Sunday, May 15, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 3 - Let's Pretend We're Married

As I was writing the last section on social anxiety, it occurred to me that sex and marriage play interesting roles worth exploring in both the suspenseful and social aspects of the book.

Four of the five main characters of Desperate Remedies are entangled, at some point, in a conflict about marriage. In the opening section of the book, it is revealed that the woman who will be known as Miss Aldclyffe can't marry Ambrose Graye, whom she loves, because of a dark secret in her past. Edward Springrove can't marry Cytherea Graye because he is already betrothed to his cousin. Cytherea can't resist marrying Aeneas Manston, whom she does not love, because of her brother's ailing health and her precarious social situation.

It's valuable to remember that Hardy had spent the roughly ten years previous to writing this book thinking a lot about marriage and the effects (positive and negative) that it could have on his own emotional and social well being. He had searched, in vain, for a future bride with whom he was intellectually compatible but would also satisfy his mother's impossible standards for a wife worthy of joining the Hardy family. It had been ten years playing the "What if?" game, carefully weighing the value of enjoying someone's company against pleasing his mother against the possibility of social mobility, both upward and downward, depending on his choices.

It's tempting to read some of these anxieties into this passage, where Owen Graye describes a conversation to his sister he'd had with Springrove about marriage:

He says that your true lover breathlessly finds himself engaged to a sweetheart, like a man who has caught something in the dark. He doesn't know whether it is a bat or a bird, and he takes it to the light when he is cool to learn what it is. He looks to see if she is the right age, but right age or wrong age, he must consider her a prize. Right kind or wrong kind--he has called her his and must abide by it. After a time, he asks himself, "Has she the temper, hair and eyes I meant to have, and was firmly resolved not to do without?" He finds it is all wrong, and then comes the tussle--"

Due to the social mores of Hardy's time, the presence of sex is almost all implied, either constrained to the past or threatening like an ominous bird a-wing beyond the next plot twist but never arriving. There are two overt intersections of sex with the plot that I want to delay discussing until we get into the suspense elements of the plot but there's one interaction that bears closer consideration relative to the social elements.

On the very first evening that Cytherea spends at Knapwater House with Miss Aldclyffe, the latter comes to her bedroom for a very long and awkward visit that lasts the night.

She got a light in an instant, opened the door and raising her eyes and the candle, saw Miss Aldclyffe standing outside in her dressing-gown.

'Now you see that it is really myself; put out the light,' said the visitor. 'I want to stay here with you, Cythie. I came to ask you to come down into my bed, but it is snugger here. But remember that you are mistress in this room, and that I have no business here, and that you may send me away if you choose. Shall I go?"

'O no; you shan't indeed if you don't want,' said Cythie generously.

The instant they were in bed Miss Aldclyffe freed herself from the last remnant of restraint. She flung her arms round the young girl, and pressed her gently to heart.

'Now kiss me,' she said.

Cytherea, upon the whole, was rather discomposed at this change of treatment; and, discomposed or no, her passion were not so impetuous as Miss Aldclyffe's. She could nor bring her soul to her lips for a moment, try how she would.

'Come, kiss me,' repeated Miss Aldclyffe.

Cytherea gave her a very small one, as soft in touch and in sound as the bursting of a bubble.

'More earnestly than that - come.'

She gave another, a little but not much more expressively.

'I don't deserve a more feeling one, I suppose,' said Miss Aldclyffe, with an emphasis of sad bitterness in her tone. 'I am an ill-tempered woman, you think, half out of my mind; Well, perhaps I am; but I have had grief more than you can think or dream of. But I can't help loving you - your name is the same as mine - isn't it strange?'

Critics and readers alike are torn as to whether Hardy intended this scene to be erotic. Those inclined against that reading can plausibly point to evidence in the plot structure that suggests Hardy is just establishing Miss Aldclyffe as Cytherea's surrogate mother-figure, describing a later kiss in the scene as "warm motherly salute, given as if in the outburst of strong feeling, long checked, and yearning for something to love and be loved in return."

Still, this scene (which goes on for a very long time) stands out as one of the only moments in the book where two characters actually touch one another (in the same bed, unchaperoned except by the reader). It's not hard for me to believe that Hardy may have constructed the scene with the strictest notions of plot structure in mind while being aware that the (mis)interpretation of more prurient readers may have been more racy than that of his own.

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