Cliffhanging with Thomas Hardy

a pair of blue eyes

A Pair of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy, 1873

Famous for:

  • allegedly creating the term and concept of the cliffhanger

Thomas Hardy’s third novel is a simple story that I have complicated feelings for. This is gonna be a doozy.

The central concern of A Pair of Blue Eyes is the romantic history of Elfride Swancourt. As I have said before, Thomas Hardy is the king of character names. Young Elfride is the daughter of a country vicar. Here’s a summary of her love life:

  • A young farmer named Felix Jethway completely misconstrues some comments and actions of Elfie’s. He thinks she cares for him. She does not. He sneaks up behind her and kisses her. The fact that she didn’t tell her father and have him, I dunno, whipped or something, is later tossed in her face as evidence that she had accepted him as her sweetheart. Does wordpress have an eye-roll emoji? Felix dies of consumption. His mother, the Widow Jethway, blames Elfride for her son’s death.
  • A young architect, Stephen Smith, stays with the vicar while planning church repairs. He and Elfie fall in love. Her father encourages the match until he discovers that Stephen is not the London gentleman he seems to be, but the son of local cottagers. British English is perhaps superior to American English. We don’t have a word for people who live in cottages. More to the point, Elfride’s father forbids them from marrying. Stephen, determined to win the right to his sweetheart’s hand, decides to go to India where the competition among architects is less stiff and a man can rise quickly in the world. To ensure that they remain true to each other, he persuades Elfie to run away and marry him in secret. She begins the process, but has second thoughts about defying her father and begs Stephen to return her home. He does so, but the journey back to Endelstow—Thomas Hardy is also great at place names—takes so long that Elfride is OUT ALONE WITH A MAN OVERNIGHT. Her nemesis, the Widow Jethway, sees her on the train and has the power to ruin Elfride.
  • Elfie meets Henry Knight who happens to be Stephen’s friend and mentor. They play chess. She rescues him from death! They fall in love and she forsakes Stephen for Mr. Knight. The freakin’ Widow Jethway vents her ire upon Elfride by sending Knight a letter describing her overnight trip with Stephen in an uncharitable light. Knight forsakes Elfride.
  • Elfie’s handsome neighbor, Lord Luxellian, needs a mother for his children since the last one croaked. He picks Elfie because his little girls like her. He grows to love her passionately. Sadly, Elfride dies just five months after their marriage.

Elfride’s love life is a good deal less complicated than Lady Mary’s, but she certainly has more betrothed suitors than any girl in English literature so far. For me, the novel succeeds in parts and fails spectacularly in others.

A Pair of Blue Eyes Successes:

  • Elfride has some charming and unique personality traits. She is smarter than her father and writes his sermons for him. I really love that detail. She’s very good at chess. She also cares for finery and flattery, which I’m ok with, because the stereotype that smart girls don’t care about their looks is silly. I doubt there is any correlation between IQ and vanity. Hardy also succeeds at painting Elride’s romantic vacillations in a sympathetic light. Knight might judge her, but the reader is not meant to, which I appreciate.
  • The cliffhanger scene is wonderful. The book was originally published serially. Hardy left Knight literally hanging from a cliff between installments. I mean, on my second read through I was upset that I had to go to work with Knight hanging there. Elfride goes behind a bush, takes all her clothes off, puts the outer layer back on and rips up her petticoats to make a rope that saves her beloved.
  • The wild, rugged, Wessex landscape is beautifully described. Hardy’s skill as a novelist developed greatly between his second and third books. I can see elements of his capacity for working meaningful aphorisms into a text. He can be wise, but is generally so in a way that fits the story he has created so tightly that the aphorism loses most of its power out of context. Subtle details of plot, characterization and style are vastly improved over the atrocity that is Under the Greenwood Tree.
  • Hardy’s capacity for situational humor emerges. For example, in the churchyard Stephen chooses the flattest tombstone to sit on with Elfride. They have an intimate courtship conversation and plan their future. Stephen eventually asks her if anyone else has ever loved her before. She confesses that someone did (Remember Felix Jethway?) They banter on about it for a while. This conversation ensues:

‘“Where is he now?” he continued to Elfride.

“Here.”

“Here! What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that he is here.”

“Where here?”

“Under us. He is under this tomb. He is dead, and we are sitting on his grave.”’

I love my silly Elfride so much for kissing her new love on the grave of her old admirer.

