The Well-Beloved was Thomas Hardy's penultimate novel, though it was only collected into book form in 1897, after Jude the Obscure had already been published, having previously been serialised in the Illustrated London News five years earlier. After the scandal surrounding Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Hardy had promised his editors that this work would be suitable for all the family. Modern audiences might disagree, but more on that anon.
Scculptor Jocelyn Pierston returns from That London to his home on the Isle of Slingers (Portland). The novel follows him at the ages of 20, 40 and 60, falling in love with three generations of the same family. Hardy classified the story as a fantasy, evoking the myth of Pygmalion nearly two decades before George Bernard Shaw named a play after its main character.
It is a sign of changing attitudes that Tess treating a woman who had been seduced and abandoned by her lover as a blameless victim was hugely controversial in its day, while a 60-year-old man getting engaged to the granddaughter of his college-age girlfriend was not. It seems in that in late Victorian England, you were on far safer ground treating women as mythic archetypes than as flesh-and-blood human beings.