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Hardy saw himself as a poet by calling who wrote novels for money. In common with his other novels, Two on a Tower, a work from the middle of his career as a novelist, was originally published in serial form. This meant not only that each episode had to have a dramatic ending, but also that the standards of morality required by Victorian editors had to be upheld. The often-repeated assessment of Hardy that his plots were contrived is therefore less a criticism of his natural style than of the expectations of the times. In any case, the ability to contrive an exciting story is arguably more of a benefit than a hindrance to a writer. In Two on a Tower, the plot practically falls over itself in its determination to ensure that sexual relations do not occur outside marriage, or at least outside what the characters believe to be marriage: a clandestine wedding and some improbable coincidences all help to preserve a proper morality.
The improbably named Swithin St Cleeve (and truly, it never rains but it pours for poor Swithin) is a young would-be astronomer of respectable birth but slender means who wins the affection of the lonely Lady Constantine, who apparently cannot hear enough ("I could listen all day") about astronomy. She pays for an abandoned tower on her estate to be equipped as an observatory, and there the two lovers meet. The only cloud on the horizon is her absentee husband, wo is busy exploring Africa; but when he is reported dead, nothing stands in the way of happiness except Swithin's scruples over marrying without the financial means to support his wife, and - this being a Hardy novel - the implacable malignance of fate.
The first two-thirds of the book are as fine as anything Hardy wrote, and foreshadow his move away from realism: the thwarted lovers in the storm-lashed tower beneath the immensity of the heavens are a powerful evocation of the futility of human desires in relation to the vast cosmic scheme of things. The vast yet transient universe that science reveals is truly terrible: Swithin imagines his soul wandering through a burnt out universe, occasionally striking against the black, invisible cinders of lifeless stars.
Having shaken his fist at implacable nature, Hardy's target in the final third of the novel switches to the Anglican Church, in the form of Bishop Helmsdale, a rival for Lady Constantine's affections. There was much controversy at the time of publication over whether the novel was anti-Christian: the bishop certainly seems to stand for the conventional religious morality that may have marred many a burgeoning Victorian romance. As a character, however, he is crudely drawn: pompous, sanctimonious and smug, he is something of an ecclesiastical straw man, whose humiliation, however deserved, makes uncomfortable reading. The concluding sentence seems a deliberate and distracting provocation (to Emma Hardy, perhaps?).
My point is not that the Victorian Church was not ripe for criticism, but that Hardy's presentation of the Church as a major hindrance to self-realisation sits uneasily with the grand themes of the earlier part of the book. Religion may have been a moral straightjacket, but Swithin's obsessive pursuit of scientific knowledge is equally the cause of his personal unhappiness, and in Hardy's world the workings of blind fate are every bit as cruel as any deity.
Lady Constantine, whose disagreeable husband is away, falls in love with Swithin St Cleeve, an astronomer, younger than herself, who works at the top of a tower. The story follows their tortured relationship.