  • I appreciate how Hardy humbles Stephen and Knight at the end of the story. I won’t describe exactly how he does it, but it’s quite a brilliant twist in the narrative.

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes Failures

  • Thomas Hardy wants us to see Elfride’s third suitor, Henry Knight, as an intelligent, humble, super moral guy. A hero that the reader should admire. Um, no. Nope. Henry Knight is the worst. He might be smart, but he’s an intellectual snob who publishes silly articles professing his own wisdom and moral superiority. Hardy wants us to see him as humble, but he’s actually so conceited that when he fears dying he thinks “such an experiment in killing might have been practiced upon some less developed life.” Because he thinks uneducated people are so far below him that they deserve to die more than he does. I could give many more examples of why Knight is a foul hypocrite and I will, upon request. I loathe him particularly because of his need to be “the first comer in a woman’s heart.” What is this? Why? I am supposed to admire this man for being a 30 year-old who is determined to marry a young, innocent, teenage virgin? What is there to admire in that? Nothing! Perhaps he can’t bear comparison with another lover. Perhaps he can’t bear the intellect and wisdom of a woman his own age. Perhaps he’s just a fetishist obsessed with virginity. I guess a lot of Victorians were. There’s nothing admirable in it. Nothing valuable in wanting to be with someone inexperienced. I loathe him. I love Elfride for standing up to him when he rejects her for having a previous lover with this sobbing speech “Am I such a—mere characterless toy—as to have no attract—tion in me, apart from—freshness?” She continues on from there, but that is her most cogent point. Exactly, Elfride! You got him. I will repeat, there is nothing admirable in Knight’s failure to recognize Elfride’s true value, because he is too busy being enraptured with the idea of “fresh lips” to kiss. Revolting.
  • Elfirde has significance only in her relation to men. I will provide two examples. First, her characterization changes when she is with different men. When Stephen courts her, Hardy portrays her as too smart and worldly for him. When Knight shows up, suddenly she’s not smart anymore. She becomes abjectly submissive to this “great” man. I know, barf. Other than that one despairing moment quoted above, she is nothing like the Elfride of the early pages of the novel. Secondly, after Stephen and Knight hear of Elfride’s death they bicker about who has the greater right to grieve for her. A woman has died! They are in the presence of her coffin and still using her as a chip in their male dominance game.

Here’s a little quote that I like:

He drew himself in with the sensitiveness of a snail.

 

Final Thoughts: I feel so ambivalent about this book that I can’t say whether I like or dislike it in total. I think I like it, but only a little. Anyway, I am certainly glad to have read it. Twice. Maybe three times; I can’t remember.  While I may have told you just about all there is to know about the plot, there’s a world inside this book and if you choose to read it, you’ll find plenty more than what I have described. Thomas Hardy is great and some of the elements of his greatness are on display in A Pair of Blue Eyes for all its flaws.

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Lesbian Vampire!

carmilla

Sheridan Le Fanu

Horror is back! We missed you. I haven’t read a horror story since the Romantic era. I was eager to love Irish author, Sheridan Le Fanu. I tried. His most noted work is the vampire short story “Carmilla,” which is ok. Everything else I read by him was dreadful.

I was hoping he’d be great, so I started at the very beginning with his 1872 collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly, which is the preferred Bible quote for people trying to be cryptic. Le Fanu sets up a narrative double blind, ostensibly one physician is providing us with his colleague’s notes. The colleague, Dr. Hesselius, treats haunted people. Nabokov uses layers of narrative to great effect. Le Fanu uses them to no effect. There is no reason to have one doctor introduce another doctor. There’s no reason for any of the characters to be doctors at all. Dr. Hesselius doesn’t save anyone. All his patients die. They are haunted and then they die. We didn’t need a special doctor to get that outcome. All Dr. Hesselius does is refer to Swedenborgian theory, which was some kind of Victorian spiritual mumbojombo that Le Fanu loved to mention but couldn’t figure out how to work into the plot or theme in any meaningful way.

Let’s talk about the story “Green Tea.” Dr. Hesselius fails to treat a man who is haunted by a demon monkey. Le Fanu does write this one effectively creepy sentence about the bedeviled man “Mr. Jennings has a way of looking sidelong upon the carpet, as if his eye followed the movements of something there.” That gives me the willies. After Jenning’s suicide, Hesselius declares that he inherited a predisposition to suicide, and that evil spirits got into his circulation through the green tea he habitually drank. Yes, friends, green tea killed him. Nice try, Le Fanu. Green tea is not scary and you didn’t make it so. This might be an expression of imperialist guilt, but it’s also very silly.

