Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

This was the book chosen for me in the most recent Classics Club Spin and although it wasn’t one of the books on my list that I was particularly hoping for, I was pleased with the result as Thomas Hardy is one of my favourite Victorian authors. Today is the deadline for posting our reviews and for once I have managed to finish in time!

Two on a Tower was published in 1882 and is one of Hardy’s less well known novels, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good one. Although I wouldn’t rank it amongst my top three or four, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It falls into the group of novels Hardy himself classed as ‘romance and fantasy’ and is set, like many of his other books, in his fictional Wessex. The romantic aspect of the book concerns Lady Viviette Constantine and her relationship with the younger Swithin St Cleeve.

Twenty-year-old St Cleeve lives with his elderly grandmother and dreams of becoming a famous astronomer. He has created an observatory in an old tower on land owned by Lady Constantine and her husband, who is away in Africa. When Lady Constantine meets the young man who is using her tower, she is struck by his beauty and by his passion for his work, and as Swithin introduces her to the wonders of the night sky with its planets and constellations, she becomes aware that she has fallen in love with him. She and Swithin spend more and more time together in their own private world at the top of the tower, hidden away from the prying eyes of society whom, she knows, would disapprove of their relationship – because she is ten years older and belongs to a different social class.

Even after news arrives from Africa of the death of Lady Constantine’s husband, the barriers of age and class still stand in their way. Will she and Swithin ever be able to marry and live together openly? How long will she manage to keep her romance a secret from her scheming brother Louis? And can she fend off the unwelcome attentions of the Bishop of Melchester?

Two on a Tower has a slightly different feel from most of the other Hardy novels I’ve read. It’s quite a gentle story, with none of the truly shocking, tragic scenes that you would find in books like Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. That’s not to say there is no drama, because there is, especially at the end – Hardy certainly doesn’t make things easy for Viviette Constantine and Swithin St Cleeve – but what I will remember most from this book are the descriptions of the stars in the night sky and the slow development of the two lovers’ relationship. However, I thought that the sense of place – usually such a strong element of Hardy’s writing – was weaker than usual. Apart from the tower itself, I felt that the surrounding landscape never came to life in the same way as, for example, Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. It was as if, by concentrating on the wider universe, Hardy had less time to spend on the smaller details of everyday life. Maybe that was intentional; I’m not sure.

As I’ve said, this book hasn’t become a favourite – and I felt less emotionally invested in the central romance than I would have liked, probably because, although I completely believed in Viviette’s love for Swithin, I wasn’t convinced that she really meant much more to him than his telescope did. I was still gripped by their story, though, and overall, I really enjoyed Two on a Tower.

I have four Hardy novels left to read and they are all obscure ones too: The Well-Beloved, A Laodicean, The Hand of Ethelberta and The Trumpet-Major. If you have read them, please let me know which one I should read next!

This is book 14/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

25 thoughts on “Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

  1. Lark says:

    I liked this Hardy novel when I read it, too. You’re right, it’s not as intense or tragic as Tess, but it’s still a good book. I also really liked The Well-Beloved, so I would vote for that one to be your next Hardy read. (But then I haven’t read any of the other three on your list so I have no idea how they compare.) 😀

  2. realthog says:

    I’m not sure I’ve even heard of this particular Hardy, but then I somehow missed the boat with him and have read only a few. Of those few, I can recall liking liking A Laodicean quite a lot: here’s hoping you do two.

    I’d thought The Trumpet-Major was one of the better known ones rather than one of the more obscure. Perhaps it was just very current around the time I was reading various Hardy contemporaries.

    • Helen says:

      Maybe The Trumpet-Major is a lot more popular than I thought it was – I just haven’t personally heard much about it or noticed any other bloggers writing about it. I’m pleased to hear you liked A Laodicean; it does sound appealing and I’m tempted to read that one next.

  3. Anne Bennett says:

    I’ve not read any Thomas Hardy novels though one is on my classics list. I’ve decided that I want to stretch out my list to include more female writers and writers from other cultures which means I am dedicating less reading time to old, white, Englishmen. Ha! Nice review of this book, however. My Classic Spin book: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

    • Helen says:

      I do have a few old white Englishmen on my Classics Club list (and I have to admit, they do tend to have written the sort of books I enjoy, like this one) but I’ve also made an effort to include plenty of female authors and authors in translation too. I hope you like Thomas Hardy when you get to him!

  4. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    I wouldn’t rank Two on a Tower among my favorite Hardys either, but I still quite liked it over all. I found The Well Beloved slightly bizarre, but the premis is interesting, and I haven’t come across anyone else who has read it.

    • Helen says:

      So far I’ve enjoyed all of the Hardy novels I’ve read, some more than others of course. I’ll be interested to see what I think of The Well Beloved when I get round to reading that one.

  5. cirtnecce says:

    Helen, I really wish I could appreciate Hardy like you and many others;despite all his brilliance I cannot, bring myself to like him. I love the lyricism and the details but I cannot somehow relate to his plots! The premises of this one however is very interesting and maybe one day I will attempt it!

    • Helen says:

      I love Hardy, but I completely understand why not everyone does! Maybe this would be a good one for you to try if you did decide to give him another chance.

    • Helen says:

      It’s not really a fantasy in the usual sense of the word – much more of a romance, although it does have a different feel from his other books which he classed as ‘Novels of character and environment’.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    I ‘did’ The Trumpet-Major at school but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember anything at all about it! I’m tempted to return to it though, or I might even try this one, as you’ve sold it quite well. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      We never did any Hardy at school, but that might have been a good thing as I don’t think I would have appreciated him as much when I was younger. I think I might be leaning towards A Laodicean for my next Hardy novel, but I do want to read The Trumpet-Major as well.

  7. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, well done for reading and reviewing your Spin result book before the deadline. It is the first time I managed to read AND review mine in time. So I am feeling pretty chuffed with myself. 🙂 As for Two on a Tower, it is a Hardy I have never heard of but with the stars and universe, and less tragic, shocking scenes, it sounds like one I might prefer! 😀

  8. Liz Dexter says:

    I liked this one when we did all of Hardy in publication order a decade or so ago. And I can share that I really enjoyed The Trumpet-Major, another one where there isn’t quite so much looming fate and tragedy. I’d not read it before and it became a favourite.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve been reading Hardy’s books completely at random, but working through them in publication order sounds like an interesting idea. I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed The Trumpet-Major!

  9. Judy Krueger says:

    This is a lovely review, Helen. I guess Hardy had a wide range of things he could write well about. I have read the other two novels by Hardy that you mentioned. It was in college, a long time ago now, but I remember thinking they were amazing. You have made me want to read him again.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Judy. I agree that Tess and Jude are amazing books, but I have enjoyed all of the others I’ve read too, including the lesser known books like this one.

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