The idea of re-reading Thomas Hardy’s work in order of publication floated in my head for quite some time; and now that I have made a start and re-visited his first published novel I think that it was a rather good idea.
‘Desperate Remedies’ isn’t his finest work but it is a good start, and a very readable story. Hardy wrote another novel before this one, but after it was rejected and now it is lost. He took advice; and it resulted in a book that is a curious mixture of Hardy and of certain other novelists who had found success some years before he did.
Cytheria Graye was named after her father’s great lost love; a young woman who had, quite explicably, sent him away and broke his heart. He built a career as an architect, some years later he married, and when his wife died he raised their two children, Cytheria and Owen, alone. He was a good man, but he made some poor decisions and he trusted some people who were not worthy of that trust, and when he died his children found that they had nothing.
They made plans together. Owen would continue his training to become and architect, and his sister would go into service, just until his training was complete and he could support the household. Cytheria was beautiful, she was accomplished, and they thought that she would find a position easily. She didn’t, and she had to lower her sights time and time again.
Cytheria was downhearted, because she had fallen in love with her brother’s friend, Edward Springrove; and he had fallen in love with her.
One day, unexpectedly and inexplicably, Cytheria was offered a position much grander than she dared to hope for.
She became lady’s maid to the mercurial Miss Aldclyffe. She could be terribly imperious, but it was clear that she desperately want to be a mother to the girl, and and bring her up to be strong and not to be dependent on any man. There were definitely echoes of Miss Havisham ….
When Cytheria learned that her employer shared her distinctive name, she realised that she must be her father’s lost love.
She realised that Miss Aldclyffe was troubled, and that she had secrets she was determined to keep.
She couldn’t understand why Miss Aldclyffe went to such lengths to secure a man named Aeneas Manston as her steward. Edward Springrove had applied, he was well qualified, he was a local man, and he had the support if the lady’s solicitor; but Miss Aldclyffe disregarded that and insisted that she would have Manston, even though her solicitor told her that he was “a scoundrel of the first order”….
Miss Aldclyffe tried to plant doubts about Edward in Cyrethia’s mind; and to encourage a match with Manston. Cyrethia disliked Manston and was resolute in her love for Edward; but when his family faced a crisis and Owen was taken ill she found herself alone and trapped ….
The story starts slowly but it accelerates and turns into a wonderful, page-turning sensation novel. There are wonderful twists and turns, there is much more to the plot than I have set out, and there were questions in my mind right to the end.
There is a little too much melodrama; but not so much that it spoils the story.
This may sound more like Wilkie Collins than Thomas Hardy – and yes, it is – but there is so much in this book that is Hardy. The descriptions are lyrical, country life is portrayed with real understanding, the set pieces are beautifully handled, and I saw themes and ideas in this book that he would develop in later works.
Aeneas Manston was a magnificent villain, Edward Seagrove was a reliable, if slightly dull, hero, and Owen Graye had an interesting part to play.
Cyrethia was a little unpredictable – sometimes brave and sometimes just the opposite – but I found it easy to like her, I could always empathise with her, and she carried me through the story. Hardy would go on to create stronger, more complex heroines, but Cyrethia was the right heroine for this book.
I loved the story arc of Miss Aldclyffe. I didn’t remember it and I didn’t work it out, because I was far too caught up with the story to stop and think.
Thomas Hardy wrote a good sensation novel; and it was lovely to read that story mixed with the things that Hardy did so well. That made it feel familiar and yet unlike any other book I’ve read. I’m glad though that he didn’t continue down that route, and that he went on to do the other things he began to do well in this book even better as his writing career progressed.