Unless you count Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (which I do, mostly), this was the first classic I read this year. The first pre-20th century classic.
A subset of my goal to read more classic fiction this year is a goal to revisit some books I read when I was younger, mostly in middle and high school, and disliked. After a good experience revisiting Huckleberry Finn last year I wanted to see if some of the other “ugh” books gained that categorization because I was too young to understand them.
I think I began with Hardy to get him over with. Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the only book I was assigned in high school that I never finished. I just couldn’t. I loathed it. And even now, I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again, and gave myself permission to just try Hardy, any Hardy, instead. I had wanted to pick up either Jude the Obscure or Far from the Madding Crowd but the used bookstore didn’t have those. It mostly had Tess, and this.
I’ll begin by admitting I didn’t hate the book, which I had feared I would. I didn’t love it, I don’t feel like gushing, but I enjoyed it and am not sorry I read it.
Two on a Tower is a shortish novel concerning two people: Lady Viviette Constantine, and Swithin St. Cleeve. Viviette is a 28 year old woman trapped in a marriage to an absent husband who was probably emotionally abusive when he was present. Because of a self-inflicted vow, Viviette has had no company or friends or anything for the last five years of her husband’s absence.
Swithin is a young man of 21 who is the son of the late village vicar and a farmer’s daughter. He is also an astronomer. Viviette discovers him working one evening when out of desperate boredom she goes to explore a memorial tower on her property and discovers Swithin had adopted it as an observatory.
At first, Viviette sees herself as a patroness, investing in the younger man’s future, buying him some expensive equipment and fitting out the tower to be a more proper observatory. Then, of course, they fall in love. Much is made in the 7 or 8 year disparity in their ages (which Hardy in a later edition increased to 10), which I found a little overdone.
The biggest problem I had with the book is that many of his plot twists just feel contrived. People show up from years abroad at inconvenient times. Characters are dead (or not dead) with annoying convenience (or inconvenience), and the missed communications make the Romeo and Juliet missive gone awry feel like a 100% legitimate plot device. And they lead to an ending which doesn’t feel right or tragic or happy, or anything at all. My reaction was along the lines of I figured it would end up like this.
If anything, this book is a great illustration of the validity of much of Aristotle’s advice on tragedy in the Poetics. He says that a good tragedy (and this book is supposed to be tragic – my edition uses the term “star-crossed-lovers” I think seriously) must be driven by the character’s actions, that the flaws in the characters must become deadly. Here, the characters do have flaws, and they do make choices that have repercussions, but much of the conflict is forced upon them from outside, based on circumstances in which they have no control, or even knowledge of when they make decisions. I feel less sorry for them as a result, and more annoyed with Hardy.
I would be interested to see if the flaws with this book are a result of Hardy’s fatalistic worldview, or because he just doesn’t do such a good job with this book. I will likely pick up one of his better known books eventually, but I also suspect he will not be making my shortlist of authors I really like.
Also, I have retreated to Dickens. I think that says something.