“Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” — Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose


fter the rejection of his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, written in 1867, Thomas Hardy followed George Meredith's advice “to write a story with a plot” (Florence Hardy 85) and set about working on his next novel, Desperate Remedies, which he completed in the spring of 1870. He sent the manuscript to the publisher, Alexander Macmillan, but it was rejected as being too sensational and sexually charged. (Harvey 19) Eventually, the novel in three volumes was published anonymously on 25 March 1871 by Tinsley Brothers, a publishing company which published, among others, sensation novels. Hardy had to contribute financially to the publication of his novel by paying the publisher seventy-five pounds to cover possible losses. Tinsley printed 500 copies, but sales were not good and Hardy regained only fifty-nine pounds.

The earliest of Hardy’s fourteen published novels is, as Gittings says, “a curious amalgam of composite elements” (199). It combines at least two subgenres of popular Victorian sensation fiction: the Gothic romance and detective fiction. The novel was in great degree an altered and more elaborate version of The Poor Man and the Lady. In accordance with Meredith's suggestion, Hardy included in a vivid, realistic setting plus a whole repertoire of sensational motifs: mystery and suspense, strained coincidences, illegitimacy, bigamous marriage, marital cruelty, desertion and murder. Older criticism underrated the novel on account of its improbable plot and sensationalism. A contemporary reviewer wrote in the Spectator: “The anonymity is fortunate for the author; too bad the publishers could not conceal their identity. The book contains no fine or original character, ‘no display except of the brute kind, no pictures of Christian virtue” (Gerber and Davis 19). The review in the Spectator criticised the anonymous author for “ prying into the idle ways of wickedness,” but praised “ his sensitiveness to scenic and atmospheric effects, and to their influence on the mind, and the power of rousing similar sensitiveness in his readers” (Evelyn Hardy 98). The review in the Athenaeum was more favourable. Although the reviewer found the story ‘unpleasant’, its descriptions of rural life and the use of original local dialect were quite promising.

Reviewers often pointed to Hardy’s indebtedness to contemporary authors. Gordon Hall Gerould observed that “ Hardy imitated Wilkie Collins in Desperate Remedies and learned how to manage the narrative” (Gerber and Davis 466). However, as Hardy's biographer, Evelyn Hardy (no family relation) wrote:

This early novel of Hardy’s is generally derided as being sensational and worthless. Yet it has passages of great beauty and reveals certain distinctive traits which the writer was to develop, or which merely lie embedded like fossils in his mature work. Looking back from our vantage-point in time we can discern exciting things which the critics of eighty years ago could not possibly do, for we have the whole of Hardy’s work spread out before us [99].

Indeed, due to its ambiguous and intricate content, Desperate Remedies is more than a sensation novel in the tradition of Wilkie Collins, Ellen Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Its plot is complex, improbable, sensational and melodramatic, but the novel has an interesting psychological subtext which can be elucidated when its various intertextual clues and allusions are detected. Lawrence O. Jones noted that although on the surface Desperate Remedies is a conventional sensation novel, it also contains, particularly in the first part, a tragic pattern, similar to that of Far from the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders, which would imply some of the themes of his early poetry. Jones pointed out that the major characters “ are much more complex than is necessary for the sensation novel pattern" (38).

In fact, Hardy had a greater ambition than writing a sensation novel. He attempted to show his protagonists not as stock characters typical of sensation novels, but as elemental men and women living in a post-Darwinian universe. Their conduct is determined rather by their instinct than reason and social convention. In Desperate Remedies Hardy showed that that the biological aspect of life predetermines human actions. He introduced one of his favourite themes — the dichotomy between 'flesh and spirit' — and became the first Victorian novelist to deal frankly with human sexuality and the unconscious.

At the beginning of Desperate Remedies a strange bond of physical intimacy occurs between Miss Aldclyffe, an eccentric and possessive lady, who becomes attracted by her new maid, Cytherea Graye, a poor eighteen-year old girl, left without money after the untimely death of her father. In an ambiguous episode, Miss Aldclyffe comes to Cytherea’s room at night:

A distinct woman’s whisper came to her through the keyhole: ‘Cytherea!’ Only one being in the house knew her Christian name, and that was Miss Aldclyffe. Cytherea stepped out of bed, went to the door, and whispered back, ‘Yes?’ ‘Let me come in, darling.’ The young woman paused in a conflict between judgment and emotion. It was now mistress and maid no longer; woman and woman only. Yes; she must let her come in, poor thing. 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 to,’ 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 her heart. ‘Now kiss me,’ she said. [92-93]

For a modern reader this scene may suggest the beginning of an intriguing lesbian relationship between a lady and her maid. However, this motif is discontinued in the rest of the novel, and as Mary Rimmer argues, “Defining the extent of Hardy’s awareness of lesbian desire — or indeed anyone’s awareness of it in the England of the 1870s — is difficult. Some readers speculate that Hardy did not know what he was writing, and Robert Gittings suggests that he merely transcribed an anecdote recounted by one of his servant cousins” (94). A clue to this mysterious scene can be found in the previous chapter. While Cytherea helps Miss Aldclyffe to undress, she notices a locket on her mistress‘s breasts. Miss Aldclyffe first tries to hide it, but eventually she shows its content to Cytherea.

