Cytherea has taken a position as lady’s maid to the eccentric arch-intriguer Miss Aldclyffe. On discovering that the man she loves, Edward Springrove, is already engaged to his cousin, Cytherea comes under the influence of Miss Aldclyffe’s fascinating, manipulative steward Manston. Blackmail, murder and romance are among the ingredients of Hardy’s first published novel, and in it he draws blithely on the ‘sensation novel’ perfected by Wilkie Collins.
Read as part of the local “Hardy Readers” book group, that is reading many of Hardy’s published works, in order.
This is the first book in the series.
It starts with Cytherea and her brother Owen. Their family back history is given short shrift – the father falls in love, has a relationship, she leaves (the implication being to have his child), and he then marries another woman and has two children – Owen, and Cytherea, who was named after his first love.
Both parents die, leaving little money and Owen barely trained to earn a living, and Cytherea trained to do even less. A short term contract leads Owen to another job and Cytherea in love with Edward. When the need to get another job becomes pressing, Cytherea gets a job as a lady’s maid, which she gets through words of mouth. She is separated from Owen who has to get elsewhere to complete his training and earn money. It soon becomes apparent that she is not suitable to be a lady’s maid, but the woman she is now employed by (Miss Aldclyffe) is her father’s first love. She is kept on as a companion, and a new maid is hired.
Miss Aldclyffe is a capricious character – seemingly prone to whims and changes in direction. After the death of her father, she hires a steward (Aeneas Manston) over some men who are eminently more qualified to do the job, including Edward, Cytherea’s love. The implication being that Mantson is her son. Despite being married, Manston falls in love with Cytherea. After the death of his wife in an accidental fire, Manston blackmails Aldclyffe into helping him get Edward married off to his cousin so that the way to Cytherea is clear. Unable to seduce Cytherea, he resorts to blackmail and emotional pressure into making her marry him, even though she doesnt love him.
However, almost immediately after the marriage, doubt is shed over the death of Manston’s first wife, and then things start to unravel for Manston.
As to the story itself, I liked it – mystery, true love, blackmail, intrigue, murder – really, what’s not to like?
As far as I’m concerned, the thing I didnt like was the execution. He did lose me during volume 2, as something I dislike about Hardy’s work is his reliance on/habit of “implication”. Time and again things are implied (I want to read Tess again to see if it’s just as annoying there as I remember too), with things rarely being made explicit or concrete. Manston ‘s wife does write to Aldclyffe to essentially blackmail her, and I think that’s the most concrete statement about Manston’s parentage in the whole book almost right to the end.
I have to admit that things did pick up in Volume 3, and did turn my review of the book around – it was not going to be a good review! If only the whole book had been this good!
Hardy was either not comfortable with or did not enjoy writing dialogue. Whole passages/pages are spent without a word of dialogue being put down on the page.
The book is split into sub chapters, some of which covering a matter of minutes or hours, some covering months. Each sub chapter had a heading detailing the time period it covered. I was trying to decide whether I liked this format or not, but decided that the pace suffered in switching from the minute to the epic scale and back within chapters.
As I mentioned earlier, Aldclyffe is capricious and moody. Some of her behaviour is explainable – e.g. her desire to bring Manston to the estate results in her excluding people more qualified for the job but some of it isnt. Her behaviour when she realises who Cytherea is is slightly disturbing, over the top, and uncomfortable – a scene that Hardy himself was not happy with (according to the notes) with the implication that it might be construed as a Lesbian scene, and not a scene I think he corrected particularly well. Her desire (and what she’s prepared to resort to) to get Cytherea to marry Manston is not altogether clear until the very last pages of the book. She disappears for most of the second half of the book only to appear again in the last few chapters.
Cytherea is a strange character as well. In some ways she’s strong – she rejects Manston for a long time, and evaluates the situation before she finally accepts. However, she’s also quite “weak” – some might call it naive.
Edward was always going to be “the hero” and “the one true love” and is a quietly strong man, stuck in a moment waiting for his love.
Owen is much like his sister, weak and naive, and a little undeveloped.