September 1, 2010

Review: "Two on a Tower" By Thomas Hardy

Well, I am sad to say, but I am slowly winding up my summer of reading the literary works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy.  I recently finished Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower, one of his more obscure novels. Two on a Tower was first serialized in the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book-form in 1882, and was categorized by Hardy as a novel of "Romance and Fantasies."   I had the devil of a time finding a copy of this novel, and short of ordering a brand-new copy from an on-line source, I continued to diligently search the shelves of every used bookstore I encountered.  On a recent business trip to Arizona, I finally found a nearly new copy for six dollars!

In my opinion, Hardy has crafted an incredibly fascinating plot for the novel, and at times it reminded me of the plotting of Wilkie Collins.  Also, the novel pivots almost entirely around just two characters, versus the more normal Hardyan plot with a larger number of country rustics intermingled with the protagonists.  In Two on a Tower, much of the plot is solely focused on young Swithin St. Cleeve and the older Lady Constantine.  St. Cleeve is a twenty-year old consumed with becoming a famous professional astronomer, who has been surreptitiously using an old tower on a hill in an isolated portion of Lady Constantine's absent husband's estate.  Lady Viviette Constantine is a beautiful dark-haired woman, nearly ten years older than Swithin, who has been left alone for several years by her husband who is off adventuring on safari in Africa.

Over time the two meet and young St. Cleeve introduces Lady Constantine to the majesty and awe of the night sky above the rural Wessex countryside.  Hardy's portrayal of the stars and planets, through Swithin's descriptions and patient tutelage of Lady Constantine as they huddle on top of the tower with his telescope, is one of the truly unique and particularly beautiful elements of this novel.  It really illustrates Hardy's fascination and reverence for the natural world around him.  Hardy obviously spent a lot of time researching the astronomical portions of his plot, as these sections are extremely well written and factually correct; both the descriptions of the night sky, and techniques that they use to view it, as well as the equipment Swithin constructs in the tower observatory.  Fundamentally then, it seems to me, the novel is a story of the relationship of the human species with the universe in which we reside, and a relationship at its most elemental level--the Love between two humans.

Ah, but it is a plot written by Hardy; therefore this growing love between Swithin and Lady Constantine must of necessity become complicated, doesn't it?  Well, yes it does, and here's where the similarities to Collins crop up.  There are mysterious reports concerning Lady Constantine's missing husband; Lady Constantine's scheming older brother, Louis, shows up; and the pompous Bishop of Melchester, Lord Helmsdale, begins meddling in everyone's affairs.  Oh, it gets good now, real good!  I couldn't put it down at all from about the novel's mid-point on.  I also found myself becoming quite attached to the characters, what few there are; and because there aren't that many, Hardy does a superb job of fleshing them out and bringing them to life on the page.

I want to share just a bit of Hardy's beautiful prose from the novel with you.  This is from a scene, late at night at the height of a violent windstorm that catches Lady Constantine and Swithin atop the old tower attempting to perform some astronomical observations
"Under any other circumstances Lady Constantine might have felt a nameless fear in thus sitting aloft on a lonely column, with a forest groaning under her feet, and paleolithic dead men feeding its roots; but the passionate decision stirred her pulses to an intensity beside which the ordinary tremors of feminine existence asserted themselves in vain.  The apocalyptic effect of the scene surrounding her was, indeed, not inharmonious, and afforded an appropriate background to her intentions.

After what seemed to her an interminable space of time, quick steps in the staircase became audible above the roar of the firs, and in a few instants St. Cleeve again stood by her."
Wow!  Was that not just awesome?  In just a few sentences, Hardy has managed to establish a connection between the raw power of Nature, the hundreds of generations of humans that have occupied this ancient landscape, and the genuine and palpable love that these two beings on the tower share for one another.  Great stuff, and vintage Thomas Hardy!  Find yourself a copy of this wonderful novel, and put it on your shelf and wait for a rainy day with no interruptions.  You'll soon find yourself completely swept away and engrossed in the lives of Swithin St. Cleeve and his love, the beautiful Lady Constantine.  This was a terrific novel, and I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Post Script--I actually found two copies of the novel, and presented one to my elderly father.  He has been a quite serious amateur astronomer most of his life.  He began reading it the day I gave it to him.  I can't wait to hear his reaction when he's finished.


  1. This sounds fabulous. Your review really highlights the emotional impact of the novel. I'm planning a long chronological reading list to start in January--but you've convinced me with this post and your earlier ones to get some Hardy in this autumn before I back up to the ancients. (What would you recommend to a total Hardy newbie?)

  2. I was lucky enough to inherit lovely old copies of Hardy's books and I remember really enjoying Two on a Tower. I hadn't realised it is difficult to obtain,apart from brand new. Have you read A Pair of Blue Eyes?

  3. Note to the Raven: First, thank you for you lovely comment! It is very much appreciated. In answer to your question about the best book for a "Hardy newbie"? In my opinion, I would unhesitatingly recommend Hardy's fourth published novel, "Far From the Madding Crowd." A very close second recommendation would be "The Return of the Native." I can pretty much guarantee that once you get going, that you'll probably continue to read Hardy's works for the rest of your life. Cheers! Chris

  4. Note to Katrina:

    Thanks for the visit today, Katrina!

    I would have had no problem buying a new copy of "Two on a Tower" on-line, but all I could find in most used bookstores were copies of "Tess," "Jude," "The Mayor...," "The Return of the Native"; in other words, the more popular Hardys. At one of the Bookman's used bookstores in Tucson, I managed to find several Hardy novels that I didn't have, including "Two on a Tower."

    I read "A Pair of Blue Eyes" a couple of months ago, and loved it! It is quite autobiographical too. There is an awful lot of Hardy himself, and Emma Gifford (becomes his first wife), and his friend, Horace Moule in that novel. I actually quite enjoy his earlier novels, the intensity level has not been quite ratcheted up to the level of his later novels (i.e., the earlier stuff is perhaps a bit more 'kinder and gentler'). Cheers! Chris

  5. Thanks, Chris. _Far from the Madding Crowd_ was one of my mother's favorites, too.

  6. I hated the book that I read after finishing FFTMC - I think this was due in part to my reasons for reading it, which were rather superficial - but I also think that I judged it more harshly because of how much I enjoyed FFTMC. So anyway, now I'm back to reading Hardy. I started A Pair of Blue Eyes today.

  7. Glad I found your blog! We have similar reading tastes.

    I am a Hardy fan as well, although I had never heard of this book. Thanks for the terrific review!

  8. And here I thought I'd "read 'em all" (well, Hardy anyway)... Now I see myself going on my own search for Two on a Tower. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  9. just read half.. excited to read the rest!!

  10. i luv novels which are peaceful but have good language and story.. this is exactly what i wanted.. Thomas Hardy rocks!!

  11. Having read Two on a Tower, I have now read ten of Hardy's Novels including the Big 5 - Tess, Jude, Far From, Mayor and Native; and, Pair of Blue Eyes, Woodlanders, Trumpet Major, Ethelberta, and Under the Greenwood Tree. I definitely liked Two on a Tower as well. Am a Hardy fan through and through.