As I approached the end of Tess of the d'Urbervilles the other day, I had a sensation of deja vu. Tess and Clare are on their final journey across Wessex, traveling by necessity at night, when Clare becomes aware in the darkness of what turns out to be a massive stone (okay, it's first described as a "vast erection"). After further fumbling--"At an indefinite height overhead something made the black sky blacker, which had the semblance of a vast architrave uniting the pillars horizontally. They carefully entered beneath and between; the surfaces echoes their soft rustle; but they seemed to be still out of doors."--the reader is likely to recognize more quickly than Tess ("What can it be?") that this is, in the words of the great Tufnel, "the living rock of Stonehenge":
The next pillar was isolated; others composed a trilithon; others were prostrate, their flanks forming a causeway wide enough for a carriage; and it was soon obvious that they made up a forest of monoliths grouped upon the grassy expanse of the plain. The couple advanced farther into this pavilion of the night till they stood in its midst.
Astute Firmament readers might already recognize what I was reminded of (no, not this, at least not right away, or this, even when Tess says, "It hums"), and anyone else (are there any non-astute Firmament readers?) could look up the top of the page. It's the opening of chapter 12 in Shirley Hazzard's Transit of Venus:
A small flat road brought Paul and Caro, in the bloom of their youth, suddenly among the megaliths. Paul stopped the car. Caro unlatched her door and stared. Tremendous stones stood expressionless on curved avenues of grass. England had yawned open to disclose some other land, of fundamentals.
Paul and Caro's stones turn out to be part of a different neolithic ruin, the Avebury Circle, but it did make me wonder: was this a conscious echo of Tess? I'm not actually sure I care that much whether Hazzard had Hardy in mind (well, I do care a little), since it would be at least as interesting to me if both writers had brought their couples to these giant, ancient stones independently of each other, drawn by their actual and/or metaphoric power.
The scenes themselves fall at very different points in the novels, and are otherwise hardly identical, but the stones themselves do hold a similar, elemental sway over the couple. Where does it come from? Is it that they promise some sort of presence, as Hazzard says, of human--or inhuman--"fundamentals"? Is this where the truth of each relationship will be revealed? In Tess, the arrival takes place mere pages from the end of the story, and without spoiling things too much (I was very glad to not quite know how things would turn out, this first time through the book), I will say that it marks a sort of belated, chaste honeymoon for Tess and Clare, the stones themselves warm and surprisingly comforting (but also a trap).
In Transit, the megaliths mark a beginning rather than an end, a far less chaste first coupling for Caro and the married, insistently caddish Paul. Paul, the apparent seducer, is quite aware of the effect of his surroundings: he's glad that he might be an attractive "solace" compared to the silent and inscrutable stones. But at the same time you are made--not least by his last name, Ivory--to see him as cold and hard like the stones, indifferent to Caro's humanity, or at least he imagines he is.
However, while there's not an unbrilliant paragraph in the scene (or, really, the book), the one among the megaliths that just makes my heart flutter with the thrill of unseen depths revealed is when Caro is revealed to Paul as a bit of a monolith herself, retaining her independence and cool judgment even as she falls into his embrace:
It had not occurred to Paul that Caro's influence might increase with her submission. Or that she would remain intelligent. When she leaned her head back to look at him, he was aware of her judgment persevering like a pulse--even forming the most tender, if least magical, part of love. He put a hand to her face, his own fingers trembling with a small, convulsive evidence of unfeigned life.
It's an early hint of the breathtaking moment a chapter later--possibly my favorite moment right now in all of books ever--when Caro stands even more overtly as one of those stones: bare, pale, and aloof, while yet attached to Paul. If you haven't yet read The Transit of Venus (oh my goodness, do!), I won't say any more about that scene, and I'll leave you to come across that monolith yourself.