August 26, 2011

Reviews: Thomas Hardy: The Neglected Novels--Part II

I mentioned a week or so ago that I was in the process of reading the remaining four novels written by Thomas Hardy that I'd not gotten to before.  Hardy wrote fourteen novels over the period from 1871 through 1897.  Actually, his very first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady was completed in 1868, but was never published.  Hardy's first published novel was Desperate Remedies in 1871.  His last novel was The Well-Beloved and was published in 1897.  Of Hardy's fourteen published novels, I had read all but the following:  Desperate Remedies, The Hand of Ethelberta, A Laodicean, and The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved & The Well-Beloved.  So, I ordered the the Penguin Classics editions of these four 'neglected', or 'minor', Hardy novels and started reading.

While, after finishing all four books, I can say that it is my opinion that none of these novels quite rise to the level of Hardy's best work, i.e., Far From the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Woodlanders, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, or Jude the Obscure.  Oh, they are each quite good, well written, and have engaging plots.  Interestingly, at least to me, they are quite different from one another too.

Desperate Remedies was really a rollicking good read--a real pot-boiler of a mystery and romance.  Of all of Hardy's novels this is the one that perhaps most closely emulates some of the literary creations of Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins.  This has it all--scheming and intrigue, blackmail, illegitimacy, adultery, murder and more.  Sure it was maybe a bit rough around the edges, but that is to be expected as this was Hardy's first published novel and he was really just learning his craft.  Personally, I thought the character development was terrific in the novel, with characters that I very much liked and some that I utterly despised.  Desperate Remedies was a fun novel to read and one that I look forward to picking up again in a few years for a re-read.  If you're looking for something that's kind of edgy and mysterious, yet with a good dose of romance and set in the heart of the Victorian Era, I highly recommend Desperate Remedies.

The next book that I read was Thomas Hardy's fifth published novel, The Hand of Ethelberta.  This was very, very good!  What I loved about this novel was that Hardy's protagonist is a savvy and very street-smart young woman, Ethelberta, from a very poor family of ten children.  Without giving much of the plot away, suffice it to say that this young woman sets out to make something of herself (and also indirectly benefit the members of her family).  She is an accomplished poet, and publishes a volume of poetry that is well received by the critics (Remember, Hardy always considered himself, first and foremost, a poet).  She also is put in the position of ultimately having to find herself a wealthy husband if she is going to be able to provide for her parents and siblings.  Most of the novel is taken up with telling the story of Ethelberta's trials and tribulations in honorably finding a decent man and marriage.  All in all, I found this to be quite funny at times, and a pretty rich satire on Victorian society and the roles men and women were expected to adhere to among the upper class.  Like in many of Hardy's novels, the common folk, or 'rustics', figure prominently; so, one really does get a pretty good feel for the 'upstairs' and the 'downstairs' folks during the time-period of the novel.  Again, good character development makes this a fun book to read.  I found myself anxiously turning the page to find out what would happen next to our heroine and the other characters.  Apparently, Hardy even drew upon his wife's diaries in plotting this novel, along with material he found in the popular romances of the day, weekly magazines, and even ladies fashion journals.  The book does provide a wonderful window into upper-crust Victorian society.

Finally, I just finished the third book of Hardy's 'minor' novels yesterday.  A Laodicean is my favorite of the three I've just read.  It is a sophisticated novel with a superb plot.  Again, there's mystery, some really nasty and nefarious scheming on the part of the bad guys, and a wonderful romantic triangle involving a very wealthy and beautiful young woman and her two very poor suitors.  This novel revolves around architecture and the restoration of an old ruined castle.  Knowing what I know of Hardy's life, one can really see many autobiographical elements in the telling of this tale.  Hardy, as a young architect, spent much of his initial career in restoring old Norman and Gothic churches across Dorset, a task he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.  I found it intriguing too, that this novel, like Desperate Remedies, involve a very poor man falling in love with and courting a woman much wealthier and from the upper class.  A Laodicean is also, in my opinion, a moral treatise on the conflict between maintenance of the old way of life in rural southwest England (i.e., Hardy's 'Wessex') and the new modern age that is fast changing the landscape and people's lives (e.g., the railroad, the telegraph, new religions, etc.).  This examination of the impacts of modernity upon the people and cultures of southwest England is a theme that Hardy will return to time and time again in his subsequent novels and much of his poetry.  I highly recommend reading A Laodicean, and further recommend that you follow up by reading his very next novel, Two on a Tower.  Hardy always considered these two novels to be a diptych--and read together.

So, if you're looking for something new to read; something maybe a bit off of the beaten path and not typically read by the masses, I urge you to seek out these three rather neglected novels of Thomas Hardy (and please do throw Hardy's Two on a Tower onto the pile too).  Pull up a chair next to the window or on your porch or veranda, pour yourself a cup of nice tea, and allow yourself to enter the world of Hardy's Wessex and Victorian England.  You won't be sorry, I promise.  If you read one or more of 'em, do drop me a note and let me know what you thought of the book(s).


  1. I just "discovered" Desperate Remedies last weekend rummaging around Half Price Books. Naturally I bought it, since I enjoyed stumbling upon and reading Two On a Tower last year. It was, in fact, your blog which awakened me to the fact that there are other Hardy novels out there besides The Big Five.

    I can't wait to get started on this one.


  2. Jay, thanks for the visit, and I'm ever so glad that you enjoyed "Two on a Tower". It is truly one of my favorites of Hardy's 'lesser known' novels. Frankly, I think you'll quite enjoy "Desperate Remedies" too. It has the quasi-"predictable plot" too, but keeps the reader fully engaged. Much more of a 'pot-boiler' or sensational type of plot than any of Hardy's novels that follow. It was enjoyable to see the young Hardy at work with this book. Enjoy! Cheers! Chris

  3. Desperate Remedies has just arrived in the mail. I can't wait to read it. I'll be doing a bit of gothic reading (Shelley and Radcliffe) over the next few weeks hopefully closely followed by DR. From how you describe it, it sounds like it will fit right in.