I tried out one of Le Fanu’s novels, because I’m thorough. It’s called Uncle Silas: or How to Sacrifice Your Daughter to Your Patriarchal Pride. I added the subtitle. Maud Ruthyn is an innocent maid with a wretched set of relatives. Her father is sore, because of rumors that his brother Silas killed a man who was found dead in his house. Daddy dearest refuses to believe these rumors, because, well because he doesn’t want to. Silas is generally a scoundrel. Dad isn’t on speaking terms with him, but he’s certain that he isn’t a killer, because he just can’t believe that a member of his noble bloodline could do such a thing. Oh, you nonsensical British aristocrats.

Anyway, Dad hires Maud a governess who is evil, abusive and sly enough to get away with it. She’s secretly also in Silas’ employ. Dad doesn’t believe Maud when she complains about Evil French Governess. Dad dies. Instead of sending wee Maud to live with her charmingly forthright aunt, Lady Knollys (I think Lady Knollys is her aunt, but I might have gotten the less-than-gripping minutiae of this book mixed up), he sends her to live with Uncle Silas. This fool believes in the glory of his bloodline so much, he’s willing to sacrifice. . .his bloodline to prove the value of his noble name. Get this guy a world’s worst dad mug. The thing is, if Maud dies before she reaches what’s that thing called? 21. You know. Majority! If she dies before she reaches her age of majority, her money goes to Silas. Dad’s objective was to show the world that he was so confident in Silas that he trusted his only child to him even given that Silas has a strong incentive to kill her. Which he does in fact try to do, but only after his creepy son tries to court her. I’ll say this, I was frightened for Maud. She was in a very precarious situation that could have been avoided with even the slightest measure of caution or care for her wellbeing. Thanks, Dad.

Now on to “Carmilla” the story of a girl and her vampire best friend. This one’s ok. There are some very silly elements, but it’s not complete garbage. The main character is a bit daft, which does nothing for me as a reader. There’s a very silly thing involving anagrams. Somehow, the story manages to be a bit creepy and even a bit charming despite these flaws. It’s a tale of a female friendship gone awry. Men are afraid of very close female friendships, aren’t they? The main character makes a new friend who seems to love her too much. Oh, dear. Being daft, the protagonist suspects that she might be a boy who disguised herself as a girl to get close to her. No, sweetie. I’m sorry no one ever told you about homosexuality. Or vampires. Anyway, if you read anything by Sheridan Le Fanu, let it be “Carmilla.” It’s brief, if nothing else.

You might like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • I don’t know, you’d have to be very dedicated to ghost stories. Even so, there are better ghost stories.

You might not like Sheridan Le Fanu if:

  • You’ve read a good ghost story.

Final thoughts: It’s a shame that the great stylists didn’t write horror stories. I do love a ghost story, just not these ones. I’m pretty sure we’ll have to wait another 14 years for Robert Louis Stevenson to get a good horror story. Sometimes if you dig deep into the short stories of great writers, you find a ghost story. Oscar Wilde has a great one. We’ll get there in good time.

The Tragic Fall that Broke a Young Girl’s Personality

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What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago, ‘bout a girl who fell off the swings and broke her will to resist patriarchy.

I think the best place to start is with Susan Coolidge’s own explanation of her tale, given in the introduction. She describes

“a Katy I once knew, who planned to do a great many wonderful things, and in the end did none of them, but something quite different, –something she didn’t like at all at first, but which, on the whole, was a great deal better than any of the things she dreamed about.”

I need you to bear that quote in mind while I describe this novel to you.

Protagonist Katy Carr is the eldest of a throng of motherless children. She’s not particularly attentive and kind to the little ones or to her lessons, because she occupies herself “dreaming of a time when something she had done would make her famous,” instead of learning her lessons or tying her bootlaces like a good little girl. She rambles in fields and meadows, and gets into scrapes including a fight with the rival girl’s school.

The setup for Katy’s character growth is the best part of the book. Katy’s inept leadership of her band of siblings is quite charming. Sure, she lacks the patience and empathy that come with time, but she’s just a kid. Merely twelve. Unfortunately, Coolidge sees Katy’s spunk as a tragic flaw and not a strength. More unfortunately, Coolidge thought that a spinal injury should be the catalyst for Katy’s character growth.

