Decorated initial T

wo on a Tower was serialised in the American periodical, the Atlantic Monthly, from May to December 1882 — the only one of the Wessex Novels to be serialised in America but not in England. In England Thomas Hardy published the novel with Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington in three volumes in October 1882 and in one volume in December the same year. The novel received negative reviews for its allegedly immoral and irreligious content. A reviewer of The Literary World described it as “a bad novel, tasteless and outrageous,“ and Harriet Waters Preston, an American scholar, translator and editor, accused Hardy of presenting “a pathological” heroine (Gerber and Davis 34). Later critics classified Two on a Tower, together with The Trumpet Major and The Laodicean, among Hardy's weakest and least popular novels (Millgate 187).

In a preface to the second edition (1885), Hardy tried to explain that he intended “to set the emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe, and to impart to readers the sentiment that of these contrasting magnitudes the smaller might be greater to them as men” (3). In other words, the author's goal was to show the unbridgeable gap between the vast impersonal and permanent universe and the momentary and tragic existence of self-aware and self-reflective human beings. For Hardy, a philosophical novelist — increasingly concerned with existential problems — human emotions, desires and relationships are more significant than the laws of the universe. However, in the cosmic perspective human life seems insignificant. On the tower, Swithin and Viviette come to realise with awe the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and their own smallness. This cosmic idea perplexed Hardy in his major novels.

At night, when human discords and harmonies are hushed, in a general sense, for the greater part of twelve hours, there is nothing to moderate the blow with which the infinitely great, the stellar universe, strikes down upon the infinitely little, the mind of the beholder; and this was the case now. 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. [64]

Hardy was always interested in science, astronomy in particular. His biographer, Evelyn Hardy (no relation) wrote: “Hardy had always loved the stars. Long before he had thought of Two on a Tower he had been fascinated by their brilliance and beauty“ (189). Part of his quite substantial knowledge of the celestial bodies found expression in his two “astronomical” novels, Far From the Madding Crowd and Two on a Tower. Coincidentally, as Anne DeWitt notes, the first novel was published in 1874, and the second in 1882, when the two subsequent transits of the planet Venus between earth and the sun attracted a considerable interest of British newspapers and magazines (94). In preparing his novel Hardy undertook an extensive scientific research; he studied Richard Proctor's popular essays on astronomy and even visited the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

In Two on a Tower, Hardy explores two quite divergent themes: the romantic theme of the 'star-crossed lovers', whose relationship is thwarted by outside forces, and the discrepancy between the impassionate scientific outlook and the emotional and ethical human concerns of individual human beings. Within the first theme, Hardy presents a complex love story which involves failed marriage, emotional cruelty, adultery, accidental bigamy and, above all, tragedy caused by malevolent fate. The second theme is less explicit and was overlooked by both contemporary readers and reviewers. It concerns the potential and limitations of scientific inquiry, which prompted Hardy to delve into philosophical and ethical issues related to man's predicament. Unfortunately, both themes are not developed sufficiently in the novel. The love story looks like a Victorian remake of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with emphasis on class division, age difference, unwanted pregnancy, and love not fully reciprocated. The second theme, which presents a typical Victorian gendered and masculinist view of science, is also disappointing as a literary venture.

Two on a Tower revives the theme of the poor man and the lady, which Hardy dealt with in his first (unpublished) novel. During the prolonged absence of her insensitive husband, who has gone to Africa on a hunting expedition, the twenty-nine year-old Lady Constantine (Viviette), who is probably modelled on Julia Augusta Martin, Hardy's childhood benefactress, lives an uneventful life until she meets Swithin St. Cleeve, a handsome amateur astronomer, nine years her junior, who introduces her to the beauty and mystery of the night sky above the rural Wessex. Soon she feels attracted to the young boy and begins to share his passion for the stars, buys an equatorial telescope and encourages him to pursue his study of 'stellar Venuses'. They meet secretly in an old tower on her husband's estate, where Swithin makes astronomical observations. Interestingly, the tower from which the two stargazers scan the universe is based on a real tower in Charborough Park in Dorset.

At first, Viviette wants to act as an apprentice of Swithin. However, when she learns of her missing husband’s death in Africa, she no longer conceals her passion for the young astronomer, who does not fully reciprocate her love because it distracts him from his astronomical investigations. Nevertheless, Viviette marries secretly Swithin in Bath, but malevolent fate or chance begins to act against her. She learns that her marriage with the young astronomer is not legal because her husband was still alive when they got married. A further complication arises when Viviette learns that just before her marriage with Swithin, his uncle died and bequeathed him a large sum of money on condition that he did not marry before the age of twenty-five so that he could concentrate on his scientific career. In order to avoid scandal and save the legacy, she instructs Swithin to leave England and continue his research of the southern skies until they can legally solemnise their marriage. However, when she finds herself pregnant by Swithin, she decides to marry the amorous Bishop Helmsdale of Melchester, who, as the novel implies, will take care of her child. When Swithin returns to England, he finds that Viviette’s husband, the Bishop, is dead. The lovers are reunited, but when Swithin sees Viviette at the tower, together with their little son, after his three-year absence, he first notices with a shock that her beauty has faded.

Yes; he was shocked at her worn and faded aspect. The image he had mentally carried out with him to the Cape he had brought home again as that of the woman he was now to rejoin. But another woman sat before him, and not the original Viviette. Her cheeks had lost for ever that firm contour which had been drawn by the vigorous hand of youth, and the masses of hair that were once darkness visible had become touched here and there by a faint grey haze, like the Via Lactea in a midnight sky. [278]

At first impulse he wants to run away, but on second thought he declares that he has come back to marry her. Reunited with her beloved, Viviette cannot endure her emotions and, overcome with joy, dies melodramatically in the arms of Swithin.

