Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

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 [1891] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874].

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 [1898]) 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.

Illustration to the The Woodlanders. Henry Macbeth-Raeburn (1860-1947)

“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).

22 thoughts on “Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

  1. Great review! I’ve yet to read any Hardy but suspect I’ll get on well with his work; I’ve had Tess and Madding Crowd on my TBR for a while, but it sounds like this one’s not to be missed either. I really love books that take the time to speak subtly through characterization and interactions, as it sounds like Woodlanders does.

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    1. Thank you! I wish I still had these novels on my TBR and could read them as though for the first time! 🙂 It is nice to take one’s time with books that you know you are going to enjoy to prolong the pleasure and still have amazing books to read. I think you are going to like them, even though they can get a bit depressing (especially Tess). I would love to hear your opinion on them some day and discuss them 🙂

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    1. I really recommend it. This was my fourth Hardy (after Tess, the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure), and, naturally, because it is not as known as the others, I did not have very high expectations. I am surprised just how much I enjoyed the book and found it faultless, really. The book may not have a very memorable main heroine, like Bathsheba or Tess, but it has many scenes and presents images which will stay with me for a long time, if not forever. To be honest, Far from the Madding Crowd seems to me now as though it is some caricature of The Woodlanders, even though it was published first 🙂

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  2. A lovely review Diana – I haven’t read this one yet but certainly will, especially as you say how similar it is to Madding Crowd – can’t get too much of a good thing!

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    1. Many thanks! If I knew that The Woodlanders’s so good I would have read it way sooner as well! It caught me completely by surprise how good it was! It is interesting actually how one author’s books gain that worldwide popularity and are frequently read and quoted, while their other books, that are actually just as good, are left unjustly unread and almost forgotten.

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  3. Fantastic review. I read this book a few years ago when I went through a Thomas Hardy phase and had to read all of his books 😉 It doesn’t stand out as a favourite with me but at least it’s not so tragic as some of them.

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    1. Thank you! You read all of his books? Which one is your favourite? I can’t imagine having a Thomas Hardy reading marathon because the life will turn so depressing 🙂 You are right, at last The Woodlanders is not so sad and I also admire Hardy for all his social commentary. His books are always so much more than these dramatic stories with beautiful writing.

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      1. My favourites are Far from the Madding Crowd and The Mayor of Casterbridge. I don’t think I can bear to read Jude the Obscure ever again though 😦 I love the characterisation in his books, the settings, the gentle humour, well everything I suppose.

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        1. I am still to read The Mayor of Casterbridge, but I am hearing so many great opinions on it that I know I am going to love it. Now that you say it is your favourite, I am doubly excited to read it! Somehow I was very impatient when I was reading Jude and it now ended up to be my least favourite of the four I read so far.

          I now realise that ranking Hardy is a strange exercise. He has this prose, natural insight and depth that I bet even his weakest novel is bound to be excellent by general standards and in comparison to so many other author’s books. He definitely set a standard of his own.

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  4. This book is gorgeous with its rural setting, as was Under the Greenwood Tree, which is the book that pushed me to by The Woodlanders. There is something about the gentle meditation of the inexorable march of time, and the lives lived and lost throughout the ages. Must find this one out again.

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    1. You said it very beautifully. Now I will try to locate and read Under the Greenwood Tree, thanks. I agree, there is something very special when Hardy is not as dramatic, but delicate and refers to nature to describe the slowly disappearing, increasingly unrewarding and unpopular mode of life.

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  5. Beautiful review, Diana! I haven’t read ‘The Woodlanders’ but have seen the film adaptation. I loved that. But Hardy being a genius, I’m sure the book is better. Will read it one of these days. I loved what you said about how it similar in many ways to ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  6. Brilliant review – you articulated very well a lot of what I appreciated in the novel. The poetic descriptions of nature is a layer I particularly savored.

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