The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
I was first introduced to the works of Thomas Hardy whilst I was studying English Literature for A-levels. We spent a large amount of time studying his poetry and later, his most well-known novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I fell in love with his poetry – his evocative imagery, stunning metaphors and intricate descriptions of nature captivated me and he is easily my favourite poet for these reasons. I thoroughly enjoyed Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the only other novel of his that I have read so far is Jude the Obscure. I was bought this book several years ago as gift after asking for some of Hardy’s novels and it’s been whispering at me, demanding to be read, for some time.
Grace Melbury was born and raised in the rural, working-class village of Little Hintock. Her father, a timber merchant and working man is plagued with the guilt of wooing Grace’s now deceased mother away from his friend, John Winterborne in his youth. By way of paying back his debt, he promises that Grace will wed John’s son, Giles Winterborne. In an effort to give his daughter the best opportunities and a higher social standing than Little Hintock has to offer, he sends her away for an education. But when she returns, both she and her father see a wedding to Giles, despite his best efforts, as beneath a woman now educated and of high social standing. Grace is soon noticed by the only man of her equal in the village, Doctor Fitzpiers, who has recently moved into the area and is running a local practice. Fitzpiers becomes besotted with Grace and Grace is equally overwhelmed by the attention from such a mysterious and educated man. Strongly encouraged by her father, happy to see her wed well, they are set to marry despite Grace starting to have misgivings about her husband-to-be, especially when she sees another young woman leaving his house in the early hours of the morning.
What follows is a culmination of tragic irony, unrequited love and and unhappy ending in the beautiful pastoral countryside of his fictional Wessex, based on the South-West of England. These are persistently common themes in Hardy’s novels – he never seems to want his characters lives to go smoothly or end particularly happily but in doing so, Hardy explores and openly mocks his era. In this novel, Hardy makes a mockery of the archaic law surrounding marriage at the time – that being, it was considerably easier for a man to divorce a woman than a woman to divorce a man as well as making a mockery of social standings and the futility of its importance. Cleverly, the mood of the novel and our heroine, Grace, is closely emulated by the changing of the seasons; when things bode well, it is spring, summer but when thing start to go wrong, autumn and winter and the cold and decay they bring with them arrive.
Hardy has always had a skill with description and this novel is no exception – his descriptions of the natural landscape are magnificent and show a man who was clearly in love with nature and wanted to express this through his writing. Here are a few poignant examples:
‘…a few faint lights, winking mire or less ineffectually through the leafless boughs and the undiscernable songsters they bore, in the form of balls of feathers, at roost among them’
‘A few flakes of snow descended, at the sight of which a Robin, alarmed by these signs of imminent winter and seeing that no offence was meant by the human invasion, came and perched on the tip of the faggots that were being sold, and looked into the auctioneer’s face, whilst waiting for some chance crumb from the bread-basket.’
‘…the Mother of Months, was in her most attenuated phase – starved and bent to a mere bowed skeleton’ (referring to the moon)
‘The darkness was intense, seeming to touch her pupils like a substance’
‘…all she could see were more trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss. At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots, and tall fungi with more stem than stool. Next were more trees close together, wrestling for existence, their branches disfigured from wounds made my mutual rubbings and blows’
Truly wonderful and flawless descriptions of the natural environment unlike any else; I am yet to encounter any writer who describes the natural world so perfectly.
This novel was fantastic; the events in the book are heart-wrenching and troubling – I found myself gasping and crying out when reading sentences foretelling the doom of it’s characters. Grace, admittedly, I found a little annoying due to her ignorance at times but I do not think that she, as a character, can be wholly blamed. Although educated to a higher standing, she is not educated in the ways of love or even the world and thus she can be forgiven. I would highly recommend this book and shall do profusely along with all of his other works.