Pamela Gossin, Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe

Pamela Gossin, Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe: Astronomy, Cosmology, and Gender in the Post-Darwinian World (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007). xiii + 300 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 9780754603368

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

There were gloomy deserts in those southern skies such as the north shows scarcely an example of […] The inspection of these chasms brought [Swithin] a second pulsation of that old horror which he had used to describe to Viviette as produced in him by bottomlessness in the north heaven. The ghostly finger of limitless vacancy touched him now on the other side […] Space here, being less the historic haunt of human thought than overhead at home, seemed to be pervaded with a more lonely loneliness. (Hardy, Two on a Tower 268)

Thomas Hardy’s articulation of ‘lonely loneliness’ in his neglected 1882 novel Two on a Tower suggests that language does not possess sufficient expressive resources to capture in consolingly human or familiar terms the awesome vastness of astronomical distance. In this disquieting incident Two on a Tower seems to foreshadow that crisis point when all the resources of Hardy’s art conspire to produce a feeling of unmitigated desolation. However, Pamela Gossin’s new book stresses the degree to which Hardy artfully juxtaposes astronomical narratives of existential emptiness with intimations of heightened perception, elaborating a ‘novel’ universe which revitalises contemporary concepts of human progress available in then-current evolutionary theory and anthropology. Although new configurations of time and space had the potential to dwarf psychologically the human imagination, Hardy’s cosmological narratives effectively divulge, according to Gossin, ways in which readers may productively scrutinise their own life stories as well as the cultural evolution of the species.
In her opening gambit Gossin adroitly mediates between the professional, philosophical, and disciplinary differences between literary criticism and the history of science by focusing on their shared fascination with narratives of progressive enlightenment. Gossin is persuasive in mapping Hardy’s keen participation in and contribution to the long tradition of human writing about the cosmos, from archaeological artefacts to mythopoetic, classical and Biblical accounts, to ethnographic surveys and folklore collections. Hardy realised that these narratives of origin, ceaseless flux and development express and encapsulate the ideals and beliefs of the past communities which created them, and simultaneously impinge upon the content of the cosmological narratives fashioned by later generations.

In Part II of Thomas Hardy’s Novel Universe, Gossin crafts a series of astute close readings of both ‘major and minor novels’ (xvi). While Gossin shows with clarity and confidence the multiple levels of astronomical allusion and tropes seamlessly woven into the textual fabric of Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, she often misses crucial opportunities to explicate the complex and capricious tone in which Hardy deploys many of these references. For instance, Gossin’s delineation of Henry Knight’s crisis on the Cliff without a Name in A Pair of Blue Eyes, where he confronts a fossilised trilobite, rehearses the familiar features of this rightly celebrated episode: Knight, the sententious cosmopolite on the receiving end of a new conception of time that is a consequence of geological and astronomical data he had previously regarded with blithe unconcern (135-37).

However, this scene discloses a more mischievous quality than the harrowing bleakness of biological determinism. Knight’s ordeal galvanises Hardy’s writing project, enabling him to uncover a counterforce to his stricken sense of social and historical severance in an art that involves sly irony, incongruous juxtaposition and sardonic humour to promote unusual angles of vision. Hardy’s astronomica lreferences introduce cultural perspectives that complicate and enliven the sense of occasion. As Gossin registers, in Victorian culture ‘astronomy and cosmology took many forms’ (xvi) including popular illustrated texts for gentlemen, ladies and children; periodical newspaper coverage of astronomical discoveries and theories; public observatories and international expeditions. Hardy’s perception of the piquancy of popular astronomy lends a cadence to his fiction that merges impish wit with solemnity of purpose, and Gossin sometimes underestimates the spirited insouciance with which he subverts our sentimental and generic expectations.

Gossin is more robust in addressing how Hardy’s female protagonists become the principal bearers of the astronomical and cosmological message of his fiction. Through the narrative lives of these venturesome heroines Hardy appears to express a striking appreciation for sympathetic identification in a universe from which God has absconded, rather than the stark scientific pessimism so frequently ascribed to him. While Hardy’s female figures, such as The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye, fail personally and socially to resolve the grave questions of the modern cosmos – how to balance instinctual appetite with intellectual rigour, empathetic connection with technological sophistication, creativity with entropy – they are not simply submissive victims beneath the stars (149-52) but active and resourceful agents who challenge the petty provincialism of rural society. Their abiding fascination with scientific teachings permits them to interrogate the unforgiving laws of the physical universe. Gossin’s argument is a trenchant corrective to Patricia Murphy’s In Science’s Shadow: Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Womanhood (2006), which posits that Hardy expresses a pronounced anxiety over female encroachment, which threatens to corrode, belittle or debunk masculine scientific endeavours.

Gossin’s conclusion that Hardy shapes new myths for the lives of Victorian men and women underlines how the fates of his female protagonists are inextricably linked to their knowledge of the astronomical ‘truths’ of the cosmos, including an apprehension that divine presence may be inimical, impercipient or nonexistent. On a cursory reading this seems to recapitulate the authorised version of a monolithically gloomy Hardy, paralyzed by an intractable mood of deprivation. However, Gossin illustrates instead Hardy’s energetically inquisitive intelligence: his conception of intergalactic spaces offers him a bracing vantage point from which to review and revitalise his own signature aesthetic convictions. By measuring the possibilities and limits of human existence within the terrestrial and celestial spheres, Hardy combats the grimmer implications of social Darwinism with an alternative moral astrophysics. Gossin’s signal achievement is to stress how this alternative outlook not only supplies a fresh stimulus to feminist scholarship but also deepens formalist evaluation of Hardy’s narrative tactics.

Andrew Radford, University of Glasgow.

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