tutorial, commentary, study resources, further reading
Desperate Remedies (1871) was Thomas Hardy’s first published novel. He wrote it following the disappointment of having his first work The Poor Man and the Lady rejected for publication by Chapman and Hall. To court commercial success he cast his second work in a genre that was very popular at that time – the sensation novel. These were tales which in the words of critic John Sutherland were ‘designed to jolt the reader’. They did this by the inclusion of topics considered very daring at that period – such as bigamy, sex outside marriage, fraud, disputed wills, and crime of all kinds.
Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon had written amazingly successful novels which we might now class as ‘thrillers’ – The Woman in White (1861) and Lady Audley’s Secret (1861) both exploited subjects such as dark family secrets, bigamy, and imprisonment.
Hardy was to have plenty of trouble with the censorship of his later and more famous novels, but even here in his first, he manages to include suicide, attempted rape, lesbianism, and murder.
Desperate Remedies – a note on the text
The novel was first published anonymously by Tinsley Brothers in 1871 in the three-volume format which was common at the time. There was an American edition in 1874, a ‘New Edition’ in 1889, and a further edition for the first collection of Hardy’s work, the ‘Wessex Novels’ published by Osgood, MacIlvaine in 1896. This definitive edition was then superseded by the ‘Wessex Edition’ of 1912.
Hardy made many revisions to the original text of Desperate Remedies for these later editions, but they were largely minor issues concerned with distinctions of social class, the use of dialect amongst rural characters, and the topographical integration of the setting into what by the latter part of the nineteenth century had become known as ‘Wessex’.
For a full discussion of these textual revisions, see the bibliographical essay by Patricia Ingham that is part of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel, which reprints the 1871 version of the text.
Desperate Remedies – critical commentary
The very nature of the sensation novel is to introduce mysteries and withhold crucial information to create suspense and drama in the narrative. The following commentary contains what are called ‘plot spoilers’ – that is, revelations about the secrets and concealed details in the story. These comments assume that you have read the novel – so if you have not, ‘look away now’ as they say in television sports reporting.
The sensation novel
This novel quite deliberately exploited the conventions of the sensation novel which had become very popular in the 1860s under the influence of writers such as Wilkie Collins and May Elizabeth Braddon. Yet Desperate Remedies was not a big success at the time of its publication, and it remains even now one of Hardy’s lesser-known works.
However, it throws a very interesting light onto his later, darker, and more tragic works. These more famous novels quite clearly use the elements of sensationalism, but are rarely recognised as doing so, because Hardy embedded these ingredients into a heavily sculpted world of pastoral realism that he made his own and called ‘Wessex’.
The sensation novel was called ‘a novel with a mystery’ and usually included elements of irregular sexuality, hidden relationships, deviant behaviour, and crime. These novels pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in the literary novel at the same time as appealing to a popular audience – in much the same way that television soap operas and serial dramas do today.
The very foundation of the central mystery in the novel is one of illegitimate birth. Miss Aldclyffe was seduced as a young girl by her older cousin. She gave birth to a son, and then abandoned the child – who grew up to be Aeneas Manston – the central character and villain in the novel. The secret relationship between them is hinted at but not revealed until the very last pages of the narrative.
Manston blackmails his own mother into persuading Springrove to marry his cousin Adelaide rather than Cytherea. Blackmail was another favourite topic in sensation novels.
There is a hint of bigamy when Manston falls in love with Cytherea and asks her to marry him. He does this whilst he is still married to Eunice Manston – though nobody else knows about her at the time. Ironically in dramatic terms, Eunice suddenly reappears and is thought to die in the fire – but the truth is that she is murdered by Manston when she threatens to expose him,
It is therefore a double irony that as a result of this murder Manston becomes technically free to marry Cytherea, which he does – only to be thwarted in his attempts to consummate the marriage.
