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Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy

January 5, 2012 18 comments

Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy. First published in 1871.  It is out of print in French but used copies are available.

But loving is not done by months, or method, or rule, or nobody would ever have invented such a phrase as “falling in love.”

Desperate Remedies is my third Hardy in twelve months. I’m now reading them in chronological order and this one has been published in 1871. I read the 1896 edition, reviewed by the author. According to his foreword, he mostly changed names of places to be consistent with his other works and create a plausible Wessex.

The first chapter takes place in 1835-1836. The young Anbrose Graye stays in London with a friend and falls in love with Cytherea Bradleigh. When he makes his love known, she refuses him for no understandable reason. Although Ambrose will marry and have two children, he will never forget her. His daughter is named after his lost love and his children Owen and Cytherea know about his first love story.

Then we move forward. Mrs Graye passes away in 1861 and Ambrose Graye dies in an accident in 1863. His children discover he poorly managed his fortune and that they are left without resources. Owen is a learning architect and they move away to Budmouth Regis where Owen has found a temporary position at an architect’ office. Cytherea is resolved become a companion or a maid and advertises to find employment.

Edward Springrove works in the same office as Owen and soon the two men befriend. Edward and Cytherea fall in love and he moves to London to make a career and be able to support a family. When Edward leaves, the reader knows he has a secret which may prevent him from marrying Cytherea. Meanwhile Cytherea is hired as a maid by Miss Aldclyffe in Knapwater House. Miss Aldclyffe hires her on a whim despite her lack of references. She has an instable temper,

Like Nature in the tropics, with her hurricanes and the subsequent luxuriant vegetation effacing their ravages, Miss Aldclyffe compensated for her outbursts by excess of generosity afterwards.

Cytherea isn’t quite at ease with her, living in the fear of her outbursts. Cytherea soon discovers that Miss Aldclyffe is actually Cytherea Bradleigh. The older woman recognizes the daughter of her former lover in her young companion. Both women know they are linked by Ambrose Graye but they don’t mention it. Then with no apparent reason, Miss Aldclyffe intrigues to hire Mr Manston as her steward. She pushes Cytherea in his arms while doing everything to erase in her any memory of Edward Springrove. We know that a secret bond ties Miss Aldclyffe and Mr Manston. She’s fond of him and he has some sort of power over her. What is that secret? Things get complicated for the pretty Cytherea when Mr Manston falls madly in love with her and when she discovers that Edward has been engaged to his cousin Adelaide for years.

The novel is full of twists and turns, unlikely Victorian coincidences, secrets and passion. I totally fell for it. The last third of the story is particularly suspenseful and I didn’t expect it in a novel by Hardy. It was a great read, recreating, well-written and with the right dose of thoughtful visions of humanity.

It’s not without flaws though. I could feel Hardy was at his beginnings. His talent isn’t fully developed, especially in characters descriptions. But the roots of his future masterpieces are already there: the subtle irony (She was, at the distance from which they surveyed her, an attractive woman (…). But to a close observer it was palpable enough that God did not do all the picture.), the little statements on life (A great statesman thinks several times, and acts; a young lady acts, and thinks several times.), the exploration of human flaws and especially the impact of passionate characters on their life and the poetry of some descriptions. (Their hearts could hardly believe the evidence of their lips.)

In addition, I recognized elements I’d already noticed in The Mayor of Casterbridge and Life’s Little Ironies: the power of music that carries someone away and results in an impulsive and stupid move, the importance of a tiny decision in sealing a future, sex and desire (Concentrated essence of woman pervaded the room rather than air.) in a society where it was improper for a man to give his chair to a woman because she’d feel his body warmth on it.

I thought the author put something of himself in Edward Springrove, relaying his thoughts in the character’s mind (I often think, that before I am ready to live, it will be time for me to die.) and making fun of his own ambitions as a poet:

Poetical days are getting past with me, according to the usual rule. Writing rhymes is a stage people of my sort pass through, as they pass through the stage of shaving for a beard, or thinking they are ill-used, or saying there’s nothing in the world worth living for.’ ‘Then the difference between a common man and a recognized poet is, that one has been deluded, and cured of his delusion, and the other continues deluded all his days.’

He also employs self-irony and slightly mocks the strings he pulls to move the plot forward.

Whether, as old critics disputed, a supernatural machinery be necessary to an epic or no, an ungodly machinery is decidedly necessary to a scandal.

As always, I enjoyed Hardy’s insight and hindsight. All these little sentences spread in the text change a banal page-turner into a great novel. Highly recommended except if you have a strong allergy to coincidences and secrets. My next Hardy will be Under a Greenwood Tree.

 

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