Q: In which novel by Thomas Hardy does the heroine climb to the very pinnacle of what was (for a short time, until 1880) the world’s tallest building?
A: The Hand of Ethelberta (1875-1876). She climbs Rouen Cathedral’s iron spire (495ft – 90ft. taller than Salisbury Cathedral).
I have just spent two days in Rouen where, staying in a delightful chambre d’hôte perched high above the city, I had a spectacular bird’s-eye view down towards the cathedral. Thomas Hardy, who came to Rouen on his honeymoon in 1874, would have approved: he had a head for heights. His eponymous heroine Ethelberta assures the ardent Lord Mountclere that in Rouen climbing to the top of the spire is de rigeur: ‘Everybody with the least artistic feeling in the direction of bird’s-eye views makes the ascent every time of coming here.’ She makes it sound like a well-established tradition. Mountclere, not to be outdone, claims to have climbed it once himself. Neither statement should be taken literally (as I’ll explain) but certainly Hardy likes to send his characters and his readers to high places, for a bird’s-eye view of what’s below.
The best-known example comes in Jude the Obscure (1895). Just before sunset, eleven-year-old Jude climbs a ladder onto the roof of an old barn high on the downs of North Wessex, hoping to catch a glimpse of distant Christminster (sc. Oxford), which he thinks must be ‘the heavenly Jerusalem … the city of light’. It is a misty evening, and at first he can see nothing, but soon the haze dissolves:
Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.
This ambiguous epiphany is characteristic of Hardy’s use of the high vantage point. Here is the novelist is describing for his adult readers the scene as he and they can envision it, but in terms well beyond Jude’s capacity. Identifying freestone-work, for instance, is not something the child could have done, but the trained architect- turned-author could.
A similar thing happens early on in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) when Hardy notes that
To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts.
He then switches back to the bird’s-eye view, in terms which could equally have described Jude’s vision of Christminster: ‘The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the coppery belt of sunlit cloud in the west.’ High windows will play an important part in the story to follow.
Hardy would return to this same idea – still more effectively – in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). The last chapter opens with a distant view of Wintonchester, which ‘lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning.’ Once again, Hardy summons up 'the gabled brick, tile and freestone houses’ before introducing two figures – Angel Clare and Tess’s younger sister ’Liza-Lu – who are climbing to the summit of the great West Hill above the city. When they reach the top, Hardy’s architect’s eye once more takes over, just as it had in The Mayor of Casterbridge and would again in Jude the Obscure:
The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing …. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St. Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it. (Ch.61)
It is the moment of Tess’s execution; they have come to see the black flag raised aloft above the prison, ‘the one blot on the city’s beauty’. But Hardy’s final bird’s- eye prospect of ‘landscape beyond landscape’ is visionary. It suggests a future of continuity and promise beckoning Angel and his companion. The black flag doesn’t eclipse the radiance of the sun for long: the President of the Immortals might have finished his sport with Tess, but ‘As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.’
I think all these peregrine perspectives have their origin in The Hand of Ethelberta. As a novel it was an experiment: Hardy wanted to show he could write fiction that wasn’t confined to Wessex, so he took his heroine and her suitors abroad, to Rouen. His readers didn’t like it, and the editors of the Cornhill magazine, in which it had been serialized, never asked Hardy to write for them again. But you sense how much Hardy enjoyed himself, imagining Ethelberta leading Lord Mountclere first to the parapet of the tower, and then right to the pinnacle of the extraordinary iron spire, ‘pacing’ up the narrow spiral staircase (no mean feat by a woman dressed for mid-Victorian travelling) with the panting peer trailing behind her. When he finally reaches the summit, Lord Mountclere collapses onto the top step, unable to do more than mutter, ‘Dear me! Dear me!’
But their reward is to be the first of Hardy’s characters to receive a bird’s-eye epiphany – not that the
initial signs are propitious:
They formed as it were a little world to themselves, being completely ensphered by the fog, which here was dense as a sea of milk. Below was neither town, country, nor cathedral—simply whiteness, into which the iron legs of their gigantic perch faded to nothing.
‘Iron legs’ sounds odd here. Hardy’s guidebook (he had a copy of Théodore Licquet’s Rouen; its History, Monuments and Environs, 1871) repeatedly describes the spire as a pyramid, sitting squarely on the tower. On the other hand ‘their giant perch’ is a good description of the viewing platform capping the spire. Licquet describes this as ‘a small lantern surrounded by a gallery for the purpose of meterological observation’ – i.e. looking up; not down, as in a bird’s-eye view – and even includes a copperplate engraving showing the elevation of the completed spire and the two western towers. But back to Ethelberta:
Out of the plain of fog beneath, a stone tooth seemed to be upheaving itself: then another showed forth. These were the summits of the St. Romain and the Butter Towers—at the western end of the building. As the fog stratum collapsed other summits manifested their presence further off—among them the two spires and lantern of St. Ouen’s; when to the left the dome of St. Madeline’s caught a first ray from the peering sun, under which its scaly surface glittered like a fish. Then the mist rolled off in earnest, and revealed far beneath them a whole city, its red, blue, and grey roofs forming a variegated pattern, small and subdued as that of a pavement in mosaic.
Did Hardy himself climb the spire? You might think he must have done to be so impressed by this view from the pinnacle of Rouen Cathedral: he can’t resist recycling the various images – the emerging shapes of buildings, the rooftops, the glittering sunlight, the colours (reds, blues, browns, greys) and the inevitable mosaic motif – in passages such as those I’ve quoted above from novels later than The Hand of Ethelberta. But I don’t think he can have done what his heroine did, for the simple reason that the spire wasn’t finished when Hardy visited Rouen with his new wife; nor would it be until after he’d actually started publishing Ethelberta in 1875. To the scandal of all France, Rouen’s iron spire had remained half-built and wholly unloved for fifty years: Flaubert famously denounced it in Madame Bovary (1856) as an attentive extravagante de quelque chaudronnier fantasiste – the absurdly ambitious folly of some madcap metalworker. It was not topped out until September 1876, proving that the engraving in Hardy’s 1871 guidebook was only an artist’s impression of what might be (were the job ever to be completed), rather than what was – fiction, in fact. But such a thing is fiction, that Hardy was able to send Ethelberta and Lord Mountclere anachronistically to the pinnacle of the world’s tallest building, giving them a view that would inspire him, if not them, for the rest of his fiction-writing life.
[illustrations: (i) the spire of Rouen Cathedral, seen from rue Carnot, Bihorel, 25 June 2013;
(ii) copperplate engraving of the W front of Rouen Cathedral, published in Licquet’s Rouen (1871), anticipating the completion of the spire in 1876.
Hardy footnote: I wrote about Thomas Hardy, bird’s-eye views and Strasbourg, this time last year, in Strasbourg: stained glass and storks. And shortly before then, I had written Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy.