As a young man, working in an architect’s off ice, Hardy aspired to be a poet. Only his failure to get any of his verses published induced him to try his hand at fiction. A first attempt, The Poor Man and the Lady, later described by the author as a ‘socialistic novel’, was also rejected several times, but was acknowledged by those who had read it to be a work of considerable promise. Encouraged, Hardy tried again. Desperate Remedies was published in 1871, though virtually at the author’s own expense.
George Meredith, who had read The Poor Man and the Lady for Chapman & Hall, had advised him to write something less contentious and more strongly plotted. Accordingly Hardy set out to produce a ‘sensation novel’ with a strong mystery element, very much in the vein of Wilkie Collins. It’s impossible to summarise the complicated plot without giving away information that would spoil the enjoyment of the new reader, but it involves concealed identity, unexpected and macabre deaths, cross-country chases and suspected murder.
As a thriller Desperate Remedies still offers excellent value, even if the machinery of the plot creaks at times. But for all his eagerness to achieve publication Hardy was certainly not content merely to provide an entertainment. Contemporary readers looking for an exciting yarn might well have been put off by the many allusions to Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and other poets. The extravagant story is made to incorporate a wide variety of ambitious material. He absorbed into his text, in prose form, several of his own as yet unpublished poems. Many of his episodes and descriptions are sufficiently striking in their own right to have graced any of the later Wessex novels. Students of Hardy will see everywhere anticipations of the later work, in terms of style, ideas and technical experiment. For a first novel it is an extraordinarily bold, yeasty, wide-ranging work. To read it is to be at once disabused of the idea that the author started his career as a naïve writer of pastoral. He was already questioning a whole variety of accepted fictional conventions and striking out in new directions of his own devising.
In his autobiography Hardy is dismissive of Desperate Remedies, referring to ‘the powerfully, not to say wildly, melodramatic situations…concocted in a style which was quite against his natural grain…’ It is an odd self-criticism, given that that his later novels were to deal lavishly in just such situations. There is a fairer assessment in his Prefatory Note to the 1889 edition: ‘The following story, the first published by the author, was written nineteen years ago, at a time when he was feeling his way to a method.’ The comparative unseriousness of his plot gave Hardy considerable freedom to experiment. There can be little doubt that he learnt a lot from the writing of Desperate Remedies.