Saturday, June 18, 2016

Another Milestone!

Illustration by Shayna Pond (2016) for JLS
Please cite artist and blog if you reuse.
I didn't have much opportunity to write for the blog this week as I had a big show this week opening a local blues/jazz festival. I'm reading Under the Greenwood Tree and a couple of other Hardy-related titles right now but I don't have anything specific upon which to report yet.

In the meantime, the flurry of activity at the end of our discussion of Desperate Remedies pushed the all-time page views up over 15,000 since March.

I want to celebrate these little victories while acknowledging that these big bumps in views happen when the good folks at the Thomas Hardy Facebook page share one of my posts (in this case DR Part 7) with their nearly 200K followers. That post was viewed more than 3,500 times, while the majority of my organically supported posts (such as my recent review of Arthur Mee's Dorset) are usually viewed by somewhere between 50 and 80 people.

Call me simple but the fact that somewhere between 50 and 80 people take the time out of their day to exercise their enthusiasm for Thomas Hardy's writing by reading this blog thrills me. I've found pockets of wonderfully sociable Hardy readers at the Thomas Hardy Fans FB page and Goodreads who have given me lots of support and feedback and it means a lot to me. Thanks to all of you - friends, family, strangers alike - who stop in to follow along.

I'd like to give a final shout-out to my wife, Shayna, who has graced this blog with several outstanding illustrations, including the one attached to this post. She made that one for me for a one-of-a-kind t-shirt [editor's note: said t-shirt and the illustration which adorns it was a wedding anniversary gift] which should arrive later this month. I'm going to make the shout-out extra loud because I groused at her literally this moment for asking me about another obligation I had made freely but had yet to fulfill. And then she brought me some iced tea. She's wonderful and I am still a project under improvement.

Thanks, y'all.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: The King's England (Dorset) by Arthur Mee

The King's England: Dorset is a quaint book that offers an exhaustive survey of the towns and accompanying landmarks of Dorset as they stood in 1939. The author, Arthur Mee, wrote a series of these books, covering all the counties in England, and this one, published just over a decade after Hardy's death, is written through a filter of identifying landmarks that might appeal specifically to admirers of TH's work.

As one might expect, there is a LOT in here about the churches that serve as the anchor for most, if not all, of these towns but geography and history are given a fair amount of consideration as well. Mee focuses a lot of his description on delineating the layers of pre-Roman, Roman, Saxon, Norman and British influence on the architecture that really drives home how long these lands have been occupied.

There is a somber tone that underpins this book as one is regularly reminded of the trouble brewing in Europe as it is being written and published and it's hard not to read a "We better document this while it exists" subtext into it. This proved to be true, though not as apocalyptically as Mee might have feared, as later editions of the London volume had to be extensively re-written and broken into multiple volumes to accommodate the rebuilding after the bombing of the Second World War.

Judging solely from the Dorset edition, I enjoyed reading Mee's writing. He's not afraid to take an opinion or pass a judgment on an historical event or person and it feels like something written by a person and not a tourism board. His writing is, on occasion, lyrical and always thorough. The survey as a whole is undermined by the alphabetical listing of the towns, which makes the continuity of geographic proximity tougher to parse than it should be.

There are plenty of nods to Hardy and the many roles Dorset plays in his work to satisfy those who might consider this volume as a reference to their own interest in the West Country's favorite son.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 8 - The Verdict

Eliza Bright Nicholls,
the inspiration for Cytherea Graye?
Photo from the Beinecke Rare Book
and Manuscript Library, Yale University
As we close the back cover on our examination of Thomas Hardy's first novel, Desperate Remedies, I want to take a quick look at what elements of the book were reflections of people and places in his real life.

Millgate points out in his Hardy biography that Cytherea Graye was based, at least in aspect, upon Eliza Nicholls, the elder of the two Nicholls sisters with whom Hardy had a long-standing "agreement" that did not end in marriage. However, it is very tempting to read some of his own sister, Mary Hardy into the character as well. She was visiting Hardy regularly in Weymouth during the time he was writing The Poor Man and the Lady, which would be cannibalized to some degree or another to create Remedies. The strong bond between Hardy and his sister can also be seen in the relationship between Cytherea and her brother, Owen.

