The Woodlanders is the latest read in my on-going Hardy challenge. Several friends and I have been reading (or re-reading in my case) all of Hardy’s fiction in chronological order. I’m not sure why this is only the second time I’ve read The Woodlanders, as I remember been mesmerised by it when I was eighteen. I can remember clearly where I was when I read it – and despite always meaning to, I never managed to get around to re-reading it in the intervening years. I am so glad I left it until now, as it has been such a joy. I love my Hardy, as many of you will know, and those fond memories of my first reading of it have been upheld.
Despite not being a happy story – that’s maybe no surprise, this is Thomas Hardy we are talking about – The Woodlanders is less melodramatic than some of Hardy’s best known novels. The themes are familiar ones, and in The Woodlanders there are definite echoes of previous novels such as Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, and the tragic Tess of the D’Urbervilles which came four years later. Hardy’s preoccupations with marriage, sexual mores, social equality and rural life are all present in this wonderful novel.
“There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child.”
The canvas is less broad than say The Return of the Native and Far from the Madding Crowd, mainly a small woodland community, the hamlet of Little Hintock. At the heart of this small community is George Melbury who has educated his daughter Grace considerably above her social station. Grace promised to local man Giles Winterbourne returns from school to her father’s house seeing her home with new eyes. Melbury’s ambitions for his daughter cause him to regret an earlier vow to Giles’s father.
“He Looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him the sweet atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.”
Into this rural idyll of timber dealers and woodland workers come two outsiders. To Hintock house, comes landowner the beautiful widow Felice Charmond, while a gifted young doctor Edred Fitzpiers comes to take up a small hillside practice nearby. In Fitzpiers, who is of an old and noble family, Melbury sees a brighter future for his adored daughter Grace. As Grace and Giles’s youthful affection begins to fade in the wake of Melbury’s interference, Marty South a strange young woman nurses her own old love for Giles which goes unrequited. The world of the woodlanders of Little Hintock is an old one, one of traditions and ancient trades – Mrs Charmond and Fitzpiers do not entirely fit into this world, bringing with them sophistications and ideas at odds with the woodland people.
As some of my fellow Hardy readers will possibly read this review – I hesitate to say too much more – in case of spoiling the rest of the story. Suffice to say, in my opinion – whatever that is worth – this is an outstanding novel. Hardy’s descriptions allow the weaving together of beautiful imagery with a well-crafted story. I actually found the ending – of which I’ll say no more – to be wonderful poignant.
For anyone who has read it – a question (no spoilers in your replies please) what do we think of Grace and Marty? I like both of them, for different reasons – although I began by thinking I wouldn’t care much for Grace. One of the things I like about Hardy’s female characters is that they seem real – they are flawed, vulnerable and sometimes do things the reader disagrees with. They are never merely vapid creatures in crinoline. Grace Melbury is no Bethsheda Everdene, but she grows as the novel progresses and the woman who emerges has been transformed from the girl she was by her experiences and disappointments in love.