Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 2 - Chutes and Ladders

Like many of Thomas Hardy's novels, Desperate Remedies relies on social class and status anxieties to fuel at least half of its conflicts. Unlike the suspense elements of the plot, which find their clearest expression in tight, linear storytelling, the social aspects of the novel are most visible over spans of time. Hardy assigns a span of time (and thus a name) to each of the book's 22 sections, ranging from a few hours to thirty years, which allows him to pivot from one set of narrative priorities to the other with relative ease.

The suspense elements don't really enter the plot until the arrival of Aeneas Manston in the seventh section of the book so we can narrow our focus down to almost purely the social for the sections preceding.

Hardy opens Remedies with a story that gives the book its multigenerational depth. A young Cambridge educated architect, Ambrose Graye, falls in love with a young woman named Cytherea who mysteriously rejects his marriage proposal despite her obvious affection for him . Eventually, her family moves away after her mother inherits a considerable sum of money and Ambrose is forced to move on with his life.

He, in turn, marries a woman of some means and, though he never recovers emotionally from his first love, they have two children together, Owen and his younger sister Cytherea. His wife dies in the eighteenth year of their marriage and Ambrose, saddened, presumably, by her loss, throws himself into his work like never before. Then, one day, as Cytherea (his daughter) is watching him work atop church tower, Ambrose Graye falls to his death.

This is one of those rare moments where Hardy sells his central metaphor about social anxiety in some moment-to-moment storytelling and it happens very early in the book.

"Round the conical stonework rose a cage of scaffolding against the blue sky, and upon this stood five men--four in clothes as white as the new erection close beneath their hands, the fifth in the ordinary dark suit of a gentlemen.

The four working-men in white were three masons and a mason's labourer. The fifth man was the architect , Mr. Graye...[Cytherea] moved herself uneasily, 'I wish he would come down,' she whispered, still gazing at the sky-backed picture. 'It is so dangerous to be absent-minded up there.'

When she had done murmuring the words her father indecisively laid hold of one of the scaffold-poles, as if to test its strength, then let it go and stepped back. In stepping, his foot slipped. An instant of doubling forward and sideways, and he reeled off into the air, immediately disappearing downwards."

Ambrose Graye's literal fall to the earth becomes a potent a symbol for his children's fate. After his death, it is discovered that he was in a great deal of debt and his children are not only deprived of their expected inheritance but saddled with that obligation and accompanying shame.

In order to escape the stigma of their now fallen social and economic condition, the pair leave the only home they've ever known and set up in Budmouth, where Owen finds tenuous work as an architect's clerk and Cytherea hopes to find a position as a governess. Quickly, a romance blossoms between Cytherea and a young architect named Edward Springrove but, in a tragic turn that mirrors that of her father, her suitor disappears with only a cryptic goodbye indicating that it could never have worked out between them. Thus deprived of her opportunity to improve upon her own social insecurity, Cytherea falls into the orbit of a land-holding local aristocrat named Miss Adclyffe who hires her as a personal maid. Hardy reveals, in fairly short order, that Miss Adclyffe is none other than the woman with whom Cytherea's father had originally fallen in love and for whom she was named.

In this opening setting of the board, Hardy places his characters masterfully in dynamic social orbits that rise and fall over time, echoed in Owen's observation that, "[a]s we come down the hill, we shall be continually meeting people going up."

Ambrose Graye had the social status (and promise of future wealth) sufficient to wed Cytherea (the elder) who, we are told, hailed from a family with a lofty name but little wealth to use it to their social benefit. Her secret that made it impossible for them to marry (which remains unexposed until late in the book) weighs heavy on her heart thirty years later. More pragmatically, though, it bought her time enough to add wealth to her name so that she married well up the social ladder from her first love, Ambrose.

Ambrose, due to his unwillingness to release his grief, eventually slides down the chute, depositing his children upon his death at the last stop before destitution. The first moral lesson is clear: Do not dwell over the loss of first love or risk ruin.

Cytherea's situation begins more dire than her father's and her gender only magnifies the risk of descending into a life unrecognizable for a woman of her education and background. Her brother Owen is saddled with an education and training unequipped to handle the burdens he inherits as well as the stigma of his father's sad, final fate. He cannot protect Cytherea from the necessity of marriage as a remedy to forestall her otherwise inevitable slide into desperate poverty.


  1. Hi Rob

    Wholly unconnected with the current discussion which I'm enjoying, but something that you may enjoy is BBC's splendid In Our Time podcast from last week on Tess Of The d'Urbervilles. Here's the link, but if, as I suspect, the podcast isn't available to non-UK listeners, let me know, give me an e-mail address, and I should be able to go to the very outer limits of my IT abilities and share it with you, in mp3 format, via Dropbox (I think).


    1. I just finished listening. A wonderful program! I'd like to eventually produce similar podcasts for JLS with a roundtable discussion on the various novels.

  2. David,

    Oooh, thanks! I'll give it a listen today. I'm sorry for the delay on part 3. I should have it up by the weekend.