on 22 April 2010
I read 'Two on a Tower' many years ago, and thought it was a good novel (for me, Hardy just cannot write a bad novel). Re-reading it again recently, I had forgotten just how good it was.
The focus is almost entirely on the 'two' of the title, the astronomer, Swithin St.Cleeve and his lover, Viviette Constantine, which provides Hardy with many opportunities to describe the heavens and to contrast the immensity of the skies with the two protagonists' small and enclosed world. I use the word 'enclosed' deliberately, as Swithin and Viviette's affair must be kept secret. Their isolation is further reinforced by their meeting most often at night or on the tower.
There are the usual Hardy trademarks, for example, descriptions of the environment in which the characters are located or the use of coincidence and chance; but what struck me most was Hardy's evocation of sound: the moving of fir trees in the breeze, the scraping of a fingernail on a window, the sound of Viviette's dress brushing against the sides of the tower as she descends its spiral staircase.
An absorbing reading experience.
on 29 November 2012
Two on A Tower may be considered one of Hardy's minor novels but it's a wonderful little novel in its own right about Lady Viviette Constantine, who has been abandoned by her husband and her love for poor astronomer Swithin St. Cleeve, who is almost ten years younger than her.
Admittedly, it does not maintain the lyrical fascinating beginning where Viviette first discovers Swithin's astronomy and they conduct his studies together. I have no interest in astronomy and yet when Swithin obtains a grand piece of equipment, it is exciting. His love for astronomy is the highlight of the book, as well as his tragic flaw, and Swithin is one of my favourite Hardy males. In some ways he's a bit like Jude but more intelligent and sympathetic.
A lot of melodramatic contrivances follow but the novel is still a pageturner. Anyway, Shakespeare used more contrivances than anyone, and Hardy openly states that the novel is a 'romance', not to be viewed realistically.
If you take the novel seriously, however, there are a lot of interesting themes to be discovered. The discussions of science were incredibly topical for nineteenth-century readers and still are now. Through Viviette, Hardy reveals the plight of respectable women forced to remain constant and isolated when men can simply get up and go. It's a beautiful depiction of a sad truth of the times. The forbidden relationship is dealt with nicely: one can sense Viviette's awkwardness when people refer to Swithin as a boy or 'youth'.
This may be minor Hardy but it's still fascinating. It is also completely charming- later in his career, Hardy lost some of this charm, hence why he is thought of as depressing and bleak.
'Star-crossed lovers' feature heavily in the novels of Thomas Hardy but here the term is given a literal emphasis. Swithin St Cleeve, young, handsome, intelligent and penniless finds himself the object of desire for Lady Constantine, ten years his senior and with a husband off exploring the wilds of Africa. Swithin has set up an astronomical observatory at the top of a tower which lies in the grounds of Lady Constantine's estate and together the young scientist and the bored lady of the manor spend cloudless nights gazing at the heavens. What makes this premise so interesting is that Hardy had clearly done his research into the current scientific beliefs and, just as Darwinism had caused many to question their religious convictions, so the astronomers of the day were revealing the earth to be a tiny, isolated speck in a bewilderingly vast and terrifying universe. As Swithin comments as he sweeps the night sky with his telescope, observing the multitude of distant stars: 'It is just the same in everything; nothing is made for man'.
What makes the novel work - and as 'lesser' Hardy novels go this is one of the best - is the way Hardy never quite sticks his colours to the mast and reveals where his sympathies lie. Everything is kept neutral and opaque, which makes the drama appear more akin to real life than a clock-work plot with stock characters. Swithin is largely so passionate about his scientific research, and thus so cold to his companions, that he has little time for the lovestruck, beautiful and intelligent Lady Constantine. In turn Lady Constantine finds herself unable to escape the conventions of Victorian morality sufficiently to successfully pursue he man she loves. Further spanners are thrown into the works in the shape of a local bishop - a man of influence and rather pompous self-regard - who has designs on Lady Constantine; and the local beauty, Tabitha Lark, who, in Darwinian terms, with her youth and vivacity, would make a much better mate for Swithin than the gently fading Lady Constantine. Hardy is quite brutal in the way he sets out these competing characters, but then so was Darwin, so is life.
As ever with Hardy the descriptions of the countryside, whether bathed in warm summer sun or shivering in the frosts of winter, are exquisitely beautiful. Similarly the rustic locals provide quaint humour and profound wisdom in equal measure while, all the time, observing the triumphs and tragedies of the lovers in their midst. Hardy is also quite daring in the way he pushes the boundaries of what makes for an acceptible subject for a novel. The pages of text provide one narrative, what one can read between the lines provides quite another. Two on a Tower is not up there with the likes of The Mayor of Casterbridge or The Return of the Native, but it's still well worth a read for anyone with a love of the countryside and an interest in how human passions were played out against the icy scientific advances, and the staid morality, of late Victorian Britain.
on 24 May 2012
If you're a Hardy fan, you'll know what to expect from one of his romances and Two on a Tower is pretty much along standard lines in that respect - fate, luck and poor judgement abound. The tale contorts its way through some unlikely circumstances and then to my mind, ends dramatically but implausibly. Yes, there are the occasional passages that describe the scenery but I felt this work to contain far fewer, rich evocations of the countryside than I was expecting. Although I appreciate the constraints of the period in respect of the portrayal of the relationship between the lead characters, I still felt that as a reader, I was left guessing at far too much, especially since love struggling across the divides of age or class was one of Hardy's fixations.