Speaking of Owen, Hardy acknowledged that he had modeled that character upon himself but, when asked about Edward Springrove, he coyly responded that the character was modeled upon someone he met while working in the architectural office in Weymouth. I think it's pretty plain that Edward, an architect of limited means who was tangled up in a long-standing engagement he did not wish to fulfill and had literary aspirations, was also based on Hardy. The two characters (Owen and Edward) become very difficult to tell apart from one another, especially later in the novel when they are working together to prove Manston's guilt. Owen represented Hardy as he saw himself with Edward representing the soulful young architect who aspired to be a writer. To Hardy's credit, he lived out that aspiration more successfully than I imagine even he could have hoped.

Where shall we look to find the inspiration for our two more tortured characters, Miss Aldclyffe and Aeneas Manston? Those characters, I suspect, were mostly invented for the sake of the story. One could point to Julia Martin, the woman of some means who took a shine to Thomas when he was a boy and from whom he was separated by a feud she got into with Jemima Hardy over his education. Hardy infuses Miss Aldclyffe with a surprising degree of sensual energy for the role she plays in the book and she would have been of just the right age when he knew her best to serve as the eventual model for this dark maternal figure. As for Manston, there is no one adequately Byronic enough from Hardy's life prior to the writing of Remedies to have been the direct inspiration. Again, one might be tempted to consider Horace Moule but given Moule's known predilection for young men, it's just a poor fit.

Thomas Hardy's body of novels (and to some extent his poems) are known for their shared geography, the fictional Wessex standing in for the county of Dorset. While Hardy certainly drew upon familiar places to make the locations in Desperate Remedies seem real, he didn't imbue them with the same careful attention to detail that he would in later books. In fact, the Wessex towns that appear in Remedies didn't even bear the names that line up our current editions of the novels with the other Wessex novels in his body of work. He changed them later to import them into his Wessex universe.

Of the places that appear in the novel, only Budmouth (a stand in for the coastal city of Weymouth) comes across as a Wessex city proper. Hardy's inclusion of incidental details that he experienced while living there (and while writing the early draft of The Poor Man and the Lady) like boating and dancing probably have more to do with his trying to draw from lived experiences to give the novel a ring of authenticity. Otherwise, cities don't play the defining role that we'll see in later books.

In closing our examination of Desperate Remedies, I'd like to offer a few broad assessments of it that the reader might take away. Most importantly, it's a pretty good book, especially for a first published work. Several of the characters transcend their function in the twisting plot and inspire a degree of pathos from their suffering, not the least of which being the supposed villain, Aeneas Manston. Hardy's natural gifts for prose leavened by a poetic tone elevates important moments and even sections of the book unmistakably out of the pure genre fiction it is intended to be and up towards something resembling literature.

The book suffers to an extent from being overlong. There are sections, mostly towards the end, where it feels as if we are being asked to tread water in order to satisfy the structural expectations of the audience. The social aspects of the novel feel more successful but the suspenseful elements are leaned upon more heavily to justify the plot. The result is, at worst, mildly diffuse.

For this reader, though, the good in this novel outweighs the bad by a margin of about two-to-one and, on whatever plane we feel the need to record a success or a failure in regards to a work of art, Hardy notched a 'W' on his first published novel.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 7 - Let's Get Physical

Cytherea Graye, as illustrated by Peter Whiteman for the
Heron Books edition of Desperate Remedies (1977)
Thomas Hardy is known for bringing a thrilling kind of poetry to his physical descriptions and Desperate Remedies is no exception. While the social and suspenseful elements of the plot may group it with or set it apart from other novels he's written, Hardy's attention to detail and his ability to wring emotional value out of the delivery of those details are the elements perhaps most universal to what is great in his writing.

The bedrock of this gift lies in his descriptions of the characters that inhabit his work. The more important that a character is, the more lavish the description he affords. Moreover, Hardy has a particular knack for tying something essential about the character into that description using interesting metaphors or other rhetorical devices.

In the opening of the plot proper, he describes Cytherea Graye, noting that "[her] face was exceedingly attractive, though artistically less perfect than her figure, which approached unusually near the standard of faultlessness." Later, he describes her hair as "resting upon her shoulders in curls" and "of a shining corn yellow in the high lights, deepening to a definite nut-brown as each curl wound round into the shade." Her eyes are "of a sapphire hue" as well as possessing "the affectionate and liquid sparkle of loyalty and good faith as distinguishable from that harder brightness which seems to express faithfulness only to the object confronting them."

