I sometimes wonder what the proportion of really good to mediocre novels was in the past. Today, it seems like most novels published are middling, good enough for few hours’ entertainment but mostly forgettable. I suspect that’s always been true, but the passing of time means only the better (or at least more interesting or note-worthy) novels remain in the public consciousness while the books that are merely moderately enjoyable fade away. Would anyone today read Thomas Hardy’s first published novel, Desperate Remedies, if he hadn’t followed it up with Far from the Madding Crowd? Maybe reading the lesser-known works of well-known authors can give a glimpse into what the more ordinary forgettable fiction of the past was like. (Or maybe not—I’m just throwing around guesses here.)
Anyway, Desperate Remedies is the story of Cytherea Graye, a young woman who has to figure out a way to support herself after her father’s death. She lives for a time with her brother, who is studying to be an architect, and falls in love with his colleague, Edward Springove. Edward is in no position to marry her, and she feels she must earn a living, so she takes a position as a housekeeper to the elderly Miss Aldclyffe. As it turns out, Miss Aldclyffe was a former love of Cytherea’s father, but their romance was cut off under mysterious circumstances, and he mourned the loss for the rest of his life.
The ending of Miss Aldclyffe’s and Mr Graye’s romance is just one of the many mysteries that appear in this novel. It’s a sensation story, full of twists and turns, most of them centered on Miss Aldclyffe’s unaccountable behavior. Why is she so determined to hire the seemingly unqualified Aeneas Manston as steward of her estate, and why does she put so much energy in manipulating the marriages of all the young people around her? The questions get thornier as the book goes on, although it’s not until the last hundred pages or so that the mysteries start to seem truly dangerous.
The plot seems like the kind of thing you’d find in a Wilkie Collins novel, but it’s not nearly as suspenseful a book as Collins’s great works tend to be. In trying to work out why this is the case, I think part of the problem is that there’s a lack of menace in the characters’ actions. Miss Aldclyffe is a busy body, and her way of manipulating those below her is troubling, but it doesn’t seem dangerous. And the characters are pretty bland. There’s no villain like Count Fosco and no heroine like Marian Halcombe.
That’s not to say that this book isn’t enjoyable. I wanted to keep reading and get to the bottom of the mysteries—although the reason for Miss Aldclyffe’s interest in Manston seemed obvious to me from the start. I was curious enough and entertained enough to keep reading. It’s a perfectly good book, just not a great one. There is a great scene involving a fire that shows Hardy’s promise as a writer and hits on some of his later themes involving the inevitable creep of disaster into the lives of the less fortunate. I think this book is mostly note-worthy because of who its author later becomes. But I wonder how typical it is of the fiction of 1871.