I read a Penguin Classic edition that contained not just The Well Beloved, but also The Pursuit of the Well Beloved. But I did not read the original version but only this one. Hardy wrote the book between Tess and Jude, but heavily modified it after the publication of Jude.
The book is quite difficult to interpret. My introduction was by Patricia Ingham, which was a fairly conventional pomo-feminist interpretation. The book is about how men view women, at least in part, and the text exists in two radically different versions, so it was easy to write a pomo-feminist introduction, but I found it very unhelpful.
What attitude to take about what is going on, is quite difficult. In it the main character "falls in love" with three generations of women all of whom bare the same name, before marrying a fourth woman he had jilted earlier. His love for the three women named Avice is linked to his career as a sculptor. The three generations of women with the same name, give the book something of the flavour of a fairy tale and its fusion of the fairy tale with the 19th century realist psychological novel reminded me of Silas Marner.
In some sense or other the book is clearly about the platonic idea of different individual objects standing in as imperfect realizations of an ideal. Strangely, the book seems to suggest that what makes the main character a good sculptor is this pursuit of the ideal, however in his personal life he is somewhat of a fool and the women carry on their lives slightly affected by his behaviour but in some sense utterly oblivious to that ideal, which is presented as delusional. This all carries on until the main character abandons the pursuit of Avice, enters into a marriage with an elderly near invalid, abandons sculpture and becomes concerned about public sanitation.
That whole structure and message is very difficult to interpret. It could be read as an attack on the utility of art, but that is a little incoherent in an experimental and literary novel. It is also clearly about men's objectification of women and specifically sexual objectification, but presents it as ineffective and slightly ridiculous. The central character is neither particular sympathetic or villainous. It has a bit of the flavour of a satire about it.
I found it all a little hard to understand. It is still worth reading, but it lacks the seething emotional intensity and pessimism of Hardy's greatest works.
Hardy at his most baffling.