Thomas Hardy: Desperate Remedies and Life that Endures

Thomas Hardy: Desperate Remedies and Life that Endures[1]

Martina Saric is a PhD researcher writing on the aesthetics of sensuality at the University of Glasgow, under the supervision of Dr Andrew Radford. The project highlights sensual vitalism, human re-integration in the natural and mythological world, focusing on the work of Thomas Hardy, Pre-Raphaelite art and eco-critical thought. You can contact her at

Thomas Hardy, Wessex Poems, illustration, 1898.

Though Desperate Remedies (1871) has all the key plot features of sensation this preconceived notion towards Hardy’s first novel misses the underlying motion of sensuality running through it. In place of pure sensation Hardy’s writing also foregrounds sensuous moments and colouristic use of language influenced by painting. The plot follows the love affair of Cytherea Graye with architect Edward Springrove, over which looms the shadow of the past affiliation between her father and the rich heiress Miss Aldycliffe. With the appearance of a Machiavellian figure Manston competing for Cytherea’s hand the novel delivers key sensation features[2]: murder plots, secret identities, secrets divulged in deeming verse, and bodies rotting behind walls. Due to the melodramatic plot, many critics[3] have compared Hardy’s first novel to Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone, however failing to look past the plot into the building block of the atmospheric changes and language used by Hardy.

Consequently, where Collins is interested in a swift exchange of surfaces, Hardy is concerned with calming the wave of narration to deepen the moment, to prolong the subjective investment in the scene or the contemplative mood. Where Collins aims to produce public shock and spectacle, Hardy shows rather a private, personal fascination with the occult, a dark sense of humour, as in the poem “Voices of Things Growing in the Churchyard.” The poem delivers statements of bodies decaying in their graves, while they contemplate the ways they will be incorporated back to the natural world.

Graveyard and tomb scenes abound in Hardy as moments of morbid attraction or what James F. Scott would call “Hardy’s ecology of terror” (373). They are liminal places that symbolize the interconnectedness of life and death, and art pieces are often deposited in ancestral tombs in the form of marble sculptures or reliefs. In A Pair of Blue Eyes mason, John Smith and the local gravedigger discuss the humorous peculiarities of the vaults they have reopened to add the body of Lady Luxelian, sharing tales about their inhabitants. Local humour is mixed with these stories concerning the dead, the living not perturbed about the decay and rotting wood they sit on, the life and death are shown in physical proximity.[4] In these moments, death is not a shocking suspension of life but an extension of it, a tactile decay that all humans are eventually a part of.  Manston in Desperate Remedies confirms bitterly this view, in his last moments before his passing: “I am now about to enter on my normal condition. For people are almost always in their graves” (320).

Consequently, even in the scenes that explore the height of sensationalism: as in chapter XIX when Manston is trying to bury the body of his wife Eunice, there is the interwovenness with senses that resurfaces despite the chill of death and decay: “Into this pit had drifted uncounted generations of withered leaves, half filling it. Oak, beech, and chestnut, rotten and brown alike, mingled themselves in one fibrous mass” (302). Manston descends into the midst of the “fibrous mass” and starts digging the grave, just to become the part of the earth he is excavating, feeling in the dark the damp soil underneath. Andrew Radford explores this scene in depth in Thomas Hardy and the Survivals of Time and distinguishes in Manston’s leaf-pit, not a sensationalist element but rather a signpost of “stagnation within the historical process” (30), a part of the novel that is “concerned with absences of vitalizing force” (30). At the same time, this “uncounted generation of withered leaves” that “mingled themselves in one fibrous mass” (DR 302), is also a reminder that we all belong to the same decaying mass. Manston is touching the past, the layers of dead history that can be repellent and cold to the touch of the moving, throbbing organism. In this passage, we are constantly reminded that the dead and the living come together eventually to become a part of the same layers of stillness.

Similar interconnectedness is present in the poem “The Dead and the Living One,”[5] in which a young woman visits the fresh grave of a girl her lover was planning to leave her for. She is grateful for the rival to be under the earth, unable to pose a future threat. But soon as she loses her lover on the battlefield, she feels she lost him again to the deceased girl. The question of life-in-death/death-in-art is invoked by Hardy’s language. The dead girl in her cadaverous whiteness and stillness stays the lost ideal for the soldier, who cannot shake her image before his death, which is still that of a “new-found pearl.” But under the mass of leaves, layers of earth, she is decaying and going to a nescient stillness that surrounds her.

