David Bailey photographs the locations of Thomas Hardy’s first novel, Desperate Remedies, while Tony Burton-Page condenses its plot to 500 words
Published in June ’14
Desperate Remedies is first in the list of Hardy’s published novels, but it was not his first novel. That honour goes to The Poor Man and the Lady, which he wrote as a bitter satire on what he had experienced (and despised) during five years of life in London as an architect’s assistant. He sent it to several publishers and, while he received some positive comments (‘If this is your first book I think you ought to go on…’ and ‘There is real feeling in the writing…’), each publisher rejected it. The reader for Chapman & Hall was no less a literary giant than the novelist and poet George Meredith, who supplemented his unreliable income as a writer in this way. Meredith advised Hardy that The Poor Man and the Lady would receive a hostile reception from the critics, which would set back his literary career. Meredith recommended a stronger plot and less of a social purpose: ‘Don’t nail your colours to the mast just yet.’ This was the final blow after fifteen months of effort with publishers: Hardy decided to abandon it and subsequently destroyed the manuscript.
Desperate Remedies was his next attempt at a novel and it met with a happier fate. He took Meredith’s advice to make more of the plot: its narrative is a heavily plotted series of accidents, improbabilities and coincidences.
Hardy decided to write from his own experience so architects play an important part in the story and, as a backdrop, he uses the Dorset countryside with which he was so familiar. This was the beginning of ‘Hardy’s Wessex’, although he changed some of his invented names in the 1896 edition ‘for the satisfaction of any reader who may care for consistency in such matters’.
Ambrose Graye is an architect who works in ‘Christminster’ (Oxford), but falls in love with a young girl with the highly unusual name of Cytherea while spending the Christmas holidays in London. When he proposes marriage, she inexplicably rushes away and leaves the country. Eventually he despairs of finding her and marries ‘a young lady of a different kind’. They have two children: a boy called Owen and a girl called – inevitably – Cytherea.
The children are orphaned while they are still teenagers and are left in poverty. To make ends meet, Owen finds himself a position with an architect in ‘Budmouth Regis’ (Weymouth), and he and Cytherea find lodgings there. They get to know Owen’s colleague Edward Springrove, who fascinates Cytherea. When brother and sister go on a paddle steamer excursion to ‘Lulstead Cove’ (Lulworth Cove, which Hardy calls ‘Lulwind Cove’ in later writings), Owen walks off to investigate the ‘interesting mediaeval ruin’ at ‘Corvsgate Castle’ (Corfe Castle) but goes lame and cannot manage to walk back. Fortunately Edward Springrove happens to meet him, tells him to go to ‘Anglebury’ (Wareham) and catch a train back to Budmouth while Springrove walks to Cytherea at Lulstead with the news. On the voyage back, their love is cemented.
Springrove has to leave Budmouth to work in London, but not before he and Cytherea spend an evening rowing from Budmouth to ‘Ringsworth Shore’ (Ringstead), during which he kisses her for the first time.
Their still-straitened circumstances compel Cytherea to take on employment as a lady’s-maid to Miss Aldcyffe at ‘Knapwater House’ (Kingston Maurward House). Miss Aldclyffe takes a liking to her and encourages her (with financial inducements) to marry her new steward, Aeneas Manston, who takes up residence in ‘the old manor-house’ (the original Elizabethan manor house at Kingston Maurward, which in Hardy’s time had become farm cottages). But it emerges that Manston has a wife in London whom he has neglected; she comes to Dorset to see him but the inn at which she stays burns down that night and it is thought that she perishes in the fire.
Owen is now seriously ill and Cytherea, still in love with Springrove but desperate to support her brother, agrees to marry Manston now that he is a free man. Owen comes to Knapwater to recuperate and gradually regains his strength. He is sent to be clerk of works at the re-building of the church in nearby ‘Tolchurch’ (Tolpuddle).
But Manston is a villain: his wife did not die in the fire (she departed unseen by all except a porter at ‘Anglebury’ station), but he killed her in a fit of pique when she returned. He conceals her body, but Owen and the now-returned Springrove uncover the truth. Manston is caught and sent to prison in ‘Casterbridge’ (Dorchester), where he commits suicide in his cell.
Miss Aldclyffe, on her death-bed, reveals that Manston was her illegitimate son. She leaves Knapwater to Cytherea, who marries Springrove: perhaps the nearest Hardy gets to ‘they all live happily ever after’. ◗