Desperate Remedies is Thomas Hardy's first published novel, published in 1871: Hardy's first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady was completed in 1867 however he was unable to find a publisher and so destroyed the manuscript. The ideas and some scenes can be found in his poem 'The Poor Man and the Lady' and his novella An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress (1878).
I think it's fair to say that Desperate Remedies is a pure sensationalist novel, like that of Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but (and I did very much enjoy it) not quite as good. These novels were popular at the time - The Woman in White (1860), Lady Audley's Secret (1862), and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) to name a few. It has many of the elements - murder, bigamy, villains, danger, and ambiguous identities. It's a thrill of a read, and though set in Hardy's beloved Wessex, Wessex doesn't feature so highly: in this, the drama in central and what it lacks in subtlety, excitement rather makes up for it!
The heroine is Cytherea Graye. She is attractive and, oddly enough, an excellent mover:
Her face was exceedingly attractive, though artistically less perfect than her figure, which approached unusually near to the standard of faultlessness. But even this feature of hers yielded the palm to the gracefulness of her movement, which was fascinating and delightful to an extreme degree.
Indeed, motion was her speciality, whether shown on its most extended scale of bodily progression, or minutely, as in the uplifting of her eyelids, the bending of her fingers, the pouting of her lip. The carriage of her head—motion within motion—a glide upon a glide—was as delicate as that of a magnetic needle. And this flexibility and elasticity had never been taught her by rule, nor even been acquired by observation, but, nullo cultu, had naturally developed itself with her years.
When her father dies and leaves her and her brother Owen almost penniless she works as a lady's maid to Miss Aldclyffe - Miss Cytherea Aldclyffe: by coincidence this is the woman whom her father once loved, and who Cytherea Graye is named after. Miss Aldclyffe is older (in her forties, described once as "elderly", such were the times), irritable, strange, and cantankerous, but Cytherea is more than capable of standing up for herself. And, by this time, our heroine has fallen in love with a young architect, Edward Springrove, but she finds out he is already engaged to a woman he doesn't love. Fear of poverty, her brother's illness, and Miss Aldclyffe's intervention leads her to accept a marriage proposal from Aeneas Manston, whose wife has recently died in a fire.
But all is not what it seems in this intriguing novel. Questions are constantly raised, doubt hangs in the air, and there are so many twists and turns - I wouldn't want to write any more on the plot because the enjoyment of reading it will be entirely ruined, and I do hope everyone will read it at some point in their lives!
An interesting element of Desperate Remedies is its depiction of female sexuality - the name Cytherea recalls Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who is also known as Cytherea or Lady of Cythera. Though young, she is very sensual and even sexual; her falling for Edward Springrove has its element of lust. Then there is the moment between Cytherea and Miss Aldclyffe, which some interpret as a Victorian lesbian scene -
A distinct woman's whisper came to her through the keyhole: 'Cytherea!'
Only one being in the house knew her Christian name, and that was Miss Aldclyffe. Cytherea stepped out of bed, went to the door, and whispered back, 'Yes?'
'Let me come in, darling.'
The young woman paused in a conflict between judgement and emotion. It was now mistress and maid no longer; woman and woman only. Yes; she must let her come in, poor thing.
She got a light in an instant, opened the door, and raising her eyes and the candle, saw Miss Aldclyffe standing outside in her dressing-gown.
'Now you see that it is really myself; put out the light,' said the visitor. 'I want to stay here with you, Cythie. I came to ask you to come down into my bed, but it is snugger here. But remember that you are mistress in this room, and that I have no business here, and that you may send me away if you choose. Shall I go?'
'O no; you shan't indeed if you don't want to,' said Cythie generously.
The instant they were in bed Miss Aldclyffe freed herself from the last remnant of restraint. She flung her arms round the young girl, and pressed her gently to her heart.
'Now kiss me,' she said.
Cytherea, upon the whole, was rather discomposed at this change of treatment; and, discomposed or no, her passions were not so impetuous as Miss Aldclyffe's. She could not bring her soul to her lips for a moment, try how she would.
'Come, kiss me,' repeated Miss Aldclyffe.
Cytherea gave her a very small one, as soft in touch and in sound as the bursting of a bubble.
'More earnestly than that—come.'
She gave another, a little but not much more expressively.
I'm inclined to think this passion of Miss Aldclyffe's was not quite how it appears to the modern reader because lesbianism was so suppressed that, assuming Hardy was aware of it which he may well not have been, this would have been particularly daring. It's possible that this represents a kind of power play with the strange and difficult Miss Aldclyffe attempting to bully Cytherea into submission having previously seen what she perceived as arrogance in the young Cytherea. Whatever the case may be, Miss Aldclyffe is uncomfortably imposing - and is through much of the novel.
It is, I think, a clever and exciting novel, but I do have to admit it's not a masterpiece. In 1889 The Guardian reviewed it, mentioned that it had merit, but wrote too "The story is full of improbabilities", which indeed it is. Another aspect I wasn't keen on, which again The Guardian drew attention to, was the peculiar chapter headings. The Guardian wrote,
The device here followed of heading each chapter or subdivision of a chapter with a precise date, such as "Half-past twelve to one am" and "August the fourth, till four o'clock", though sufficiently irritating and by no means to be recommended for adoption, is curious as illustrating the sort of process which goes on in the writer's mind, and the care and pains which help to make up an effect loosely attributed to some special power of gift in an author, working outside ordinary means.
It certainly gave a clear time-frame, however! And The Spectator was yet more damning, calling the novel "a desperate remedy for an emaciated purse". It is true Hardy was on a mission to be published, having been advised by George Meredith to discard The Poor Man and the Lady and work on something with 'more of a plot'. I think for Hardy fans this is naturally a must-read, and too for those who enjoy sensation novels. But despite its flaws it still remains good, and so I wouldn't relegate it to the mere "curiosity" genre!
All in all, I've had an enjoyable start to my Thomas Hardy challenge with this novel. next I'm planning on reading his short story from 1864 - How I Built Myself a House, and then Far From the Madding Crowd (1874).