Thomas Hardy is one of the greats within the literary cannon that I have wanted to read for as long as I can remember. Despite this, the years have quickly passed, and I still had not read a single piece of his works. That is, until now.
One of the modules I have been studying for University this semester has been Four English Poets of the Twentieth Century, a module which included selected poems of Hardy’s. This module focused upon the way in which, although primarily viewed as a nineteenth century novelist, Hardy greatly contributed to the poetry world. Likewise, although remembered as a Victorian novelist, Hardy also lived into the twentieth century, resulting in a man often perceived as out of his time and place. However, that is a talk commanding its own discussion entirely.
After being inspired by Hardy’s poetry, I finally took the plunge into his novels. Albeit a strange choice, I decided to start with one of Hardy’s far lesser known novels, Two on a Tower. Let’s just say the absolutely stunning cover design on the Penguin English Library’s edition of this book may have greatly contributed to this decision…
Written in 1882, Two on a Tower follows the story of Lady Constantine, a respected member of the community who threatens to break all of the rules of society and social expectations by falling in love with Swithin St Cleeve, a man who is not only her inferior in social standing, but also her inferior in age. Swithin is a budding astronomer, and much of the backdrop to this story revolves around themes of the galaxy and astronomy.
I cannot express how much I loved the element of space and the galaxies within this novel! The way Hardy writes is so detailed and expressive without making the prose cluttered and difficult to read, and you can clearly see that Hardy is a man who deeply understood not only human lives and emotions, but also had a fantastic grasp on the world and the universe as a whole. I have recently been acquiring a much greater love for things involving space, and in recent discussions with my boyfriend I really could not wrap my limited brain around the very limitless and vastness of space. This is something Hardy explores through the astronomer Swithin, but puts much more eloquently than I ever could. After Lady Constantine and Swithin have observed the stars within the tower that sustains the growth of their love, Hardy writes:
‘Having got closer to immensity than their fellow-creatures, they saw at once its beauty and its frightfulness. They more and more felt the contrast between their own tiny magnitudes and those among which they had recklessly plunged, till they were oppressed with the presence of a vastness they could not cope with even as an idea, and which hung about them like a nightmare.’
The idea that the universe is so vast and of such a magnitude, alongside the juxtaposition of the ‘beauty’ which is so awe inspiring, but the ‘frightfulness’ and oppression of something so vast that it cannot be contained or explored, is something that is so entirely mind blowing! This is especially so considering that all these years later, and the study of astronomy is still so astoundingly limited in contrast with the magnitude of unknown aspects of space and the galaxies. How Hardy could fathom such ideas and thoughts in a time still learning in astronomical aspects, seems so crazily intelligent and progressive for its time period. It instilled in me a similar sense of amazement which I experienced after reading Wells’s The War of the Worlds.
Hardy’s fantastic prose is not solely limited to the topic of space, and shines through brilliantly in respect of the study of people. The social commentary he makes on the constraints of society, class and gender, especially where Lady Constantine is concerned, were extremely enjoyable to read. Hardy’s work is incredibly astute regarding a woman’s place in society. As the novel progressed, and the lovers faced various threats from the world outside the safety of their astronomy tower (threats which will be kept silent as I do not want to spoil the plot!), I felt invested in their life and had to keep reading to know how it would conclude, even whilst knowing that Hardy has a penchant for tragic endings.
My main issue with the novel would have to be the character of Swithin. His characterization is done well, with Swithin built up as a man wholly devoted to his studies of space, remaining largely naive in the art of love. Yet as soon as Lady Constantine’s feelings become visible to him, Swithin apparently also falls deeply in love, something that appears not only out of character, but also feels perhaps not completely wholehearted. Of course, Hardy may have intended for this to be the reader’s response, but for me, apart from a few select instances, I found it hard to commit totally into Swithin’s apparent devotion.
Although much shorter in comparison to some of his other novels, I feel Two on a Tower is a well accomplished, perhaps overlooked, novel. I found both the plot and the writing style enjoyable, so much so that Hardy actually reminded me of one of my favourite authors of all time – Dickens! Whilst Hardy’s descriptive work focus upon rural images, in contrast to Dickens’s more typical cityscapes, both writers are capable of producing provoking images, without becoming formulaic or monotonous. I would recommend this novel not only to already established fans of Hardy, but likewise to newer ones wishing to experience his work in perhaps a slightly shorter form. If you are a fan of classics, combined with scientific plotlines, then this book could be for you.
Publisher: Penguin Classics