He then lives with a prostitute (Anne Seaway) whom he passes off as his wife Eunice – which is technically illegal and called personation. Finally, when his crimes are exposed, he commits suicide.
There is also what we would now call an attempted rape when Manston escapes capture and goes to the house where Cytherea is living. However, the incident is problematic in terms of interpretation across a time gap of one hundred and fifty years.
First it should be noted that technically he is married to Cytherea, and legitimately married, since his first wife is now dead. Second, he is well aware of his legal rights: “let me come in” he symbolically demands – “I am your husband”.
The interpretive difficulty here is tha he is not acting illegally. At that time in the mid nineteenth century the concept of rape within marriage would not be recognised, so Manston is acting within ‘rights’ that he is very keen to pursue.
Hardy is clearly exploring the boundaries of marriage, legality, sexuality, and moral behaviour, as he was to do in his later novels which often had similar elements of ‘false’ and unconsummated marriages, as well as perverse relationships – up to his very last novel Jude the Obscure.
If the legality of this incident seems amazing, so is the curious scene of lesbianism between Miss Aldclyffe and Cytherea on the girl’s arrival at Knapwater House. This episode is noteworthy for a number of reasons.
First, the abruptness of its occurrence. Miss Aldclyffe has met her new chamber maid Cytherea only two hours previously, on her retirement after dinner. Second, the very explicit nature in which it is described: Miss Aldclyffe actually gets into bed with Cytherea, where there is undressing and demands for more passionate kissing. Third, this burst of homosexuality has almost no bearing on what follows in the plot: there is no further evidence of any Sapphic inclinations on Miss Aldclyffe’s part.
But there are two further points worth making about the scene. At the time that Hardy was writing, there was hardly any public consciousness of sexual desire between women. When parliament made sex between two people of the same gender a crime (1885) the bill only included males, who would be accused of ‘gross indecency’. Women were not included because (it is now thought) to do so might draw their attention to it as a possible activity. The well-known story about Queen Victoria not being able to understand lesbianism is a myth generated during the 1970s.
Consequently, this now-famous passage in the novel passed without comment or outrage in 1871, but when Hardy came to revise the novel later in the century, he toned down the scene. Mrs Aldclyffe’s Sapphic lunges were made more ‘maternal’ – to fit with the vaguely protective behaviour she exhibits towards Cytherea during the later parts of the novel.
Hardy packs a number of sensation novel elements into Desperate Remedies, and it is worth noting how topics such as sex before marriage, bigamy, ‘false’ marriages, rape, and murder crop up in later works such as Far from the Madding Crowd (1874>, The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
It is amazing what a large part written communications play in the plot of the novel. Letters are written, stolen, forged, hidden, and in general form important links in the communications shared by the participants.
Miss Aldclyffe sets two major strands of the story in motion when she places advertisements for a house-maid and then a land steward. This brings both Cytherea and Manston into her household and under her influence – though it could also be argued that both Miss Aldclyffe and Manston (mother and son) fall in love with Cytherea.
Miss Aldclyffe also sends Manston a bogus letter which purports to come from the Society of Architects, to make sure that he applies for the job of steward.
A casual note written by Cytheria to Manston is used by Miss Aldclyffe to persuade Springrove that Cytherea is in love with the steward, and possession of the note is a crucial element in its persuasiveness.
A copy of a poem found in Eunice Manston’s sewing box written by her husband turns out to be significant. It mentions the colour of her eyes as ‘azure’, whereas the woman masquerading as Eunice (Anne Seaway) has black eyes. This helps to expose Manston’s guilt and duplicity.
Later, Manston himself places bogus adverts in London newspapers asking for news of his wife Eunice – whom he knows is dead, because he has killed her. He then composes fake replies to those adverts which purport to come from Eunice, but he has Anne Seaway transpose them into an imitation of his wife’s handwriting.
