Looking at the stars …
All credit to Radio 4 for adapting Thomas Hardy’s unjustly neglected novel Two on a Tower as its classic serial recently. My partner introduced me to this novel a few years ago, and though it is overshadowed by Tess of the d’Urberville and Jude the Obscure, I think it’s one of the finest of Hardy’s later novels, and every bit as much a protest against social convention.
Lady Viviette Constantine, who falls in love with a handsome but low-born young astronomer after finding him watching the stars from a lonely tower on her estate, is one of his most appealing heroines, and the novel shows an interesting enlargement of his usual themes in its engagement with scientific endeavour and the problems faced by a “modern”, intellectual woman thwarted by lack of emancipation in her financial affairs and emotional life.
Recent Radio 4 adaptations have taken some bizarre liberties: the serialisation of Wilkie Collins’s Armadale made the novel’s scheming villainess, Lydia Gwilt, its main narrator, and while this may have lent a certain clarity to Collins’s confused and often preposterous narrative, it skewed the listener’s sympathies in her favour in a way that would have been incomprehensible to many a Victorian reader.
John Sen’s adaptation of Two on a Tower was largely a faithful one, barring one device – the interpolation of a letter from Viviette to her son, explaining the tragic circumstances of his birth. This has two effects: one is to make her voice central to the story; the other is to make it clear from the outset that their relationship is doomed. But then this is Thomas Hardy, after all, so one can’t really complain that this is giving anything away.
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