We are treated to the first description of her beau, Edward Springrove through Cytherea's eyes. She notes him as being "above her brother's height" and "although the upper part of his face and head were handsomely formed, and bounded by lines of sufficiently masculine regularity, his brows were somewhat too softly arched, and finely pencilled for one of his sex." The sum effect suggested to her that "though they [his features] did not prove that the man who thought inside them would do much in the world, men who had done most of all had had no better ones."

Hardy's description of the misunderstood villain of the piece, Aeneas Manston, is perhaps his most sensual and detailed of the book.

He was an extremely handsome man, well-formed, and well-dressed, of an age which seemed to be two or three years less than thirty. The most striking point in his appearance was the wonderful, almost preternatural, clearness of his complexion. There was not a blemish or speck of any kind to mar the smoothness of its surface or the beauty of its hue. Next, his forehead was square and broad, his brows straight and firm, his eyes penetrating and clear...Eyes and forehead both would have expressed keenness of intellect too severely to be pleasing, had their force not been counteracted by the lines and tone of the lips. These were full and luscious to a surprising degree, possessing a woman-like softness of curve, and a ruby redness so intense, as to testify strongly to much susceptibility of heart where feminine beauty was concerned...

His manner was rather elegant than good; his speech well-finished and unconstrained.

In all three cases, Hardy begins with the physical but then credibly extends his observations into the more intangible elements of character to let the reader know what they can expect from each player moving forward into the story.

Another highlight of Hardy's descriptive passages are those of buildings and structures. By his own admission, Hardy rarely invented these structures of whole cloth but often pulled them from places he'd lived, visited or studied on his own aborted journey toward becoming an architect. He spoke the language of structural design and, at times, could have been reading aloud from a blueprint. He describes Knapwater House (Miss Aldclyffe's home) as "regularly and substantially built of clean grey freestone throughout...the main block approximated to a square on the ground plan, having a projection in the center of each side, surmounted by a pediment. From each angle of the inferior side ran a line of buildings lower than the rest, turning inwards again at their further end, and forming within them a spacious open court, within which resounded an echo of astonishing clearness."

The steward's house is described by Manston himself, again using the voice of an architect to demonstrate Hardy's own fluency in the language of design.

'Here, you see, they have made a door through; here, they have put a partition dividing the old hall in two, one part is now my parlour; there they have put a plaster ceiling, hiding the old chestnut-carved roof because it was too high and would have been chilly for me; you see, being the original hall, it was open right up to the top; and here the lord of the manor and his retainers used to meet and be merry by the light from the monstrous fire which shone out from that monstrous fire-place, now narrowed to a mere nothing for my grate, though you could see the old outline still.'

For all the depth that his description of people and structures brings to Hardy's novels, it is, of course, his descriptions of natural phenomena that often elevate his writing into the poetic register. Like the Impressionists painters, Hardy describes nuance in the interplay of light and shadow that might be lost on a less observant eye, as in this passage: "It was just that stage in the slow decline of the summer days, when the deep, dark, and vacuous hot-weather shadows are beginning to be replaced by blue ones that have a surface and substance to the eye."

Or this painterly description of a "heathery valley":

The wide concave which lay at the back of the hill in this direction was blazing with the western light, adding an orange tint to the vivid purple of the heather, now at the very climax of bloom, and free from the slightest touch of the invidious brown that so soon creeps into shades. The light so intensified the colours that they seemed to stand above the surface of the earth and float in mid-air like an exhalation of red.

His observations are also not limited to the visual dimension but can cross senses with a dizzying facility, as when he is describing Cytherea's long first night at Knapwater House.

Her ears became aware of a strange and gloomy murmur.

She recognized it: it was the gushing of the waterfall, faint and low, brought from its source to the unwonted distance of the House by a faint breeze which made it distinct and recognizable by reason of the utter absence of all disturbing sounds...She began to fancy what the waterfall must be like at that hour, under the trees in the ghostly moonlight. Black at the head, and over the surface of the deep cold hold into which it fell; white and frothy at the fall; black and white, like a pall and its border; sad everywhere.