Manston also intercepts a letter written by Springrove to Owen Gaye. Manston changes some of the incriminating information it contains, then re-inserts it into the postal system. (It is worth noting that the credibility of the plot becomes rather strained at this juncture.)
Finally, Manston’s last contribution to written information is his prison confession. In this he explains the exact circumstances of murdering his wife and how he concealed the body. This is a neat resolution to the mystery – because this is information only he could know.
Sex in the novel
During the mid to late nineteenth century it was not possible to depict scenes of explicit sexual behaviour in English novels. There were unwritten conventions prohibiting the mention of such subjects, and these unofficial forms of censorship were most severely enforced by circulating libraries such as Mudie’s who accounted for a large proportion of book sales.
But like most skilful and inventive novelists, Hardy found a way round such prohibitions by writing about sex using symbolism and metaphor Two scenes from Desperate Remedies illustrate this point – and both involve Cytherea and the two men who wish to possess her.
In the first, Edward Springrove takes Cytherea rowing in the bay at Creston Harbour. They have only just met, and it is the first time they have been alone together.
They thus sat facing each other in the graceful yellow cockle-shell, and his eyes frequently found a resting place in the depths of hers. The boat was so small that at each return of the sculls, when his hands came forward to begin the pull, they approached so near to her bosom that her vivid imagination began to thrill her with a fancy that he was going to clasp his arms around her. The sensation grew so strong that she could not run the risk of again meeting his eyes at those crucial moments, and turned aside to inspect the distant horizon; then she grew weary of looking sideways and was driven to return to her natural position again.
In the second scene Cytherea is sheltering from a thunderstorm in the house occupied by Aeneas Manston, who is masquerading as an eligible bachelor. He entrances her by playing music on his home-made organ:
She was swayed into emotional opinions concerning the strange man before her, new impulses of thought came with new harmonies, and entered into her with a gnawing thrill. A dreadful flash of lightning then, and the thunder close upon it. She found herself involuntarily shrinking up beside him, and looking with parted lips at his face.
He turned his eyes and saw her emotion, which greatly increased the ideal element in her expressive face. She was in the state in which woman’s instinct to conceal has lost its power over her impulse to tell; and he saw it. Bending his handsome face over her till his lips almost touched her ear, he murmured without breaking the harmonies – “Do you very much like this piece?”
In both cases a young single woman is alone and unsupervised in the company of a man. Victorian conventions of protection and chaperoning went to elaborate lengths to prevent such situations. Cytherea is noticeably disturbed in both scenes. In fact Hardy brings his heroine into a state of almost orgasmic excitement just because her clothes are touching those of Manston. Hardy even theorises about it, as narrator:
His clothes are something exterior to every man; but to a woman her dress is part of her body. Its motions are all present to her intelligence if not to her eyes; no man knows how his coat-tails swing. By the slightest hyperbole it may be said that her dress has sensation. Crease but the very Ultima Thule of fringe or flounce, and it hurts her as much as pinching her. Delicate antennae, or feelers, bristle on every outlying frill. Go to the uppermost: she is there; tread on the lowest: the fair creature is there almost before you.
Thus the touch of clothes, which was nothing to Manston, sent a thrill through Cytherea, seeing, moreover, that he was of the nature of a mysterious stranger. She looked out again at the storm, but still felt him.
Desperate Remedies – study resources
Desperate Remedies – Oxford Classics – Amazon UK
Desperate Remedies – Oxford Classics – Amazon US
Desperate Remedies – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon UK
Desperate Remedies – Wordsworth Classics – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Thomas Hardy – Kindle eBook
Desperate Remedies – chapter summaries
I. Ambrose Graye falls in love with Cytherea, who turns down his offer of marriage for reasons she cannot explain. Eight years later he marries a woman who dies, leaving him a son Owen and a daughter also called Cytherea. She sees her father fall to his death, which leaves the siblings in debt. They move to the West Country to start new lives.
II. Owen works in an office, and Cytherea asks him about the young head clerk Springrove, who she meets on a boat excursion.
