Everyone's heard of judging a book by its cover, but how about discovering a book by its cover? If the Penguin English Library cover of Two on a Tower hadn't caught my eye as I was browsing The Book Depository, then this lesser known Thomas Hardy novel would probably still be unknown to me. And although it is one of Hardy's more obscure works, some of the key elements of his most famous novels are out in full force: a smart, scientifically-minded hero, a heroine who skirts a fall from grace, a secret marriage, and an ill fated romance that dissolves due to societal pressures.
The heroine in question in Two on a Tower is Viviette Constantine. At twenty-eight, she is married to an absent Lord who left England for adventures in Africa several years earlier. Prior to his departure, he mistreated Lady Constantine in ways that are only vaguely alluded to on the page. As a result, though Lady Constantine holds the highest social position in her rural parish, she leads a withdrawn and depressed life. A bright spot in her dreary daily routine emerges after she meets twenty-year-old Swithin St. Cleeve, a budding astronomer who sets up his observatory on an old tower located on Lady Constantine's property. They develop a friendship that's centered around gazing at the stars and Lady Constantine soon realizes she's in love with him, as much for her hopes of the great scientific discoveries he'll make one day as for his handsome face and guileless nature. When Lady Constantine receives word that her husband has been killed in Africa, it doesn't take long before she gives in to her feelings for Swithin. They enter into a secret marriage and plan to reveal their relationship publicly only after Swithin makes a name for himself as an astronomer, despite the fact that that could be years in the future. Of course, this being a Hardy novel, the planned path of the couple takes several unexpected turns for the worse. Pressure from relatives, potential rival suitors, and financial matters all place a strain on Swithin and Lady Constantine's commitment to each other. Their relationship reaches a moment of crisis when they learn that their marriage may actually be void due to a technicality and they are faced with a decision of whether to continue their lives together or apart.
In terms of the overall story and writing, I found Two on a Tower to be pretty comparable to the last lesser known Hardy novel I read, A Pair of Blue Eyes. Yet even though they are similar, I enjoyed Two on a Tower quite a bit more. Part of it may be due to my mood at the time of reading each one, but I think a larger part of it is due to the characters of Lady Constantine and Swithin. At first glance, neither one is very appealing. Especially at the beginning of the novel, Lady Constantine's lack of judgment is annoying and Swithin's wide-eyed innocence makes him seem like the farthest thing from an intriguing love interest. As the story progresses, though, Hardy subtly makes their characters more nuanced and more interesting. This is especially true when Swithin first realizes that Lady Constantine has romantic feelings for him. His eyes are opened to a possibility that he never thought of before and, in what seems to be a matter of moments, he transitions from a naive boy to a calculating man in a way that's fascinating to watch. Both he and Lady Constantine turn out to be sympathetic characters worth rooting for. And as a pair, they manage to avoid more potential tragic scrapes than many other Hardy couples do, which kept me holding my breath in hope for a good ending for them, even after the writing on the tower wall became clear, so to speak.