Sunday, April 24, 2016

Desperate Remedies, Part 1 - The Social, the Suspenseful and the Physical

In the spring of 1871, Thomas Hardy brought to fruition four years of hard work and hustle with the publication his first novel, Desperate Remedies. It was released in the ubiquitous three-volume form and, unlike many of his later novels, was not serialized in a magazine prior to release. Though Millgate notes that Hardy bristled at having to document his occupation as "architect's clerk" for the census of 1871, he had begun a process of transitioning his means of subsistence from architectural work that of a writer of novels. By 1875, the transition would be all but complete.

As this is the first book we'll be diving into, I want to talk just a little bit about what my goals are specifically for exploring the novels, as my goals for verse will be different.

I don't intend these to be book reviews in the traditional sense. I'll be using something like the the three point essay form as a structure to frame these discussions unless there is something about the material that demands otherwise.

It also seems important to consider each book in the context of when it was written. For this reason, I won't reference anything Hardy wrote after Desperate Remedies in exploring it. I believe that this approach will pay dividends as we progress through the books because the contexts from which we'll be able to intercompare will grow cumulatively richer and more tangled with each new work. This may prove to be just a weird restriction I'm putting on the process but that's one of the ways I can decide what not to write.

Lastly, Hardy's own life will be on the table for critical consideration. There are those who loathe intimately tying the "meaning" of a work into the inner workings of the author's life. I believe that there are some authors and some work which beg that kind of separation. My critical instinct says Hardy is not one of those authors and few of his works invite that kind of text-only focused readings. I will also place one of my biases on the table in acknowledging that my purpose in writing this blog is not just to better understand the work but also the man.

Desperate Remedies (which I will refer to as Remedies) has two different sets of organizing principles that shape its contents: it is a social novel that describes and critiques culture and it is a suspense novel that dangles action and plot twists in succession in order to entice the reader through its pages. The title itself is a double entendre that addresses both of these aspects. Cytherea Graye's entanglement with the story's villain, Aeneas Manston, is a desperate remedy for her precarious social position as a woman on the cusp between respectability and ruin while Manston's most nefarious act a desperate remedy is born out of his desire to bind Cytherea to him before he can be exposed as a willful bigamist.

Remedies succeeds flawlessly at neither task but, in order to judge it for what it is rather than what we might like it to be, I'll be working from a premise that it reaches its highest peaks when both strands of the narrative are coaxed into working in harmony. Moreover, Hardy's ability to ground the reader in rich physical detail is the ligament that connects the social and suspense elements of the novel together and he only fails in his obligation to make that connection when he abandons it in order to move the labyrinthine plot through its paces.

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