III. Owen recounts a tale of the old Cytherea’s meeting with an older woman in Hammersmith. Springrove takes Cytherea rowing and declares his love for her – but there is something he will not tell her.
IV. Cytherea is interviewed by Miss Aldclyffe who is attracted to her and employs her in the position of lady’s maid.
V. Cytherea arrives at Knapwater House where Miss Aldclyffe reveals a locket containing the portrait of Cytherea’s father Ambrose Graye. They share the same first name, but they quarrel,
VI. Miss Aldclyffe gets into bed with Cytherea and tries to seduce her. She rails against men, then reveals that Springrove is already engaged to be married. Her father Mr Aldclyffe dies the same night and Cytherea stays on as companion to Miss Aldclyffe/
VII. Miss Aldclyffe decides to make improvements to the estate and wishes to appoint a steward. She advertises, but then writes to Aeneas Manston, who she appoints against the judgement of her solicitor.
VIII. Relations between Cytherea and Miss Aldclyffe improve. Cytherea meets Adelaide Hinton who is engaged to Springrove. The locals perceive a connection between Manston and Miss Aldclyffe. Cytherea is enraptured when Manston plays his organ during a thunderstorm.
I. Manston is enamoured of Cytherea, who wonders at all the coincidences linking her and Miss Aldclyffe, who receives a letter from Manston’s estranged wife which is a threat and a plea. She confronts Manston and he agrees to take his wife back.
II. Manston misses his wife’s train. She goes to the Three Tranters Inn where a fire breaks out at night and she is killed. Springrove and Manston arrive late and meet in the church as rivals for Cytherea.
III. Next day Manston asks Miss Aldclyffe to help him win Cytherea by persuading Springrove to marry Adelaide. An inquest concludes that Mrs Manston’s death was accidental. However, old Springrove is obliged to rebuild the cottages his fire destroyed. Miss Aldclyffe argues with Edward Springrove that he has a duty to marry Adelaide. She produces evidence that persuades him.
IV. Cytherea continues to pine for Springrove. Manston proposes to her, but she refuses. Her brother Owen has medical problems but Manston is kind to him. Miss Aldclyffe argues the case for Manston. When Manston proposes moving Owen into his house to recuperate, Cytherea agrees to marry him.
V. On the eve of the wedding Adelaide suddenly marries a rich farmer. Springrove arrives at the wedding – but is too late. Cytherea loves him as much as ever, even though he appears to be dying. A railway porter then confesses to seeing Eunice Manston on the night of the fire. Edward jumps on a train to pursue the newlyweds. He locates Cytherea in Southampton. Owen arrives and takes his sister to a separate hotel.
I. Manston goes home, procrastinates, and then places an advert in London newspapers for his wife Eunice. She eventually replies, appearing to think he still loves her. Manston takes her back.
II. Owen is promoted, and moves with Cytherea to a different town. Springrove proposes to Cytherea, but she refuses because ‘scandal’ is now attached to her name. Springrove believes Manston knew his wife was still alive. Owen wants to find proof.
III. Owen and Cytherea make enquiries about Eurnice Manston at her former address in London. Springrove tracks down her sewing box and posts the contents to Owen, unaware that he is being followed by Manston.
IV. Manston intercepts Owen’s letter and substitutes a photograph then posts it on. When the letter reaches Owen, he thinks a third party might be involved in the mystery.
V. Owen checks the colour of Mrs Manston’s eyes, which are not the same as those mentioned in a poem found in the box. They seek the rector’s advice, but he is baffled. Springrove arrives from London with news that Mrs Manston is an impostor. Manston and his lover Anne Seaway fear that their plot will be exposed if the real Mrs Manston returns.
