Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Lesser Light: Reflections on Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower

A few weeks ago, in my “Cornucopia of Recommendations” post, I said you couldn’t go wrong with a Thomas Hardy novel.  Much as it pains me to admit it, I have to take back the remark.  I recently finished reading Hardy’s lesser-known novel Two on a Tower, and while there were some features of it that were classic Hardy, it certainly didn’t live up to the usual Hardy experience.

The premise has promise: a woman of feeling and religious devotion falls in love with a younger man of science whose ambition is to be a great astronomer.  The woman is Lady Constantine, a recently widowed 28 year-old; the would-be astronomer, a local farm boy named Swithin St. Cleeve, whose father’s social standing was brought down by his marriage to Swithin’s lower-class mother.  Swithin is thus genteel enough that when Lady Constantine first discovers him making stellar observations from a tower on her property, she is moved to aid him in his ambitions as she can.  At the time that she strikes up her acquaintance, she doesn’t yet know her husband is dead, simply that he has been in Africa for some years.  By the time she learns he is dead, Lady Constantine has fallen in love with Swithin, and Swithin with her.

But there are complications. 
Lady Constantine, in her advanced (ahem) age, knows better than to distract Swithin from his work with her love, so they make a pact that they will secretly marry.  That way, Swithin can carry on with his work undisturbed, and Lady Constantine also can live on as usual until after he has made his first breakthrough into the world of astronomy.  But then it turns out Lady Constantine’s first husband died later than the first report said he did, so in fact she was married at the time that she married Swithin, and their nuptials are therefore null.  Add into the mix the Bishop of Melchester, who falls in love with Lady Constantine and proposes, and an estranged great uncle of Swithin’s who promises a large salary to help him in his astronomy studies provided he remain unmarried until age 25, and you have the fixings of a rather sensational plot.

I won’t tell you how it all ends in case you don’t listen to me and decide to read it.  But I do want to reflect on why this book falls flat because it provides a real example of many of the axioms and warnings I’ve heard writers—and agents—give.

You may have heard people talk about novels of ideas—that is, books that act out a philosophical idea, or books that proceed from a hypothesis more than they do from characters.  Many great Russian novels exemplify novels of ideas, like Crime and Punishment or Fathers and Sons.  Wikipedia offers an entry on “Philosophical Fiction” that lists some novels of ideas.  Still, many times in my creative writing education, I heard the warning not to hold your writing to a preconceived notion, to let the characters develop, and to surprise yourself.  If you’re not surprising yourself, you’re not surprising your readers.  Or, to put it another way, in words from an essay by Alan Cheuse, “Great novels are grown, not planned.”

Now, it’s dangerous to talk in generalizations, but by and large, I believe such warnings should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  Of course, the purpose of fiction is not to put forth a dull agenda.  Of course I agree with that.  But where would novels of ideas be if they were not, in some way, planned?  If the writer did not, in some way, say, “I want to explore this”?  In fact there are many examples of successful novels of ideas, but Two on a Tower offers a lesson in what happens when a novel of ideas falls flat.

Hardy himself identified his idea in the preface to Two on a Tower:  “This slightly-built romance,” he writes, “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.”

Ah-ha, an idea.  There is yet a further idea at play: that of science versus feeling, as embodied by Swithin and Lady Constantine.  The problem is, this idea comes through blatantly in the text and in very direct dialogues, while the dynamic between the two characters does not come through at all.  If we are to conclude, as Hardy suggests, that “the smaller” is “the greater,” then the reader must also be made to realize the importance of that smaller life.  In telling us the kinds of characters these are—Lady Constantine the lonely, bored, upper-class woman, St. Cleeve the handsome, ambitious underdog—and in having them speak directly about how little their concerns are compared to the heavens, Hardy gets lazy in his characterization.  He provides more characterization of Farmer Oak and Bathsheba Everdene in the first two chapters of Far From the Madding Crowd than he does for Swithin and Lady Constantine in the whole novel of Two on a Tower.  There’s the great scene in Madding Crowd in which Farmer Oak watches Miss Everdene when she thinks no one is looking.  What does she do?  She pulls out a mirror and looks at herself in it.  What a great and characterizing action!  What volumes it speaks of Farmer Oak in how he reacts.  We get so little of this type of characterizing action in Two on a Tower that it’s difficult to be invested in either Lady Constantine or Swithin.

Which brings us to another oft-debated point.  Readers today seem to want likable characters.  But if all characters were likable, where would that leave Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, or even Emma early on in Austen’s Emma, who is spoiled rotten and has very little to trouble or vex her?  There is nothing particularly un-likable about either Swithin or Lady Constantine, but speaking purely as a reader, I didn’t care what happened to them.  The point is that characters don’t have to be either likable or unlikeable, but they do have to have enough particularity that the reader feels invested. 

In Hardy’s defense, there are elements to Two on a Tower that appeal to the intellect and to close-reading.  As Sally Shuttleworth points out in her introduction, Hardy embeds elements of mythology and astronomy in the actions and trajectories of his characters.  Shuttleworth also compares at some length Lady Constantine and Swithin to Dorothea and Mr. Causabon from Middlemarch.  While I saw the similarities Shuttleworth pointed out—the prematurely entombed woman rescued by her sunny Apollo-figure—they only served, in my mind, to show Eliot’s fine and subtle characterization versus the cursory effort here.

But just as the flaws of Two on a Tower illuminate Eliot’s achievements, so too do the flaws here illuminate what is so great about Hardy generally.  He does know how to characterize—you can’t read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and not be haunted by that child-of-nature Tess, that man-of-double-standards Angel, and the lecherous, evil Alec long after you’ve put the book down.  Hardy is also a master at making life events feel terrifyingly fated—many of them as small as refusing to pull one’s wagon over for an oncoming carriage when one has the right of way (as happens in The Woodlanders) or slipping a letter not just under a door but accidentally under a rug so the recipient never sees it (as happens in Tess).  In Two on a Tower the life events instead feel purposefully and sensationally planted, like a convenient thunderstorm and a letter of great import delivered in the very moment Swithin is traveling to contract his secret marriage.

And so, though I may not as freely say, “Choose any Hardy novel and it’s bound to be great,” my admiration for Hardy is as intact as ever from seeing his genius thrown into relief by this lesser work.  Besides, it’s comforting to remember that not even great writers can hit a homerun every time.

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