Two on a Tower (Thomas Hardy)

Posted: July 19, 2018 in fiction
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This book was published in 1882; the critical consensus, then as now, is that this is really not his best work. Which is to say that it’s still better than loads of other novels, it’s just not as shining a star as The Return of the Native or The Woodlanders. There wasn’t much to stand out as especially beautiful or heart-wrenching for me – the thing is, Hardy had a specific story in mind that was quite shocking for his time, but by now it’s so commonplace that we don’t see the point of writing about it.

Let us begin with Lady Constantine. A beautiful woman, mid-20s, with a jealous yet absent husband. He’s been big-game hunting for years now. Due to his extreme insecurity, he exacted a promise from her that she wouldn’t see any company until he returned, so she’s been completely isolated. Beauty, intelligence, loneliness – she’s very much like a fairy-tale princess, destined to change her life. Enter Swithin St Cleeve. Just eighteen years old, and prettier than any girl you’ve ever seen. He’s just back from college, where he’s been studying astronomy. He starts using a tower in one of her fields as an observatory, with just a telescope that’s half-homemade. She falls for him and takes an interest in the stars to get close to him; she outfits the tower with all the expensive tools he needs. Throughout the first third of the book, he’s too enamored of the stars to see anything as near to him as her heart, and she’s bound by her promise to her absent husband to keep her hands off. The distances between stars tend to make this earthly romance seem trivial; we all dwindle to nothing when we stare into the night.

Then, as luck would have it, she gets news that her husband’s died in distant lands, so she becomes a little more pointed (only a little) in her attentions to the young astronomer. Finally he gets it, and then all the intensity of a celibate adolescent’s first crush overwhelms his science. In Act II, all he cares about is her. They get married secretly in another town, which gives them license to fuck but not to move in together. Suddenly all the conventions of society become significant again, and they’re very secretive about their meetings and affections. So when the bishop comes to town for a visit, he’s taken by the young widow and tries to make a move. She deflects him, but in so gentle a way that he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened.

Lady Constantine has a ne’er-do-well brother who wants to get her married to the bishop so that he can continue to mooch off of her income. Act III begins when he begins to suspect that she’s interested in the boy. To make things worse, now she hears that her husband is just now dead, a year or two later than she thought. Her marriage to Swithin is invalid because she was still married to the first husband. But she didn’t know that, so all the (I assume) wild sex she’s been having is in a morally grey area. They were never legally married, but they thought they were. Of course, in the twenty-first century this greyness has largely passed away. Nobody cares. She hasn’t seen her husband in a few years, so it seems perfectly natural to me that she’d fall for a guy who’s pretty and unavailable, and that the sex act would be the natural consequence of those feelings. Just as natural for her to encourage Swithin to take an opportunity to go on a scientific voyage around the world, seeing the famous astronomers in South Africa and North America. But with him out of the way, there’s another natural consequence, so she pushes through a quick marriage to the bishop to make her child be born legitimate. Hardy glosses over a lot of what happened in the six or seven years of Swithin’s absence, but the bishop realizes that the child looks exactly like that teenager who used to hang around his new wife, and he hasn’t been married to her for nine months yet. The marriage is not a happy one, and the bishop dies of shame in a few years. He is just as cruel as her first husband, though this time we know the reason for it. Having had three bad marriages, she decides to retire to the country and raise her son in peace.

But when Swithin returns, he really pisses me off. Contact with the world has made him more aware of the world’s values, and he’s now stupid enough to think that a few grey hairs ruin a woman’s beauty. When he was eighteen and she was twenty-six it was all right, but now that he’s twenty-five and she’s thirty-three he’s not interested. Throughout the book he was proud of her and admired her, and then in the last chapter she’s suddenly not good enough for him. I suppose in 1882 it would have been impossible for them to have a happily-ever-after ending, but still. I’m not saying I was a genius at twenty-five, but I could see beauty in a woman who was older than I was.

Some people might refer to these two as star-crossed lovers, but I disagree. The stars are present when they are following their natural impulses; the talk of stars disappears when the lovers remember society and all of its legalistic moral strictures. You can’t blame the stars for people being dumb. We choose our own destinies; you don’t get what you want by waiting for the universe to serve it to you.

So, despite the astronomical references, this book wasn’t that stellar. I’ve been putting off writing about it because I just don’t have anything to say. It is as it is – shocking for the time, but rather commonplace now. I feel like the best I can say is that it’s nothing special.

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