Obstinate Katy decides to use the swings after her aunt told her not to. Aunt didn’t mention that they needed repair. Katy falls and injures her spine. Four years of immobility rob Katy of her dreams and domesticate her. Conveniently, she has an angelic and permanently paralyzed cousin to guide her out of her depression with such sage advice as “get a prettier nightgown so that you don’t bum other people out with your appearance.”

Bored out of her skull, Katy decides to start taking on domestic duties like deciding what her family should have for dinner. Gradually, she becomes a mother to her younger siblings. Her spine heals and she walks again.

Garbage.

I have so many problems with this story. Do we really need Katy to be paralyzed for her to mature? She’s immobile for four years, which would have been enough time for her to start taking on household responsibilities because she saw the need, not because she literally could not do anything else with herself.

The lesson here is that instead of striving to have significance in the larger world, young girls should endeavor to be good housekeepers, because that is “a great deal better.” Shut up, Susan Coolidge. Why are you writing novels when you should be ordering servants to cook certain meals on certain days? Oh, because you want to be recognized outside your own home. . .for telling women not to look for validation, acclaim or meaning outside their homes. Shut up. You’re the worst.

 

I also really hate when characters suddenly become not paralyzed. There’s so little representation for disabled people in literature, tv and film, it’s a damn shame that authors can’t conceive of meaningful growth for disabled characters that does not involve them miraculously becoming abled. Temporary disability as a vehicle for character growth is astoundingly weak writing on many levels, especially when said “growth” means giving up your dreams and settling for your gender role.

What an absolute piece of drivel this novel is.

You might like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re a halfwit

You might not like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re fully witted

Final Thoughts: Let’s not print this novel anymore, ok? Please.

Early English Fantasy Writing

princess and goblin

It is the Late Victorian Era and genre fiction has arrived! I think we might be in the Late-late Victorian Era, but that doesn’t matter. A few weeks ago we covered a mystery novel, today’s book is a children’s fantasy novel and we have horror novels coming up. I appreciate this, because dressing up as a goblin is heaps more fun than getting out my tired old blue dress, middle parting my hair and forgoing makeup to be yet another Victorian lady. Bring on the genres! Bring on the murders, vampires, goblins, ghosts and demons.

George MacDonald is far more influential than he is famous. I reviewed his dense, philosophical, fantasy novel for adults, Phantastes, here. The Princess and the Goblin is another animal altogether. It retains the fairy tale whimsy of Phantastes, but as a children’s book, it is much simpler. An improvement, in my opinion, as I found his first novel a bit dull and meandering. For clarity’s sake, I should state that MacDonald professed that he wrote not for children, but “for the childlike,” which was a pretty common sentiment among kid lit writers in this era. Genres are just now emerging from under the nose of “serious literature.” Most writers didn’t want to be considered genre writers.

The Princess and the Goblin is a delightful little tale of a very young princess who shares her realm with a subterranean goblin kingdom. The princess is so sheltered that she’s unaware of the goblins at the beginning of the story. When she is nearly captured by these hideous, malformed creatures a young miner rescues her by singing. Because goblins hate rhymes. Especially extemporaneous rhymes. The miner, Curdie, and Princess Irene become fast friends, even though he does not believe her stories about her magical grandmother that no one else can see.

It’s quite evident that MacDonald significantly influenced two giants of fantasy: Tolkien and Lewis. When Irene goes wandering in her large home, she stumbles upon a mystical room and a beautiful, white-haired lady who bestows magic baubles upon her. A benevolent precursor of the White Witch in the wardrobe. Curdie, while mining, overhears a goblin conversation and is able to thwart their dastardly plans. This reminds me of several moments in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when hidden hobbits overhear their enemies’ terrifying schemes. It’s a great scene. I was simultaneously frightened for Curdie and entertained by the ludicrous goblin conversation. The underground goblin kingdom precedes both Tolkien’s dwarfish kingdom overrun by goblins, and the secret subterranean land in Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

It’s a bit silly that MacDonald resisted being identified as a children’s writer, given that he addresses many comments to “little girls I know” who don’t manage to behave as well as Princess Irene. She is very much a perfect, fairytale princess who can do no wrong. Modern readers crave a bit more nuanced characterization than MacDonald offers in The Princess and the Goblin, especially adult readers. But, it is a fun, sweet little story and breath of fresh air after all that Victorian realism.