These kinds of poetic flourishes can be found peppered throughout Desperate Remedies, sometimes to set a scene, often to set a mood or reinforce a theme or, in masterful confluences which manage both aims. Hardy opens this passage with a sly quotation from Tennyson's "A Dream of Fair Women" before completing the image with his own imaginative verbal sketch.

'The tearful glimmer of the languid dawn' was just sufficient to reveal to them the melancholy red leaves, lying thickly in the channels by the roadside, ever and anon loudly tapped on by heavy drops of water, which the boughs above had collected from the foggy air.

(That is my favorite sentence in the book!)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Desperate Remedies Part 6 - Everything Falls Apart

Illustration by Shayna Pond.
Please cite the artist and blog if you reuse this image.
After the wedding that was left unconsummated, Desperate Remedies slips into a torpor. The overarching theme is one of limbo: Cytherea in a half-married, half-unmarried state; Edward unable to advance his cause do to the debt incurred from the inn's burning; Manston searching for a wife recently presumed dead; Miss Aldclyffe receding from the story as a whole.

Manston does his due diligence (though he is near fixated on Cytherea) and places advertisements encouraging his wife to return. After the third advertisement, Manston receives a letter from his estranged wife and she returns, moving into his steward's quarters at Knapwater House as was the original plan. Cytherea and Owen move to a nearby town while she recovers from an illness brought about by the stress of her situation.

It is this point in the book (about two-thirds of the way in) that Desperate Remedies becomes a little tedious. Part of the problem is that the most interesting characters are basically shelved and replaced by two very earnest and almost murderously dull architects (Owen and Edward) painfully unspooling the inconsistencies in the events as they have unfolded. Cytherea will have no part of a marriage with Edward while her virtue is in question, which she perceives that it is due to having married an already married man if in rite only. Edward becomes obsessed with proving that Manston knew his wife was alive before he married Cytherea, which would out him as a knowing bigamist and exonerate her of any implied guilt.

The details of that slow unraveling are too dull to document point by point but they wind us up at the most improbable of outcomes: namely, the discovery that the woman who has been living in Manston's home is not the same woman who arrived at the inn those many months earlier. At the same time, the faux-Mrs. Manston (whom we'll now address by her name, Anne) is having her own doubts about her "husband's" reason for perpetuating the charade. She comes across a letter written by her doppelganger AFTER she'd arrived in Carriford, thus proving she survived the fire. Each of Manston's allies (his fake wife, Miss Aldclyffe and a rector) are peeled away from him by the ever-lengthening trail of evidence until his ultimate motive is revealed in a scene that would be hilarious if it weren't so macabre.

Suspicious of his motives, Anne follows Manston after he presumes that he has slipped her a sleeping concoction. He retrieves a suspicious bundle and trudges off into the forest. Anne sees what no one else does - that Manston is being watched by a man who in turn is being watched by a woman who is being watched by Anne herself and they all follow one another, with Manston as the drum major bearing the bulky load deep into the forest. After he buries the bundle, there is a chain reaction wherein Manston is alerted to his male stalker by the unknown female stalker and, after striking the man down with his shovel, he runs off into the forest. The man is a detective hired to follow Manston and, backed up by the rector and Anne's testimony, they dig up the parcel to discover the lifeless body of the original Mrs. Manston -- her murder his desperate remedy for his obsession with marrying Cytherea.

The woman who alerted Manston was Miss Aldclyffe who, it turns out, is Manston's natural mother. He was the secret lovechild that made her marriage to Ambrose Graye impossible those many years ago. Her machinations to wed him to Cytherea is the final desperate remedy revealed but instead of righting the wrong of her youth, it transforms her son into a murderer in order to escape his joyless marriage. There is a bit of roughhousing at the end when Manston tries to kidnap Cytherea to take her out of the country but his efforts come to naught as eventually the self-inflicted noose, literal and figurative, finally tightens around his neck.

I know that was probably a lot of plot description to take in but it should give you some sense of how twisty this book is. I'll wrap up my discussion of Desperate Remedies in two posts: one looking at Hardy's descriptions of nature and architecture; and the final looking at how Desperate Remedies intersects with our understanding of Hardy himself at the time he wrote the book.