Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy, 1871
Tralala. Whoopee. Thomas Hardy!
Today is a good day. I get to introduce you to my favorite author, Thomas Hardy. Imagine me doing back handsprings. I can’t actually do back handsprings, so we will both have to use our imaginations. Also, we have entered a new decade. This is the first post about a book written in the 1870s. Progress. Hurrah!
Because TH is my favorite author, I intend to review every last one of his novels. All seventeen of them. We will also cover much of his poetry and a few collections of short stories. Before we get started, I must mention one feature of his writing. He created an imaginary region in southwest England, called it Wessex, and set most of his novels there. The towns mentioned in his novels are real towns, given new fake names. For example, important events in Desperate Remedies take place in Budmouth, Wessex which is actually Weymouth, Dorset. I’m not exactly sure how this information would be useful to you, dear reader, but if you hear me mention Wessex, you will know that I am referring to Hardy’s fictional county, not to the ancient kingdom. His books are set in the Georgian and Victorian eras, not the Viking Age.
Ok, let’s dive into Desperate Remedies. . . with a spirit of generosity. This is Hardy’s juvenilia, after all. His great works are yet to come. It’s actually Hardy’s second novel, his first one was lost. After The Poor Man and the Lady was rejected by five publishers, he abandoned and later destroyed it. Apparently it was too politically controversial. If I remember correctly, Hardy yearned for commercial success, because he felt that earning money by his writing would win his wife’s respect. He had a rocky marriage. I usually don’t spend much time learning about the lives of authors, because why waste time reading a biography when you could read another novel? However, I intend to listen to an audiobook of a Hardy biography, because he’s my favorite and while I don’t believe that context is necessary to enjoy good art, I also don’t believe that it detracts from understanding or enjoyment.
Anyway, after the ill success of his first novel, Hardy attempted a sensational novel that he hoped would sell. It didn’t and it was not well received by critics either. It is my opinion that those critics were very silly and they almost ruined Thomas Hardy as a writer, which would have been a tragedy. I think Desperate Remedies is quite good. Sure, it doesn’t have the substance of his great later works. Sure, it’s plot driven, but the plot is fabulous. Also, Hardy has the best words. Furthermore, one can see the seeds of his characteristic social criticism. Little seeds that will sprout and grow into giant sequoias of artistic merit. Those seeds are scattered lightly throughout Desperate Remedies, but they are there. There they are. I love them.
I was going to summarize the plot for those of you who do not have time for the lesser works of great authors, but I decided against it. That’s how much I believe in the merit of this book. It’s not the greatest, but it’s certainly good enough to be worth reading. Instead of the plot, I offer you this list of its merits:
- Scandalous secrets.
- so many, so scandalous. I’m talking children out of wedlock. That’s huge in the Victorian era and probably the reason the novel wasn’t received well.
- A dramatic opening sequence in which the poor, darling heroine witnesses the sudden, accidental death of her father.
- That heroine is named Cytherea Graye. Because Thomas Hardy is the best at naming characters. Absolute best. Prepare yourself for the character names that will come at you from his other novels.
- Without their father’s income, Cytherea and her brother, Owen, are forced to make a living for themselves. What? A novel in which the lovely heroine must concern herself with such sordid mundanity as money? Yes. Thomas Hardy actually writes about a woman earning a living. Who else in the English canon thus far draws a wage? Jane Eyre, that’s who. Just Jane and Cytherea as of yet. Oops, and the other Bronte governesses. They wrote about three total governesses. Still a rarity to see a woman earning her way in the world.
- Cytherea stands up for herself. . .until her brother’s life is on the line, which is the only inducement that makes her go against her own will. To be fair, she’s not a brilliant heroine. She’s quite likable and more self-driven than many others, but she won’t blow you away. This is meant to be a commercial, sensational novel. Such novels require sweet, innocent heroines to be tossed about by fate. Cytherea fits that bill better than I could wish, but I try not to hold it against her too much.
- A sex worker is portrayed sympathetically in this novel. Yes! 1871. We struggle to do that in 2017. A character shows up who is clever and resourceful with a sordid past. Hardy does not pass judgment. Quite refreshing.
- A sweet romance that is forestalled by circumstance and the cunning machinations of two opportunistic characters.
- A mystery so complicated that at one point a man attempts to hide his crime and is followed by not one, not two, but three different people who intend to uncover that crime.
- Smatterings of insightful prose. Not as dense as in his later novels, but not to be overlooked. For example: “Graye did a thing the blissfulness of which was only eclipsed by its hazardousness. He loved her at first sight.” or “There is in us an unquenchable expectation, which at the gloomiest time persists in inferring that because we are ourselves, there must be a special future in store for us, though our nature and antecedents to the remotest particular have been common to thousands.”
- The book is meant to be a romance, but Hardy can’t help letting his cynicism about love sneak in. Such as when he eloquently suggests that Cytherea becomes infatuated with Edward Springrove because her life was relatively empty and she had little else to think about. Or when he expresses a lover’s longing thusly “He looked at her as a waiter looks at the change he brings back.”
- Hardy has a talent for expressing the significance of small moments. That talent is evident in this as well as his later novels. This might be a sensational novel, but it is symbolically rich.
- A hint of Hardy’s later criticism of gender roles “Of all the ingenious and cruel satires that from the beginning till now have been stuck like knives into womankind, surely there is not one so lacerating to them, and to us who love them, as the trite old fact, that the most wretched of men can, in the twinkling of an eye, find a wife ready to be more wretched for the sake of his company.” That being said, I must admit that Hardy was not as woke when he wrote Desperate Remedies as he was later in life. You will be frustrated when Cytherea demonstrates that she considers herself less important than the men in her life.
You might like Desperate Remedies if:
- you like a scandalous, thrilling plot, but you also like good writing
You might not like Desperate Remedies if:
- your standards are very, very high
Final Thoughts: It’s not the best Thomas Hardy book, but it’s still very good. It contains a number of thrills for people who are thrilled by excellent prose and for those who are thrilled by intrigue and mystery. Let me stop equivocating. I love this book. If you can’t handle Thomas Hardy at his worst, you don’t deserve him at his best.