I don’t have much else to say about The Princess and the Goblin. It is a sweet, simple fantasy story for children, but it has plenty of silly humor in it for childlike adults.

Here’s a Quote Because I Love You:

“The princess got tired. So tired that even her toys could no longer amuse her. You would wonder at that if I had time to describe to you one half of the toys she had. But then, you wouldn’t have the toys themselves, and that makes all the difference: you can’t get tired of a thing before you have it.  It was a picture, though, worth seeing—the princess sitting in the nursery with the sky ceiling over her head, at a great table covered with her toys. If the artist would like to draw this, I should advise him not to meddle with the toys. I am afraid of attempting to describe them, and I think he had better not try to draw them. He had better not. HE can do a thousand things that I can’t, but I don’t think he could draw those toys.”

You might like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you’re a fantasy aficionado or simply a fan of Tolkien and Lewis
  • you like fairytales
  • you don’t mind allegory

You might not like The Princess and the Goblin if:

  • you detest allegory and require all of your characters to be nuanced and gritty

 

Final Thoughts: I liked it. It’s not soaring to the top spot in my heart, but it’s a good piece of writing. It’s nice to get out of the Dickensian poorhouse and into a magical world populated by princesses and goblins and gold-hearted miners.

Victorian Literary Critics Tried to Destroy My Favorite Author!

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Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy, 1872

When his first published novel was harshly criticized by the Spectator, Thomas Hardy was deeply stung and wished he “was dead.” Hoping for commercial and critical success, Hardy focused on the one aspect of his writing that won universal praise: his charmingly rendered rustic dialogue.

I have written about my dislike of the Victorian penchant for condescending rural literature before. I wish I could stop writing about it. I’m weary of this trend. But, when those absurd Victorians take their love of feeling superior to quaint country people so far that they nearly ruin my favorite author, I must protest.

Hardy dutifully churned out exactly what his audience desired: a trite depiction of country folk doing, thinking, and discussing nothing of consequence. Under the Greenwood Tree is awful. The Victorians liked it, though. I just can’t fathom why.

The novel concerns itself with two questions. Will the church choir be canceled in favor of the more modern organ? Yes, it will. But, tradition! Will Dick Dewey get Fancy Day to marry him? Yes, he will. But, he hasn’t got much money! That’s it. Nothing else happens in this novel.

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I do feel a bit sad for the men who really enjoy being in the choir together. As for the romance, yuck. I’m insulted that Hardy thought fit to waste my time with the details of this courtship. Imagine that a young person who you’re only kind of friends with comes over and starts boring you with every trifling thought they have ever had about their significant other. I’m quite brusque enough to tell said young person that they and their lover are clearly both too immature and jealous to get married. Also, I’m too old to listen to this piffle. Alas, I can’t say that to Dick Dewey and Fancy Day, because they don’t exist.

I’m so dedicated to Thomas Hardy, that instead of chucking the book out the window, I read it twice. Yes, twice. It did not improve with a second read. Dick gets angry if Fancy cares about her appearance when he’s not there to see her. She doesn’t exist only for you to look at, Dick! Fancy gets jealous when he dances with another girl. That is the substance of this book. Long conversations centered on two adults behaving obnoxiously childish.

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The dramatic climax of the book occurs when the local Reverend, unaware of her engagement to Dick, asks Fancy to marry him. He describes all the lovely material goods he can provide her with. Little Fancy’s head is swayed and she agrees. She later backs out, because she just couldn’t hurt Dick so horribly. Well, I think she should have. She’s a frivolous girl who cares greatly for comfort. Dick wins her by appealing to her vanity. I suppose I’m meant to feel anxious for Dick’s possible broken heart, but I don’t care. He only loves Fancy for her beauty. He’ll get over it. I think Fancy would have been happier with the Reverend. Even though the point of the novel was the romance, I was not at all invested in it. My head was swayed by the idea of that carriage too, and, you know, generally not living in poverty just because some man tells you you’re pretty. The significant crisis of the book seems insignificant and my emotions run contrary to what Hardy would like. He’s still my favorite author, but I’m not his perfect reader for this book.

