Recently I read and reviewed Wilkie Collins Man and Wife. What that book and this had in common is to underline the plight of women in 19th century British society, and to this day in many parts of the world, where they are vulnerable to the use of power of unscrupulous men.
So it is in this story. Ambrose Graye and Cytherea Aldclyffe fall in love but she suddenly and mysteriously breaks off the relationship and moves away. Ambrose eventually marries, but never forgets his first love, naming his daughter after her. When Ambrose dies Cytherea and her brother, Owen are cast upon the world. Owen tries to make it as an architects assistant. Cytherea advertises for positions as a “lady in waiting.” While she waits, she falls in love with Edward Springrove. Then comes a summons to become the lady of waiting for her namesake, Cytherea Aldclyffe. It turns out that this is part of a mysterious plan to marry her to the estate steward, Aeneas Manston (who in fact is secretly married and whose first wife seemingly dies in a fire). Manston seems to hold over Miss Aldclyffe knowledge of some horrible deed and forces her to poison the relationship between Cytherea and Edward.
In the plot that develops, Manston controls the lives and fates of three women, in addition to his hold over Miss Aldclyffe. The resolution is in fact quite exciting as one waits to see whether Manston will succeed in his schemes.
This is one of Hardy’s earliest works, and while not perhaps the best of his writing, is still quite an engaging read, and one less familiar than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, or The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I would consider his masterpieces.