“Who is your favorite writer?” a Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer asked during an interview on a book tour while I scribbled everything he said in a notebook.
“Thomas Hardy,” I said.
Hardy was my secret love.
“Hardy was our grandfathers’ writer,” he said.
I said nothing.
But I was so humiliated by his condescension that I didn’t read Hardy again until the millennium.
Good God, I think in retrospect. Why let a little embarrassment keep one from reading a great English writer?
Thomas Hardy vs. the Famous (Now Dead) White Male Writer?
Hardy is a surprisingly edgy writer.
I recently reread Hardy’s ninth novel, Two on a Tower, published in 1882.
In this lyrical, gorgeous, rather weird novel, he relates the story of the tragic love affair of a beautiful, depressed woman and a brilliant young astronomer.
Two on a Tower is a predecessor of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both center on clandestine love affairs between a sensitive lady and an intelligent man of a lower class. The heroines have similar names: Hardy’s is Lady Viviette Constantine, and Lawrence’s is Lady Constance Chatterley.
The atmospheric first few pages of Two on a Tower not only set the scene but establish Hardy as a stunning poet.
On an early winter afternoon, clear but not cold, when the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons through whose ribs the sun shone freely, a gleaming landau came to a pause on the crest of a hill in Wessex. The spot was where the old Melchester Road, which the carriage had hitherto followed, was joined by a drive that led round into a park at no great distance off.
What Gothic imagery! I especially like “the vegetable world was a weird multitude of skeletons…”
The heroine, Lady Vivette Constantine, is fascinated by the view of the tall tower on top of the hill. A few months later, when the weather is more clement, she walks across the fields and climbs to the top of the tower. There she meets Swithin St. Cleeve, a handsome young astronomer who is using the tower as an observatory. Swithin is the orphaned son of a curate-turned-farmer and a farmer’s daughter.
And thus the constant Viviette falls in love, though she constantly feels guilty. She is ten years older than he, and she is terrified of gossip.
She becomes fascinated by astronomy–she has had nothing to do–and buys equipment for his observatory. Her husband, Sir Blount, has been absent for three years on a hunting expedition in Africa. Before he left, he demanded that she “not so behave towards other men as to bring the name of Constantine into suspicion…” And when she asks the rector, Mr. Torkingham, whether she need continue to refuse social invitations and “live like a cloistered nun in his absence,” he advises her to keep her word.
There is much irony in the narrative. Swithin does ground-breaking research only to find that someone has just published the same results. Viviette hears rumors about Sir Blount’s whereabouts: first, that he is in London; then, that he is dead. Even after they hear that he is dead, the class-conscious Viviette and poverty-stricken Swithin marry secretly because of Viviette’s social position: she is tormented by fear of scandal over different class and age and the need to conform. On the day of the wedding, Swithin receives a letter saying that his uncle has left him 600 pounds a year on the condition that he not marry till he is twenty-five. He sacrifices the legacy for the marriage and does not tell Viviette about it. There are many ripple effects of the secret marriage. They deceive Viviette’s brother and the Bishop about their relationship. Then their marriage turns out to be invalid because the rumor of Sir Blount’s death had been false and he had died after the date of their wedding.
When Two on a Tower was published in 1882, it disturbed critics nearly as much as Lawrence’s much more graphic Lady Chatterley’s Lover did in 1928. The biographer Carl Weber reported that reviewers described Hardy’s novel as “’hazardous,’ ‘repulsive,’ ‘little short of revolting,’ [and] ‘a studied and gratuitous insult.’”
Hardy wrote in a letter to Edmund Gosse on Dec. 10, 1882 (Purdy and Millgate 110): “I get most extraordinary criticisms of T. on a T. Eminent critics write & tell me in private that it is the most original thing I have done…while other eminent critics (I wonder if they are the same) print the most cutting rebukes you can conceive–show me (to my amazement) that I am quite an immoral person…”
Different times, different mores.