Review of “Two on a Tower” by Thomas Hardy

I have fond memories of reading Hardy’s great novels, The Return of the Native, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, so I was anxious to read one of his minor novels, a romance titled Two on a Tower that appears on the Lab Lit List.  Published in 1882, this relatively short work of course follows Nineteenth Century conventions of language and plot, and this requires patience at first.  However, as the story begins to unfold, the plot twists occur with surprising frequency and delightful effect.  A page-turner, it’s not, but it’s thoroughly entertaining as long as you accept cultural constraints imposed on social behavior at the time it was written.

To make a complicated plait of events sound very simple, a lonely upper-class woman falls in love with a handsome young astronomer, but sadly they don’t live happily ever after.  In an edition published thirteen years later, Hardy added a preface in which he commented on the difference between the way the book had been understood and his own thematic goals.  For Hardy, what was important was the contrast between the infinite reaches of the universe represented by the study of astronomy and the infinitesimal scope of human affairs represented by the lovers’ struggle to deal with the impediments society has put in their way. Except for the few readers who were troubled by the unfavorable portrait of a bishop of the church, most at the time saw only the impropriety of an older woman ensnaring a naïve younger man.

Perhaps the more intersecting question in this context is whether Two on a Tower is fiction about science.  If allowances are made for the enormous increase in astronomical knowledge and the changes in the social aspect of science in the hundred years between 1882 and 2013, I think a qualified yes is appropriate.  Certainly, the young astronomer pursues his observations with admirable energy and devotion throughout the first half of the book.  He apparently makes a discovery–we are never given enough detail to grasp fully what it is. He writes it up and sends the paper to an editor, only to be scooped by another astronomer’s paper six weeks earlier.  That is certainly realistic–and quite contemporary!  As personal affairs grow more complicated, however, astronomy fades from the story, only to reemerge near the end in a cursory way.

Onc curiously contemporary theme of the novel has to do with funding.  Swithin, the young astronomer, is stymied in his work by the lack of a larger lens and later by his need for an expensive instrument.  These Lady Constantine is able to provide before events leave her nearly penniless.  Later, Swithin is faced with a cruel choice between marriage and a handsome inheritance that will further his education and launch his career into the highest levels of astronomical science (the Nineteenth Century equivalent of a lifetime McArthur award).  In the quaint images and manners of his time, Hardy has in this respect put his finger on one of the arteries that keep the enterprise of science alive and moving forward.

When I assess Two on a Tower on Hardy’s own terms, I conclude that the “stupendous… stellar universe” has too small a part, while the “emotional history of two infinitesimal  lives” is allowed to play too large a role.  As a portrait of a scientist as a young man, the novel is a success, and I for one was happy that Hardy developed the emotional history of two lovers so well.  It’s easy to say, but I think this short novel could have been lengthened with a richer tapestry of astronomical research.

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