was not quite enough to save it.
And so I would say, this novel is only for die-hard Hardy fans, or for anyone who wishes to discover what the most irritating final sentence in a novel is. It is absolutely not for anyone who hasn't read Hardy before - though I didn't care for The Trumpet Major, A Laodicean really does put it into perspective.
Next on my Hardy reading list: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). I am very nervous now!