VI. Anne breaks into Manston’s desk and reads complaining letters from Eunice. The rector presents the evidence on Manston to Miss Aldclyffe, but she refuses to accept it. Anne eavesdrops on Manston and Miss Aldclyffe. He is desperate for her help. He tries to give Anne a sleeping draught, but she follows him to an outhouse where he retrieves a sack and is then watched by a detective and Miss Aldclyffe, followed by Anne. He buries the sack then runs off. Anne and the detective dig up the sack, which contains the body of Eunice Manston.
VII. Manston evades capture and goes to Cytherea where he attempts to ‘rape’ her, but she is rescued by Springrove. Manston is arrested.
VIII. In prison Manston writes a confession of how he killed Eunice, then hangs himself. Miss Aldclyffe sends for Cytherea and reveals that Manston was her illegitimate son. Next morning she dies.
Epilogue. Miss Aldclyffe leaves all her estate to Manston’s wife – so Cytherea inherits Knapwater House and marries Springrove fifteen months later.
Desperate Remedies – principal characters
|his son, also an architect
|handsome head clerk
|mistress of Knapwater House
|housekeeper at Knapwater
|estate steward at Knapwater
|an American actress, his wife
|engaged to Springrove
|the rector at Knapwater
|Manston’s mistress, a prostitute
Other works by Thomas Hardy
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) is probably the most popular of Hardy’s late, great novels. The sub-title is ‘A Pure Woman’, and it is a story which explores the tragic consequences of a young milkmaid who becomes the victim of the men she encounters. First she falls for the spiritual but flawed Angel Clare, and then the physical but limited Alec Durberville takes advantage of her. This novel has some of the most beautiful and the most harrowing depictions of rural working conditions which reveal Hardy as a passionate advocate for those who work the land. It also has a wonderfully symbolic climax at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. There is poetry in almost every page.
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The Woodlanders (1887) Giles Winterbourne, an honest woodsman, suffers with the many tribulations of his selfless love for Grace Melbury, a woman above his station in this classic tale of the West Country. She marries the new doctor, Edred Fitzpiers, but leaves him when she learns he has been unfaithful. She turns instead to Giles, who nobly allows her to sleep in his house during stormy weather, whilst he sleeps outside and brings on his own death. It’s often said that the hero of this novel is the woods themselves – so deeply moving is Hardy’s account of the timbered countryside which provides the backdrop for another human tragedy and a study of rural life in transition.
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Wessex Tales Don’t miss the skills of Hardy as a writer of shorter fictions. None of his short stories are really short, but they are beautifully crafted. This is the first volume of his tales in which he was seeking to record the customs, superstitions, and beliefs of old Wessex before they were lost to living memory. Yet whilst dealing with traditional beliefs, they also explore very modern concerns of difficult and often thwarted human passions which he developed more extensively in his longer works.
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Thomas Hardy – web links
Thomas Hardy at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major novels, book reviews. bibliographies, critiques of the shorter fiction, and web links.
The Thomas Hardy Collection
The complete novels, stories, and poetry – Kindle eBook single file download for £1.29 at Amazon.
Thomas Hardy at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of free eTexts in a variety of digital formats.
Thomas Hardy at Wikipedia
Biographical notes, social background, the novels and literary themes, poetry, religious beliefs and influence, biographies and criticism.
The Thomas Hardy Society
Dorset-based site featuring educational activities, a biennial conference, a journal (three times a year) with links to the texts of all the major works.
The Thomas Hardy Association
American-based site with photos and academic resources. Be prepared to search and drill down to reach the more useful materials.
Thomas Hardy on the Internet Movie Database
Adaptations for the cinema and television – in various languages. Full details of directors, actors, production features, box office, film reviews, and even quizzes.
Thomas Hardy – online literary criticism
Small collection of academic papers and articles ‘favoring signed articles by recognized scholars and articles published in peer-reviewed sources’.
Thomas Hardy’s Wessex
Evolution of Wessex, contemporary reviews, maps, bibliography, links to other web sites, and history.
© Roy Johnson 2016
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