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.