Thomas Hardy said that he wrote this novel “to set the emotional history of two infinitesimal lives against the stupendous background of the stellar universe…”
To begin the tale, a woman decides to investigate a tower and meets a young astronomer there who introduces her to the wonders of the night sky. As such, the novel is fiction about science rather than science fiction. Hardy uses the book as a social commentary on the Victorian rules of society and religion of the time. He sets our two star-gazers off on an seemingly impossible starry-eyed path where they’re met with obstacles to their relationship at every turn.
As a woman of means, Viviette helps Swithin (the astronomer) to acquire better instruments for his astronomical observations. Part of the reason behind this investment is to endear herself more to him. Disappointingly, Swithin tells Viviette that “[a] beloved science is enough wife for me,—combined, perhaps, with a little warm friendship with one of kindred pursuits.”
Of course, a statement like that is an open invitation or perhaps an open challenge for Viviette to perhaps make herself more than just a warm friend. She says, “I feel that I have been so foolish as to put in your hands an instrument to effect my own annihilation.”
Hardy allows his characters to slowly get to know each other before they fall in love. I love the conversations that the “two on the tower” have as Swithin is introducing Viviette to astronomy. Here’s a sampling:
Viviette: ”But I wish to be enlightened.”
Swithin: ”Let me caution you against it.”
Viviette: ”Is enlightenment on the subject, then, so terrible?”
Swithin: ”Yes, indeed.” “She laughingly declared that nothing could have so piqued her curiosity as his statement…”
After all, there’s nothing more appealing than a warning against enlightenment. Swithin goes on to challenge Viviette’s faith by saying that “[w]hatever the stars were made for, they were not made to please our eyes. It is just the same in everything; nothing is made for man.”
While Swithin challenges Viviette’s faith as well as her ideas of right and wrong, she finds that she still worries about what others think of her and feels the need to act secretly. This is true even though she has no real friends or acquaintances within the village. Still, what would the neighbors think if she had a romantic interest so soon after hearing of her husband’s death abroad? What would they think if they knew she was in love with a man a decade younger than her (he’s in his early 20s and she’s in her early 30s)? What would they think if they knew she was in love with someone beneath her social level? The characters go to ridiculously great lengths to hide their meetings and feelings for each other, even at times when nobody is watching. Just when everything looks as if everything’s going to work out, another obstacle appears in the path. But all these problems could have been solved so easily if Viviette would just have acquiesced to allow their relationship to be known publicly from the beginning.
I have to admit that I vacillate between thinking that they should have just allowed their love to be public from the beginning and agreeing with this statement: “Like a certain philosopher I would, upon my soul, have all young men from eighteen to twenty-five kept under barrels; seeing how often, in the lack of some such sequestering process, the woman sits down before each as his destiny, and too frequently enervates his purpose, till he abandons the most promising course ever conceived!”
I’ve seen so many marriages begun before age 25 fail that I long ago adopted this philosophy of keeping men under barrels until they’re 25. Well, maybe they shouldn’t be kept under barrels, but I think couples should ideally wait until both are at least 25 before committing to marriage. There has been research in the past few years to suggest that the brain often doesn’t fully develop until age 25 or even the early 30s. I especially noticed a marked change in my male friends’ maturity level after age 25. And when I was in my late 20s trying to date guys in their early 20s, there was definitely a divide. I felt as if they were just discovering themselves, discovering the world, and working out their own philosophies while I was already past that. I felt almost as if I’d be a hindrance to their enthusiastic new self-discoveries. After all, I’d already been there and done that. And I did feel a little sheepish about dating a 19-year-old when I was 27 whereas I’d not have felt the same strangeness about dating a 25-year-old at age 33. Time can make a big difference where age gaps are concerned.
Age aside, I wonder how many Victorian women read this book and then afterwards went out to try to find themselves a young astronomer (or other scientist) to enlighten them. Through this novel, Hardy makes astronomers seem extraordinarily sexy in their singular and focused scientific endeavors: “Within his temples dwelt thoughts, not of woman’s looks, but of stellar aspects and the configuration of constellations. Thus, to his physical attractiveness was added the attractiveness of mental inaccessibility.”
And this is the crowning line to make all the Victorian literary fan girls truly swoon: “There was a certain scientific practicability even in his love-making, and it here came out excellently.”
There probably weren’t enough scientists to go around after the Victorian fan girls read that line.
This was a great read on my journey through Hardy’s works. Those who enjoy a nice scientific romance railing against Victorian ideas would definitely enjoy it. And those young astronomers wishing to make themselves appear irresistible to the objects of their affection should request the objects of their affection read this book. Just a word of caution: don’t sneak a peek at the last page unless you want the entire story ruined for you.