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!)

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