Two on a Tower
Two on a Tower was first seen as a serial, in eight monthly instalments, in the magazine Atlantic Monthly. It ran from the May to the December of 1882. Sampson Low published the novel in three-volume form in the October of the same year.
As had earlier been suggested by the nocturnal description in the second chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy had a keen interest in astronomy. Stars feature in every one of his novels and many of his poems. The purpose behind Two on a Tower is set out unambiguously in his 1895 Preface to the work:
This slightly-built romance was the outcome of a wish 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 the greater to them as men.
The ‘romance’ concerned involves Lady Viviette Constantine, wife of a wealthy land-owner, and the young astronomer, Swithin St. Cleeve, some ten years her junior, who has been using a tower on her land as an observatory. Viviette, enduring a secluded life while her husband is away in Africa, feels drawn to Swithin and helps him financially with his research. When eventually the two fall in love their relationship is to be alternately constrained, encouraged and re-defined by shifting circumstances.
Early admirers of Hardy who read the first couple of instalments of the serial could well have thought that they were embarking on a masterpiece. The subject was strikingly original, and offered the author an even vaster context than the one he had exploited with such power in The Return of the Native. There were some wonderful accounts of ‘the stars and their interspaces’, and the central romantic situation promised interesting developments. Unfortunately the quality of those opening chapters was not to be fulfilled. Since the night sky, unlike Egdon Heath, could not bear directly upon the action, the astronomical descriptions had gradually to be abandoned in the interests of the story while unfortunately the story itself subsided into confusion. Hardy’s own adjective, ‘slightly-built’ is revealing in this context, perhaps fatally so. After the ambitious start the narrative is carried forward by random short-term crises and melodramatic contrivances of the kind nowadays commonplace in soap opera. The effect is to diminish the novel to a novelette and the lovers from potentially interesting characters to hapless victims.
Hardy’s intended theme is correspondingly undermined. Against ‘the stupendous background of the stellar universe’ is set, not an ‘emotional history’ that might have held its own in terms of perceived magnitude, but a flimsy assemblage of chances, mishaps and coincidences. What might have been a great novella becomes a sadly anti-climactic novel.