Anyway, I’m glad the book was a success during its time, because Thomas Hardy continued to write. In this novel, he succumbed to the Victorian need to laugh at quaint rustics. However, he was indeed from a rural area and he managed to write about such places without looking down on the inhabitants in his later novels. In fact, the next novel he wrote is possibly my favorite novel. His audience tried to squash his talent, but they couldn’t manage it. Take that, literary critics of yesteryear! You might have liked this tripe, but Thomas Hardy was just waiting to scandalize you with his advanced views of sex and marriage. He who confronts moral hypocrisy through literature laughs last.

You might like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • I don’t know, but if you do like it, I’m sorry for the strength of my dislike for it. I still respect you. To each her own.

You might not like Under the Greenwood Tree if:

  • It takes more than quaint words like “mumbudgeting” to impress you as a reader.

Final Thoughts: This ain’t a good book, friends! Here’s the only sentence I truly enjoyed “Dick said nothing; and the stillness was disturbed only by some small bird that was being killed by an owl in the adjoining copse, whose cry passed into the silence without mingling with it.” This is while Dick is about to ask Fancy’s father for her hand.

Thomas Hardy is Here. Favorite Author. Happy Day!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Love Among Outlaws

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Lorna Doone, Richard Doddridge Blackmore, 1869

Before she was a cookie, Lorna Doone was a lady. A beloved literary heroine. Heroine is a strong word for Lorna, though. If being sweet, innocent, pretty and passive while men fight over you qualifies you as a heroine, Lorna is certainly one. The subtitle of Lorna Doone is A Romance of Exmoor. Before we launch into criticizing the romance aspect, let’s talk about what make this book great.

Blackmore borrows classic elements from earlier decades in literature, including:

  • bleak and beautiful English moors for the setting
  • romanticized highway men: armed horsemen who rob nobles as they travel in their coaches
  • Gothic elements, such as a witch and a ghostly mystery with a practical explanation
  • a complicated plot involving secret identities and historical events

I suppose you could consider the first person narration a throwback to Tom Jones or Wuthering Heights, but the narrator of Lorna Doone is too special for me to classify him as an homage. John Ridd is his own man and a truly special voice in the English cannon. He is a hyper-masculine hero who is embarrassed by the attention his exceptional height attracts in his small, rural community. What I love most about John Ridd and Lorna Doone is the humble tone of John’s narrative. He is modest and not quite comfortable sharing the details of his life and his great love with us. He’s sorry for taking up so much of our time. It’s quite heartwarming.

The central drama of the book revolves around the tension between a band of robbers and the community they prey upon. A tension only John Ridd with his height, strength, work ethic, and humility can resolve. I’d mention his charm, because social relationships are key to his eventual overthrow of his nemeses, but he doesn’t so much charm people over to his cause as win them through his undeniable merit. Are you starting to see why a self-effacing tone is critical to this novel’s success? John Ridd is too perfect to be stuck on himself. Everyone around him admires him so much, if he admired himself even a bit, he’d be tiresome.

Back to this band of robbers. A gentleman named Sir Ensor Doone lost his land and wealth in a legal reversal of fortune. He settled in a remote valley in Exmoor with his extended family. After his neighbors grew tired of providing food for a group who were too noble to farm their own land, Sir Ensor Doone and his clan took to raiding the local farms. The locals cannot or will not seek legal recourse when they are wronged, because they either believe that the noble Doones are entitled to pillage whatever they desire, or they find that the legal authorities believe so. At first the concept of outlaws being tolerated because of their aristocratic status seemed outrageous and decidedly English to me. But, do we not allow the rich to make off with our earnings in this country? Are the rich not growing richer at our expense? They are. Even the foulest behavior of the Doones’, carrying off farmers’ daughters to provide new Doone children, has its contemporary counterpart. Do we not allow rich men to harass and assault women? We do. And, like the people of Exmoor, even though we find this behavior repellent, we allow these men to retain their status.

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We meet our hero, who is destined to overthrow the Doones, on the day that they murder his father. He is still a schoolboy, so we must see him through a bout of fisticuffs with a larger boy before he can launch into his life’s journey. Because it’s just not a British bildungsroman without boys punching each other.

John returns home to the terrible news of his father’s death and to his mother and sister. In his grief he feels “although they were my dearest loves, I could not bear to look at them until they seemed to want my help,” which is a statement typical of the sweet familial sentiment Doddridge does not shy away from. Many authors are afraid of sentiment; it takes a brave writer to write to write openly affectionate moments.

