Desperate Remedies

Desperate RemediesI 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.

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20 Responses to Desperate Remedies

  1. realthog says:

    I’ve actually read a fair amount of the now forgotten, standard-fare 19th-century novels (in my late teens I worked near an extraordinary London street dealer in used books, and I picked the things up in stacks for pennies), and I can assure you they were just as mediocre as their counterparts today — if not more so. George Gissing gave a good picture of the publishing scene then in his fine satirical novel New Grub Street.

    Thanks for a great account of this early Hardy, which I haven’t read! I must try to do so if it’s remotely Collinsy!

    • Teresa says:

      I figure some books are forgotten for a reason, but it’s easy to, um, forget how many books are forgotten. :)

      The really Collinsy stuff is in the last third or so. It’s all hints and vague unease until then, but it gets crazy toward the end.

  2. heavenali says:

    I love Hardy and though Desperate Remedies is not his best novel by far it is as you say enjoyable and still very readable. Hardy was I believe writng to pay bills, the novel was serialised and so like other writers of his time he needed to spin things out to earn the money he needed. It is a good sensation type novel and as a first novel not bad at all I don’t think.

    • Teresa says:

      From what I remember of Clare Tomalin’s bio, he was deliberately trying to write something that would sell, and I can see why it did. It’s not a bad first novel–and it was certainly good enough to enable him to write his later, better books.

  3. Tamsin says:

    I’ve never met a Hardy novel I didn’t like (I actually really enjoyed two of his lesser-known works, Two on a Tower and A Pair of Blue Eyes), but I’ve heard this is one of his weakest novels. I do own a copy and plan to read it eventually, but I haven’t been in the mood yet. I read a lot of mediocre sensation fiction in grad school, so I’m a little burnt out on it.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m trying to read through all his lesser-known works, and so far, I can see why they’re lesser-known. I haven’t read the two that you mention, though, so I’ll look forward to those.

      • Tamsin says:

        Well, I personally feel that Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge are his best novels (of those I’ve read) but I did enjoy those others. I think he wrote them earl in his career, and it shows (particularly in Two on a Tower, which is more than a little melodramatic), but there are elements of his later tragedies in them.

      • Teresa says:

        I alternate between liking Tess and Jude best. I apparently have dark tastes.

  4. Deb says:

    Do you ever look at The Little Professor blog? The woman who writes it is a college professor who specializes in 19th century literature with a special focus on literature with religious themes. I think she’d be the first to tell you that there were just as many mediocre novels 150 years ago as there are today; possibly more because people didn’t have as many entertainment options as they do today, so reading a serialized novel over the course of several months was an enjoyable event.

    • Teresa says:

      I have visited that blog, but not regularly! She’d definitely be one to know that fiction then was not necessarily any better than fiction now.

    • I clicked over specifically to mention The Little Professor! Some of her head-clutching moans-of-pain reviews of Victorian religious novels are among the greatest productions of book blogging.

      Of course some of her commentary on contemporary books is not so different:

      “There are no further returns to be had: DO NOT PUT VAMPIRES IN DICKENS. DO NOT PUT ZOMBIES IN AUSTEN. DO NOT PUT WEREWOLVES IN THACKERAY. (To be clear: to my knowledge, nobody has put any werewolves in Thackeray’s fiction. Don’t do it.)”

      • realthog says:

        DO NOT PUT WEREWOLVES IN THACKERAY. (To be clear: to my knowledge, nobody has put any werewolves in Thackeray’s fiction. Don’t do it.)

        Veinity Fair?

      • Ed says:

        Someone seems to have put ghosts into “A Christmas Carol’! Oh, hang on, Dickens put them in there. :-)

      • Teresa says:

        But then where will the werewolves go?? The Brontes maybe? Actually, maybe they’re already there–it would sure explain Heathcliff.

  5. Great writers have to start somewhere – and they can’t be great all the time!

    • Teresa says:

      True indeed. Claire Tomalin noted in her biography that Hardy’s output was pretty uneven, but the good stuff is so very good, and so far, the not-so-good isn’t terrible.

  6. Stefanie says:

    But for a first book, how was it? If you didn’t know Hardy would go on to become the write he did, would you read another of his books?

    • Teresa says:

      It was good enough that I’d keep an open mind about subsequent books. I wouldn’t go right out and get the next, but if others recommended it, I’d try it.

  7. This year I finally completed my reading all of Hardy’s novels, ending with Two on a Tower, A Laodicean, rereading Desperate Remedies, and finishing up with The Hand of Ethelberta. I’ll say this: I saved the poorest for last. Just as I hope no one would read Jude the Obscure first, I would also hope that no one would start up the Hardy novel slope with Desperate Remedies. Hardy can be an acquired taste, but I won’t say that I found Desperate Remedies a disappointment. Likening it to lesser Collins is a great comparison, but Hardy lacks the plotting skill that Collins excelled at in his best works.

    For those who wish to sample Hardy, I’d probably start with the delightful confection Under the Greenwood Tree, certainly his happiest book, and then proceed to Far From the Madding Crowd or the more “typical” and still-early Return of the Native. Then move into the works of his greatness: The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders (possibly my favorite), Tess of the Durbervilles, and then Jude the Obscure. After that you can sample the other, lesser works at your leisure and convenience (including the short stories).

    Please don’t forget his poetry. “The Oxen” (widely available here on the interwebs) is simply breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty, and serves as a microcosm of Hardy’s greatness: his combination of love of tradition highly blended with skepticism.

    One of the things I love most about this site is the way you blend reviews of contemporary literary fiction with fresh takes on “classics.” Please keep up the good work.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a pretty good order to approach his novels, although I don’t know that I would put Under the Greenwood Tree first–it’s so different from his other books. When I was trying to get Jenny to get interested in Hardy, I told her to read Far from the Madding Crowd and then Return of the Native. Then she decided to try Mayor on her own, and it has worked out well. Perhaps I’ll encourage her to try The Woodlanders next. It is a good one–and one I’d like to reread soon myself. I believe it and Far from the Madding Crowd are the only ones of his major works that I’ve only read once, and they’re too good not to revisit.

      And thank you for the lovely compliment. I really enjoy mixing up new and old. It keeps my reading more interesting. I do hope to get more classics in next year, but we’ll see where my mood takes me.

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