The Woodlanders  – ★★★★★
In this novel, Grace, an impressionable, recently-educated girl, “who has been around cultivated folks” arrives home to a small village of Little Hintock after a long absence and to the delight of her father Mr Melbury, a timber merchant. She soon rekindles her friendship with her childhood sweet-heart Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider farmer. However, as soon as she does so, she also notices a much more promising suitor who starts to intrigue her more than anyone else in this world: an educated, ambitious and “irresistible” doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Thomas Hardy’s narrative is like an exquisite painting created in a style of Old Masters, where money, ambition, sophistication, self-interest and the excess of knowledge clash violently with rural simplicity, kindness, loyalty and naïve mentality. The beauty/mastery of the prose is matched by the gripping plot full of vivid characters and psychological nuances. Emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the social classes and drawing attention to the iron confines of a marriage, while evoking the atmosphere of the old rural England, Hardy created with The Woodlanders the work that is on a par with some of his greatest literary creations – Tess of the d’Urbervilles  and Far from the Madding Crowd .
Part of the genius of Thomas Hardy is that he introduces the plot and his characters cleverly and in an almost indirect manner. His readers sometimes become intruders, and, at other times, mere witnesses to the scenery and the events unfolding. We first get a glimpse of Little Hintock through a man who lost his way on the way there. We are discovering this forgotten, lonely place in the Dorset locality through this lost traveller: “It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation, than action, and more listlessness than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein” [Thomas Hardy, 1887: 7]. The author painstaking conveys the atmosphere of this place, the changing seasons which dictate the life in that wooded area where nature still has an upper hand. The descriptions of all the noises and smells are important: “the smell of the uncovered sap mingled with the smell of the burning wood, and the sticky inner surface of scattered bark glistened as it revealed its pale madder hues to the eye” [Hardy, 1887: 105].
The vividness of the characters, as well as the way they are introduced, is another point of admiration. For example, Grace first sees the mysterious, oddly-coloured light in Dr Fitzpiers’s window before knowing anything about him. Hardy then paints a very intriguing picture of one ambiguous Dr Fitzpiers who is presented as “a man of strange meditations”, fond of every kind of knowledge” whose “eyes seem to see as far as the north star” [Hardy, 1887: 24, 38]. His personality is slowly sipping into Grace’s consciousness, taking control of it: “in the course of a year his mind has accustomed to pass in a grand solar sweep throughout the zodiac of the intellectual heaven. Sometimes it was in the Ram, sometimes in the Bull; one month he would be immersed in alchemy; another in poesy; one month in the Twins of astronomy; then in the Crab of German literature and metaphysics” [Hardy, 1887: 94]. This can be contrasted with the description of Giles Winterborne: “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” [1887: 256].
The great thing about Thomas Hardy’s characters is that they are never static and are ever-evolving. They are not locked in into one type of personality (either good or bad), and are presented as very much human, capable of making mistakes, disappointing, learning from those mistakes, repenting, moving on and growing. The author tries not to impose his opinion on the characters on his readers, but he clearly sympathises with the simple, humble and hard-working lower class. It was not only Henry James (The Turn of the Screw ) who wrote in the nineteenth century those “psychological” novels with plenty of barely perceivable sexual tension. Thomas Hardy did it too, and it is the interaction and dynamism between the characters, including all the misunderstandings, which make The Woodlanders such a good novel.
“Treacherous” Time becomes another character in this story since it is the social customs of the day that largely shaped the destinies of the characters. This was a time when people’s life-paths depended wholly on their birth place, their family’s social position, their circumstances and societal expectations. One hasty decision, prompted by societal expectations, can then set the course of one’s entire life path. Similar to Tess, Hardy emphasises in The Woodlanders the injustice that girls and women face in a class-based society dominated by various male opinions. One girl’s reputation, which was largely a mere impression of that reputation, dictated that girl’s entire life, irrespective of the circumstances or other factors. Hardy especially tries to draw attention to the state of marriage at that time, emphasising the sheer artificiality of the arrangement and its prison-like qualities, especially since people inside that institution may in fact be as far apart from each other both mentally and emotionally as two poles of planet Earth.
The number of similarities between The Woodlanders and Hardy’s own Far from the Madding Crowd is staggering. Similar to Bathsheba from the Madding Crowd, Grace in The Woodlanders is presented with a choice: either to take as a husband her own countryman, a simple, uneducated and down-to-earth man connected to soil and nature – Giles Winterborne, or to follow a more “fashionable” route and take as a husband a more sophisticated and handsome man – Edred Fitzpiers, a man of the new world, latest “technologies” and secret knowledge. This reminds of a centuries-old battle between the heart and the mind, and it is this contrast between intellectual ambitions of a “progressive” modern man, represented by Eldred Fitzpiers, and rural tradition and the nature’s simplicity, represented by Giles Winterborne, which also makes the novel so exciting. Eldred Fitzpiers is the very counterpart of Sergeant Troy from the Madding Crowd. Both sweep their main heroines off their feet with their dashing looks, skills, knowledge and sophistication. They both have very similar life experiences, especially in connection with members of the opposite sex. As a character, Dr Fitzpiers also has something “spying and unapproachable” in his personality which reminds of Mr Boldwood from the Madding Crowd. Also, clearly, Giles Winterborne is a “twin brother” of Gabriel from the Madding Crown. Both are neither too young, nor too old, and share the same traits of “shy self-control”, being down-to-earth, practical and uneducated farmers who are also humble, hard-working, good-hearted, loyal-to-one-woman and unassuming. They also experience very similar life events. Marty South in The Woodlanders, then, is that secondary female character hiding in the shadows of other people’s happiness, similar to Fanny Robin from the Madding Crowd.
I am surprised that The Woodlanders is not better known. The drama may be more “diffused” in the book, but it has the same conviction as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The book is not a story of some grand adventure, but, rather, its quiet power lies in the portrayal of a quiet domesticity, understated passions and buried emotions. The Woodlanders may be a sad tale, but all the sadness is a fair by-product to receive in exchange for the exquisite beauty of the prose, vivid characters and all the fairy-tale-like subtleties, not to mention hidden symbolism (trees cut/planted in the story, symbolising hope/love lost or regained).