The early parts of Lorna Doone are my favorite. I have mentioned the Victorian fetish for rusticity in my George Eliot posts, and I will discuss the travesty that is Thomas Hardy’s early bowing to this fetish in an upcoming post. Doddridge gets it right. Yes, his Exmoor peasants are romanticized, but he does not condescend to them. My absolute favorite passage in the novel is when a duck is rescued from a flood. John Ridd knows every animal on his farm personally. When he returns from a trip to  London, he has a touching reunion with a ram that ventures to the outskirts of the farm to great him. The potential loss of the beloved patriarch of his duck clan is dramatic, tense and humorous. Not to worry, the duck is rescued by his cousin, Tom Faggus. Faggus is a highwayman, but a noble one. A Robin Hood type who rides a nearly human strawberry colored mare. Anyway, the duck tale perfectly encapsulates what I love about Lorna Doone, while it is certainly romantic and rustic, Doddridge takes his rustics seriously. He delivers vernacular prose and dialogue that does not endeavor to trivialize the lives and concerns of rural folk. This cannot be said of Charles Dickens, George Eliot or of Thomas Hardy’s early work. The book is rustic, humble, humorous and sentimental without falling into the trap that most educated Victorians who wrote about country people fell into.

For example, John Ridd meets the love of his life, Lorna, while he is searching for loaches, a fish that his mother loves to eat. She hasn’t been eating much since the death of her husband. Her sweet, caring son is worried, and determined to find loaches for her, even if it means traveling dangerously close to the supposedly impregnable Doone valley. He nearly drowns while attempting to scale a…waterfall type situation. I’m not sure I quite understand the geography or geology of what Doddridge describes. Suffice it to say, he scales a slippery and dangerous thingy to discover not just loaches, but a beautiful young maiden. Lovely Lorna is the “Queen” of the Doones. For detailed and spoilery reasons, she is destined to marry the heir apparent of the Doone clan, Carver Doone, who happens to be the man who shot John’s father.

That is only the beginning of the long, complicated and dramatic love story of John Ridd and Lorna Doone, but it’s the end of my favorite part of the novel. In John’s opinion what’s notable about their romance is that he could ever get someone of such high birth to fall in love with him. In my opinion, it’s more remarkable that a practical and useful farmer would repeatedly risk his neck for a woman who has nothing to offer other than beauty and a genteel manner. But if we know anything at this point in this reading project, it’s that the only way Brits have of demonstrating that a character is worthy and deserving is to reward said character with a rich spouse of very high birth.

The rest of the book retains the characteristics I enjoyed in the early bits, but with a lot of fighting and “oh, Lorna, oooh, my Lorna, how I love the way she trembles in my arms.” Given the thriving market in romance novels, I suppose there are plenty of people who actually like to read about innocent maidens trembling in the arms of very tall farmers, but I am not one of those people.

If you’d like to know anything more about Lorna Doone, go on and read it. It’s pretty darn good in spite of Lorna’s trembling. I have read it twice and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. Also, the Brilliance audio recording is delightful. The narrator’s accent is perfect.

Here’s quite a long quote from the duck story that I love. John and his sister Annie are alerted to the perilous position of the patriarch duck by the quacking of his family:

“Annie began to cry ‘Dilly, dilly, einy, einy, ducksey’ according to the burden of a tune they seem to have accepted as the national duck’s anthem; but instead of being soothed by it, they only quacked three times as hard, and ran round till we were giddy. And then they shook their tails together, and looked grave, and went round and round again. Now, I am uncommonly fond of ducks, both roasted and roasting and roystering; and it is a fine sight to see them walk, poddling one after another, with their toes out, like soldiers drilling, and their eyes cocked all ways at once, and the way that they dib with their bills and dabble, and throw up their heads and enjoy something, and then tell the others about it. Therefore I knew at once, by the way they were carrying on, that there must be something gone wholly amiss in the duck-world.”

Duck joy is about universal.

You might like Lorna Doone if:

  • you like Walter Scott
  • you can’t get enough of the moors
  • you like Robin Hood
  • you like stories about farm life in which farmers are looked down on

You might not like Lorna Doone if:

  • you’re just not going to read a book with a trembling maiden no matter what else there is to recommend it

Final Thoughts:

I’m happy the words and characters of Lorna Doone are in my brain. They are quite welcome to my headspace. It might be a niche interest, but it’s a good book and well deserves the reputation it held and continues to hold in the British literary landscape.