'You saw what I wear on my neck, I suppose?' she said to Cytherea's reflected face./p>

'Yes, madam, I did,' said Cytherea to Miss Aldclyffe's reflected face. Miss Aldclyffe again looked at Cytherea's reflection as if she were on the point of explaining. Again she checked her resolve, and said lightly — 'Few of my maids discover that I wear it always. I generally keep it a secret — not that it matters much. But I was careless with you, and seemed to want to tell you. You win me to make confidences that....' She ceased, took Cytherea's hand in her own, lifted the locket with the other, touched the spring and disclosed a miniature.

'It is a handsome face, is it not?' she whispered mournfully, and even timidly.

'It is.'

But the sight had gone through Cytherea like an electric shock, and there was an instantaneous awakening of perception in her, so thrilling in its presence as to be well-nigh insupportable. The face in the miniature was the face of her own father – younger and fresher than she had ever known him — but her father! [83]

Cytherea discovers that Miss Aldclyffe is Cytherea Bradleigh, an old flame of her father's, who lives under a new surname. Also Miss Aldclyffe soon finds out that Cytherea is the daughter of the man she once loved. Although her relationship with the girl becomes sensuous, it never transgresses the mid-Victorian code of propriety because, as Sally Ledger pointed out, “(t)he kisses and hugs of Desperate Remedies offended no known sexual codes, since lesbian love did not exist as a discursive construct in Britain until well into the 1890s" (128).

Cytherea's attitude to Miss Aldclyffe is ambivalent. As her maid she does not want to offend or discourage her, but she loves Edward Springrove, a poor young architect — her brother's friend; however, when she learns that Edward is already engaged to his cousin, she decides, upon Miss Aldclyffe's advice, to marry Aeneas Manston, a villainous young widower, who both fascinates and frightens her. He seduces her during a thunderstorm by playing very expressive music on the organ.

She was swayed into emotional opinions concerning the strange man before her; new impulses of thought came with new harmonies, and entered into her with a gnawing thrill. A dreadful flash of lightning then, and the thunder close upon it. She found herself involuntarily shrinking up beside him, and looking with parted lips at his face. He turned his eyes and saw her emotion, which greatly increased the ideal element in her expressive face. She was in the state in which woman's instinct to conceal has lost its power over her impulse to tell; and he saw it. Bending his handsome face over her till his lips almost touched her ear, he murmured, without breaking the harmonies — 'Do you very much like this piece?'

'Very much indeed,' she said. [162]

Eventually, due to Manson's sexual attractiveness, Cytherea almost surrenders to him, and although she does not love him, she marries him, but the marriage is never consummated. Cytherea learns that Manston's wife did not die in fire, but he murdered her in a fit of rage. Manston is finally captured and lodged in the Casterbridge gaol, where he commits suicide. It afterwards appeared that he was the illegitimate son of Miss Aldclyffe, who had no knowledge of her son’s crime. The shock of the tragedy causes Miss Aldclyffe’s death. She leaves all her property to her son's widow, Cytherea, who may now be reunited with Edward, because he is free from his previous engagement.

In Desperate Remedies Hardy did not go far beyond a melodramatic and sensational plot, although the novel reveals some of his interest in the psychological development of characters, his fascination with the Wessex landscape and the use of unexpected chance events and coincidences in narrative. Although Desperate Remedies, as a sensation novel, draws basically from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Hardy included in his novel a lot of other intertextual clues and allusions from modern and classic literary works but, as Marlene Springer notes, “compared to later Hardy novels, Desperate Remedies contains relatively few allusions: approximately twenty from the Bible, and some sixty historical and poetical ones, including three quotations from Virgil in the original” (478).

Quotations from Virgil, Shakespeare, Thomas Watson, Richard Crashaw, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert Browning have little relevance to the main plot; they are paratextual devices which provide additional information to the main authorial text as well as important intertextual contexts. They are addressed to more sophisticated readers who are familiar with literature, and testify to Hardy's erudition and wide culture.

