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.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Rob, very enjoyable. Somehow I've managed to respond more fully via Goodreads.

    I suspect, like TH's reluctance to embrace the telephone, I'm too long in the tooth to get to grips fully with new technology.

    Looking forward to your future appraisals of the great man's work.