Thomas Hardy likes graceful women, but none are as deliberately graceful as Cytherea Graye in his first published novel, Desperate Remedies (1871). In a scene rife with small-town prying eyes and the unconscious self-caricaturizing of town locals displaying their cultivation through the organization of a Shakespeare reading, the beautiful Cytherea enters a room – her appearance forming “an interesting subject of study for several neighbouring eyes.” Hardy highlights the “gracefulness of her movement, which was fascinating and delightful to an extreme degree,” before further describing the faultlessness of her figure in the following terms:
Indeed, motion was her specialty, whether shown in its most extended scale of bodily progression, or minutely, as in the uplifting of her eyelids, the bending of her fingers, the pouting of her lip. The carriage of her head – motion within motion – a glide upon a glide – was as delicate as that of a magnetic needle. And this flexibility and elasticity had never been taught her by rule, nor even been acquired by observation, but, nullo cultu, had naturally developed itself with her years.
“Cytherea,” the name of this most graceful of young women, borrows from an epithet for Venus, the roman goddess of love often associated with the Greek island of Cythera. One part otherworldly and borrowed from the gods, another part scientific in its flexibility and elasticity, Cytherea’s grace emerges at the crossroads of modern culture where the shifting laws of motion and mobility wrestle incommensurately with aesthetic definitions of beauty and grace. Even at this early stage in Hardy’s career as a novelist do we find such moments as this where perception, consciousness, and the supposed charms of the feminine sex work their magic in rural settings like the Wessex county of his later novels. But what interests me about Desperate Remedies – which is often considered one of Hardy’s worst novels – is the extent to which Cytherea’s grace is consistently set against a swirling culture of information exchange and circulation. Indeed, Hardy even refers frequently throughout this deliberately stylized sensation novel to the “material media through which this story moves.” The narrative includes countless circulating railway bodies, letters, telegrams, and photographs, thus leading most critics to see this as a deliberate, and poorly conceived, attempt to follow the narrative form of a typical Wilkie Collins or M.E. Braddon novel. The novel is certainly formulaic, but I’m wondering if this should be grounds for dismissing Desperate Remedies as a work of lesser Victorian fiction. In fact, I think it contains one of Hardy’s most sophisticated accounts of the revolutionary changes in the techniques of bodily experience in the Victorian era.
At the heart of this change is Cytherea’s body, which Hardy conceives as thoroughly graceful, and as such, unknowable in its motive forces. Motion is certainly her specialty at the novel’s outset, but this is not a typical Victorian glorification of feminine beauty. For what happens to Cytherea is nothing short of a technical immobilizing inscription of her elasticity. She becomes merely a “pawn” in the larger sensational materiality of the story’s narrative. At key points as the narrative develops, she virtually disappears from the narrative, becoming merely a printed voice circulated through the post and the telegraph, when earlier in the novel she had been grace personified and thus exhilarating for all who came in contact with her.
Cytherea is not a tragic figure, unlike most of Hardy’s heroines in the later novels. Yet neither is she ideal in the tradition of the romance or melodrama. Cytherea and Springrove finally unite in marriage at novel’s close with a kind of encore performance of their first kiss earlier in the novel in a boat floating ethereally in a lake. Again, this is a strange novel, and perhaps would have been more complete had it ended in tragedy, thus realizing the final fate of the graceful feminine form in an age of technological inscription of selfhood. Instead, Cytherea and Springrove remain in a state of uncertainty. No demonstrations of the loving nature of Cytherea’s bond with her husband, no final declarations about the transcendent moral powers of grace in the tradition of Schiller and the Kantian school of aesthetics. Instead we get a series of town-folk conversing with a “stranger in black” who seems eager to hear news of the marriage before rushing off to the railway station. This man “of no trade” whom the town-folk jokingly associate with the devil because of his playful refusal to declare his profession walks onto the railway with the last straggling representative of the town. They pass an English country home while observing two figures encased in light emerging from the door – “A young lithe woman in an airy fairy dress” and a “young man in black stereotype raiment.” Cytherea and Edward. As the two men pass on, the stranger finally agrees to declare his profession: “I’m the reporter to the Froominster Chronicle, and I come to pick up news. Good-night.” Desperate Remedies thus closes with a curious decision not to celebrate the marriage of Cytherea and Edward, but rather to further entrench it in a burgeoning world of circulating information and news. This is the final scenario for the human body in its ritualistic capacities, its graces, its beauty – two figures shot through with light, becoming information for a local town newspaper.