The sensationalist elements fall into a void of senses, the sensationalism becomes discordant in the Hardyesque landscape, opening a haptic hole under the rotting leaves. Within the layers of mould, the hole contains palimpsests of meanings, of sensual and aesthetic experiences that are infested with decay, but that are also forming new lifeforms from decomposition, fertilizing new outgrowths of nature. Death, art, and life are presented as intermingled in these examples, and Desperate Remedies begins by turning its writing into a depository of senses. The art depicted in the novel heightens the sensory imagery: colour explodes from the everchanging landscapes, the portraits look back as Pre-Raphaelite images, touch is drawn from marble stillness. It is the stillness of a statue-depicted body or the framed portrait that invokes chilling uncertainty, as well as the painted changing light signals the possibility of hidden energies and reconfiguring life forces.

Edward Burne-Jones, Pygmalion and Galatea series: The Soul Attains, 1878.

To explore the question of vital forces contained in art I intend to lean on Henri Bergson’s concept of the fluidity of life – life seen as constant duration and expressed in continuous impressions. In Creative Evolution Bergson pursues the notions of: mobility, vital impetus that can be only understood in change without ceasing, change as a sole constant of existence. Whenever the flow of life is petrified into fixed categories, solidified, we lose something of that life and enter the deadening inertness of matter. The way Hardy highlights his figures is in a way singular to the framing of a painting or choosing a material for a sculpture –to “see” clear moments of life, he freezes life in the examples we will attempt to single out further on. The dual position of art both installs permanence to lived reality as well as tries in transcending its formal structure. It is on the precipice of life-death, always verging back and forth between the two. The more we intellectualize life the more: “We are at ease only in the discontinuous, in the immobile, in the dead. The intellect is characterized by a natural inability to comprehend life” (Bergson 165).

In all these dispersed moments I see Hardy’s grand oeuvre as a search of what Bergson called “philosophy of life” (50), what Hard referred to as “philosophy of life” (in the “Introduction” to Poems of Past and Present), and what I refer to as the philosophy of senses. It remains difficult to find a vocabulary to speak of something only understood in its immediacy, in the close contact of sense-to-sense liminality, but it is Hardy’s aim to find the language that will fit the senses.


Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution. Translated by Arthur Mitchell, Dover Publications: New York, 1998.

Burne-Jones, Edward. The Soul Attains, Pygmalion and the Image, IV. 1875-1878. Birmingham Museums and Gallery.

Hardy, Thomas. A Pair of Blue Eyes. Penguin Classics, 1986.

—. Desperate Remedies. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2010.

Hardy Thomas, illustration from Wessex Poems (1898), in Rutland, William R. Thomas Hardy A Study of His Writing and Their Background. Russell & Russell, 1962.

Hardy Thomas and Irwin, Michael, editor. “Voices from Things Growing in the Churchyard,”  “The Dead and the Living One.” The Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy. Edited by Michael Irwin. Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2006.

Hughes, Winifred. ‘The Sensation Novel’. A Companion to the Victorian Novel, edited by Patrick Brantlinger and William B. Thesing, Blackwell Pub, 2002, pp. 260–79.

Nemesvari, Richard. ‘Introduction’: Thomas Hardy and the Melodramatic Imagination’. Thomas Hardy, Sensationalism, and the Melodramatic Mode, edited by Richard Nemesvari, Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011, pp. 1–22.

Radford, Andrew. “Opening the Fan of Time.” Thomas Hardy and the Survivals of Time. 1st ed., Taylor & Francis Group, 2003. pp. 30-65., doi:10.4324/9781315236209.

[1] Bergson’s notion from Creative Evolution: “The universe endures.” (11); “the organism which lives is a thing that endures” (15).; “Life…progresses and endures, in time” (51).

[2] On the tradition of sensation novels, see Winifred Hughes.

[3] For a sensational reading of Desperate Remedies see Richard Nemsvari’s book Thomas Hardy and the Melodramatic Imagination.

[4] See Hardy, PBE chapter XXVI.

[5] Hardy, CP 505-06.

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