This Kindle version that I downloaded didn't have any obvious formatting issues and in that respect I can say that it was perfectly readable but the tale itself left me feeling somewhat unmoved and I think you could position it a long way down your list of 'Hardy I must read' without regretting it.
on 14 January 2011
Thomas Hardy entitled his first attempt at a novel "The Poor Man and the Lady". The work was never published, and the manuscript is now lost, but its theme of love between people of different social classes is one he returned to time and time again. Its title could serve as an alternative title for several of his published novels, and several others, notably "Tess of the d'Urbervilles", could equally well be titled "The Poor Woman and the Gentleman".
"Two on a Tower" falls into the "poor man and the lady" category. The lady in this case is Viviette, Lady Constantine, the unhappily married wife of a country squire, and the poor man is Swithin St. Cleeve, a penniless young astronomer. The two meet and fall in love when Viviette gives Swithin to use a tower on her country estate for his observations. The death of Viviette's husband Sir Blount while on a hunting expedition in Africa leaves the lovers theoretically free to marry, but as so often happens in Hardy circumstances conspire to force them apart. They are quite literally "star-crossed lovers"; Hardy himself said that his intention was to "set the emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe", and the book shows evidence of his own interest in astronomy.
The most important factor preventing their union is the force of social convention. Swithin and Viviette are divided both by class and age, she being some eight years older than he. The class structure of Victorian England was far more complex than a simple rich/poor or upper/lower divide, and the complexities of that structure are exemplified by the positions in which both main characters find themselves. Swithin's father was a clergyman and therefore, almost by definition, a "gentleman", but one who compromised his social status by marrying the daughter of a local peasant-farmer, which means that Swithin himself cannot lay claim to any social rank, especially as he was orphaned at a young age and raised by his maternal grandmother.
Although Viviette is a titled lady, she is not particularly wealthy, her late husband having left her, apart from the manor-house she lives in, little but debts. She is, however, still regarded as a member of the upper classes with a social position to maintain, and after she is widowed her family, especially her domineering brother Louis, expect her to restore her fortunes and position by making an advantageous second marriage. An ideal (from their viewpoint) candidate presents himself in the shape of the wealthy Bishop of the local diocese.
The second factor dividing the lovers is sheer bad luck. Hardy here makes use of plot two devices beloved of Victorian novelists- the bungled attempt to marry, something which also occurs in "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "A Pair of Blue Eyes", and the eccentric legacy. Swithin is left a considerable amount of money by his uncle, a prosperous doctor and a confirmed bachelor, to further his scientific studies, but this comes with a condition that he will forfeit the legacy should he marry before the age of 25.
When it first came out in1882 the novel was the subject of much hostile criticism, with some reviewers condemning it either as immoral, or as anti-religious satire, or both. Like many contemporary attacks on works now regarded as classics, this one seems absurd today. Hardy was far from being the "village atheist brooding and blaspheming over the village idiot", as Chesterton called him, and his attitude to religion, although sometimes doubting, was certainly not hostile. Although Bishop Helmsdale may come across as pompous and self-satisfied, there is nothing in the novel which might be construed as an attack on Christianity.
Swithin has certain similarities with Angel Clare in "Tess". Both men are the sons of clergymen, both leave the women they love to travel in the Southern Hemisphere and both eventually return from their travels with unhappy consequences for those women. There is, however, a difference between them. The rationalist Angel has consciously rejected his father's faith in a way that Swithin has not. Certainly, he may experience doubts about divine providence when contemplating the vastness of the heavens, but he later takes the step of presenting himself to the Bishop for confirmation- a symbolic reconciliation of scientific endeavours with Christian belief.
As for the supposed "immorality" of "Two on a Tower", what is likely to strike the modern reader is the caution with which Hardy approaches his theme and the circumlocutions he adopts in an attempt to avoid saying, in so many words, that Viviette is pregnant by a man who is not her husband. This was, in any case, not an unprecedented theme in the 1880s; earlier novelists such as Dickens, Mrs Gaskell and Trollope had all tackled the subjects of illegitimacy and unmarried motherhood.
Hardy divided his novels into three categories, which he entitled "Novels of Character and Environment", "Romances and Fantasies" and "Novels of Ingenuity", and it is noteworthy that all those major novels upon which his reputation now chiefly rests, except perhaps "A Pair of Blue Eyes", fall into the first category. "Two on a Tower", which he classed as a "Romance and Fantasy", is today widely regarded as one of his minor works. Although even minor Hardy is at least as good as a whole lot of other writers working at the height of their powers, I think that there is a reason why this novel has not caught the public imagination in the same way as the likes of "Tess",
"The Return of the Native" or "The Mayor of Casterbridge".
The story seems rather rushed, something possibly due to the fact that it was being written for serialisation. It is considerably shorter than most of Hardy's other novels, yet seems to pack in at least as much incident as any of them, which means that matters such as character development are rather neglected. This is perhaps why Hardy did not classify it as a "novel of character and environment". Viviette makes an attractively spirited heroine (her name appropriately derives from the Latin for "lively") but she is not as powerfully drawn as, say, Tess or Bathsheba Everdene. Hardy's greatest novels all end tragically for at least some of the characters, but the tragedy derives logically from some flaw inherent in their characters or in their social environment. The final tragedy of "Two on a Tower" is down to nothing more than pure bad luck. In the final chapter, in fact, Hardy seems to be working his way towards a rare happy ending, only to reverse this with a sudden and shocking denouement in the last couple of sentences, doubtless realising that he was in danger of losing his reputation as the Great Pessimist of English literature. For this reason we are not moved in the way that we are moved by the climaxes of some of his other novels.