Title usually serves as an important guide to the reader and sometimes sums up the theme of a literary work. A favourite Victorian form of a novel's title was a literary quote. Hardy was particularly fond of using quotations as titles of his novels. Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, are all quotes from earlier literature. Hardy probably borrowed the title of his first published novel from an English proverb: “desperate diseases must have desperate remedies,” which derives from a Latin proverb: “extremis malis extrema remedia.” A similar phrase — “(d)angerous diseases require desperate remedies” — can be found in Guy Fawkes (260), a historical romance written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Hardy's favourite childhood author. It seems that Hardy wanted to write a deliberately intertextual novel, drawing not only on contemporary fiction, but also on classical mythology, the Bible, Victorian poetry. Hardy's aim was, it seems, to go beyond the narrow limits of the sensation novel and integrate his first published novel into the broad literary tradition.

Hardy's conscious borrowing of names from classical mythology suggests that he intended to enrich his sensation romance with subtexts which contribute to a better rendering of characters and their actions. For example, the name 'Cytherea' functions in the novel as a trope which recalls the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite, also known as Cytherea (Lady of Cythera). Cytherea Graye, the central character in the novel, is depicted as a free spirited and independent girl whose corporeal beauty and sexuality bear great resemblance to the mythical Aphrodite. In Desperate Remedies Hardy evoked a known myth about Aphrodite and incorporated it into the intricate and sensational plot. The forename of Miss Aldclyffe's illegitimate son, Aeneas Manston, alludes to Aphrodite's son, Aeneas, who is mentioned in Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aenid. Hardy, who was fascinated by the Dido and Aeneas relationship, plotted it freely into Desperate Remedies.

This early novel also contains some interesting features which have been noticed by recent criticism. As Geoffrey Harvey has pointed out, “The strength of “Desperate Remedies lies in its portrayal of Cytherea Graye and her companion Miss Aldclyffe. The docile Cytherea is beautiful, flirtatious, and intensely aware of her sexuality" (Harvey 95). Unlike earlier Victorian authors, Hardy emphasises the physical aspect of femininity and female sexuality. To that end, in Desperate Remedies Hardy introduces a male voyeuristic gaze as a narrative point of view. It will become his favourite technique in his later novels. He depicts Cytherea Graye as an Aphrodite/Venus figure (Sylvia 104).

Her hair rested gaily upon her shoulders in curls, and was of a shining corn-yellow in the high lights, deepening to a definite nut-brown as each curl wound round into the shade. She had eyes of a sapphire hue, though rather darker than the gem ordinarily appears: they possessed 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. [8]

Hardy will continue to create heroines who possess some of Cytherea’s features. The motif of a sexually attractive woman reappears in Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and A Pair of Blue Eyes.

In Desperate Remedies Hardy also makes use of the Gothic tradition in his presentation of love and sexual desire. His Gothic intertextual devices include confused identities, implausible coincidences, a persecuted maiden and a villain, an old mansion (instead of a Gothic castle), murder, suppressed and deviant sexuality.

In the light of above, contrary to contemporary opinions, Desperate Remedies is not merely a sensation romance with heavily plotted series of accidents, improbabilities and coincidences, but also an attempt at writing a more ambitious genre. Carl J. Weber wrote that “Desperate Remedies was a beginning the author need not be ashamed of" (46).

References and Further Reading

Ainsworth, William Harrison. Guy Fawkes or The Gunpowder Treason. London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.

Cosslett, Tess. Woman to Woman: Female Friendship in Victorian Fiction. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International, Inc., 1988.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Fisher, Joe. The Hidden Hardy. New York: St. Martin‘s Press, 1992.

Gerber Helmut E. and W. Eugene Davis. Vol. I. Thomas Hardy. An Annotated Bibliography of Writing About Him. Vol. De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Gittings, Robert. Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Hardy, Evelyn. Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1954.

Hardy, Florence Emily. The Early Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1891. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Hardy, Thomas. Desperate Remedies. New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1905; also available at Gutenberg Project.

Harvey, Geoffrey. The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

Jekel, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy: Whitston Publishing Co., 1986.

Jones, Lawrence O. “Desperate Remedies and the Victorian Sensation Novel.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20(1) (1965) 35-50.

Ledger, Sally. The New Woman: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin de Siecle. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Morgan, Rosemarie, ed. Student Companion to Thomas Hardy. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Page, Norman, ed. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novel: From The Woman in White to The Moonstone. London: Northcote House Publishers, 1994.

Showalter, Elaine. “Desperate Remedies: Sensation Novels of the 1860s.” Victorian Newsletter 49 (1976) 1-5.

Springer, Marlene. “Invention and Tradition: Allusions in Desperate Remedies.” Colby Library Quarterly. 10 (8) (1974) 475-485.

Sylvia, Richard. “Thomas Hardy‘s Desperate Remedies: All My Sin has been Because I Love You So.” Colby Library Quarterly. 35(2) (1999) 102-115.

Taylor, Richard H. The Neglected Hardy. New York: St. Martin‘s Press, 1982.

Thomas, Jane. Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the 'Minor' Novels. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Weber, Carl J. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, T.R. Hardy and the Erotic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Created 11 January 2015