Although the sad epilogue lacks plausibility, the novel is interesting thanks to the two interwoven themes: star-crossed love and astronomy. According to Victorian law, Viviette was unable to divorce her husband, Sir Blount Constantine, who had actually deserted her due to his “mania for African lion-hunting” (27). Prior to his departure, Sir Blount requested that Viviette should not entertain any guests at their huge mansion, Welland House, and refrain from paying visits. The disastrous passion of Lady Constantine for the young astronomer is the strongest motif of the novel. As usual, Hardy depicts his female characters with a lot of sympathy. Viviette is altruistic and contrasted with Swithin, a self-serving egotist, who cannot cope with an unconventional relationship. Eventually, he fails both to experience marital happiness and to achieve a scientific success.

Astronomy plays two important roles in the novel. First, Two on a Tower, which provides an interesting description of modern scientific investigation, uses astronomical metaphors to show the discrepancy between the permanence of cosmic order and fragility of impermanent human existence. Hardy was an atheist who probably believed in an impersonal cosmic mind or a blind natural force that controls the universe without any compassion for individual human destinies.

Second, astronomy embodies Hardy's sexist attitudes. As Garrett Peck has observed, “Hardy sustains the dominant view of science as an irreducibly gendered activity” (41). Following Charles Darwin, who expressed an opinion that women are cognitively inferior to men, Hardy believed that women are less cerebral and more emotional and attributed the scientific mind — the product of evolution — to men only. Patricia Murphy has demonstrated that in Two on a Tower Hardy presented science as a masculine realm threatened by female presence: “If, as the novel has insinuated, women bring contamination and corruption to the 'pure' realm of scientific endeavour, the logical conclusion to draw is that the man of science must escape female influence” (103). Swithin fears that his intimate relationship with Viviette may distract him from his true vocation and he willingly agrees to leave her for some time in order to do research in Africa. His inability to share love with Viviette and empathise with her mental suffering derives from his conceptions of science. Swithin here is like Hardy, who “found it impossible to reconcile the scientific and emotional views of life.“ (DeWitt, 114)

Most nineteenth-century scientists were men, but there were important women as well, such as the fossilist Mary Anning (1799-1847), who was honored — and received financial support from —  both the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of London. With irony worthy of one of his novels Hardy’s sexist myopia is underlined by the fact that one of the foremost astronomers in the nineteenth century was a woman with an international reputation — Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society who received a royal pension to honor her work in that field and who was a member of the Royal Irish Academy and winner of the Prussian Gold Medal for Science.

Still, much, though not all, Victorian science was conducted by men, and very often by well-off men of the leisured class. Swithin, who does not belong to that class, wants to become a professional scientist at a time when that occupation was coming into being. He makes a few astronomical discoveries but lacks the financial resources to continue his research until he receives support from a woman who loves him passionately and believes in his scientific work. Even though Swithin thus depends upon Viviette, he believes that she impairs his research because she distracts him when they are together in the tower. In other words, he blames her for his weakness and his desire. It becomes clear that Swithin's supposedly scientific attitude is incompatible with Viviette's love. Viviette soon notices that Swithin is more interested in astronomy than in her: “His parted lips,” she sees, “were lips which spoke, not of love, but of millions of miles; those were eyes which habitually gazed, not into the depths of other eyes, but into other worlds. Within his temples dwelt thoughts, not of woman’s looks, but of stellar aspects and the configuration of constellations” (44).

The excessive use of coincidences and improbabilities in Hardy’s novels was criticised by many critics, including Henry James. However, the sudden and incongruous death of Viviette results from Hardy’s firm belief in the power of chance and mishap, which he developed in his later, major novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. The sad and unexpected ending of the novel illustrates man’s tragic condition and insignificance in the universe. Despite its rather bizarre plot, Two on a Tower is a significant, but neglected minor novel in Thomas Hardy's output. Apart from its reflection on the potential and limitations of science as a masculine activity, the novel contains a strong condemnation of marital abuse, desertion and emotional cruelty. In addition, Hardy reveals his views of social class, mismatched marriages and female sexuality.

References and Further Reading

DeWitt, Anne. Moral Authority, Men of Science, and the Victorian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Gerber Helmut E. and W. Eugene Davis. Vol. I. Thomas Hardy. An Annotated Bibliography of Writing About Him. Vol. De Kalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1973.

Gossin, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology, and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2007.

Hardy, Evelyn. Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1954.

Hardy, Thomas. Two on a Tower. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Henchman, Anna. The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Jekel, Pamela. Thomas Hardy's Heroines: A Chorus of Priorities. Troy: Whitston Publishing Co., 1986.

Lerner, Laurence, John Holmstrom, eds. Hardy and His Readers. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Morgan, Rosemarie. Women and Sexuality in the Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Murphy, Patricia. In Science's Shadow. Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Women. Columbia, MI, and London: University of Missouri Press, 2006.

Peck, Garrett. "Realism and Victorian Astronomy: The Character and Limits of Critique in Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower," Pacific Coast Philology 46 (2011) 28-45.

Thomas, Jane. Thomas Hardy, Femininity and Dissent: Reassessing the Minor Novels. New York: Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Created 23 April 2015