16 November 2017

Review: Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Trade paperback, 296 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1882)
Acquired October 2012
Read January 2013
Two on a Tower: A Romance
by Thomas Hardy

Most of the major Victorian novelists, as I am fond of pointing out, wrote one scientist novel: Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Collins, Kingsley, Trollope. Thomas Hardy, I am even fonder of pointing out, wrote three. Two on a Tower, his 1882 astronomer romance, was the middle one, following his 1872 geologist romance A Pair of Blue Eyes and preceding his 1887 amateur naturalist romance The Woodlanders. If we were to trace a trajectory of Hardy's opinions on science as way of seeing across them (a somewhat risky critical move, perhaps), we see that Hardy grows more pessimistic across the fifteen years (as Hardy seemingly did about everything).

While science is largely incidental in A Pair of Blue Eyes and while the scientist in The Woodlanders is a monster, Two on a Tower is somewhere in between in its depiction of a romance between Swithin St. Cleeve, the young astronomer, and Lady Viviette Constantine, an older married woman. Swithin finds beauty in the stars, but his elevated vision struggles to see Viviette's beauty on Earth-- even though she sees his quite clearly. Then, when he does shift his perception in order to see her, he loses sight of the stars that gave him so much wonder. And this being Hardy, nothing can ever work out correctly. This is my favorite of Hardy's three scientist novels: you really want this romance to work out, but know it never can, and there's beautiful imagery and some great ideas. The universe is unforgiving, and so is Thomas Hardy.

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