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.

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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.