I love Thomas Hardy but have been resisting the temptation to rush through his novels too quickly. I’m dreading there being none left for me to discover for the first time, so since reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2010, I have been limiting myself to one or two a year. It’s been a while since my last Hardy, The Return of the Native, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to read another one.
The Woodlanders, published in 1887, is set in the small woodland community of Little Hintock. For generations, the people of Little Hintock have made their living from the trees around them. The timber merchant George Melbury, however, is keen for his daughter, Grace, to experience life outside the woodlands and so he sends her away to be educated. The novel opens as she returns to the village after several years of absence and finds herself looking at her old home through new eyes.
Although Grace is promised to Giles Winterborne, a neighbouring woodsman, now that she has become used to a different way of life she can’t help noticing his lack of sophistication, causing her father to question whether the marriage he had planned for her is still appropriate. Grace’s return to Little Hintock coincides with the arrival of a newcomer – Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor whom Melbury decides will make a much more suitable husband for his daughter than Giles. Despite his good intentions, however, Melbury’s meddling only succeeds in making everyone unhappy in typical Thomas Hardy fashion!
One thing I love about Hardy’s books is that although most of them are set in his fictional Wessex, each one covers a different aspect of Wessex life, from the rural farms of Far From the Madding Crowd and the country fairs and markets of The Mayor of Casterbridge to The Return of the Native’s wild and beautiful Egdon Heath. In The Woodlanders, we see how the lives of the characters have become defined by the woods which surround them, we see Giles Winterborne cutting down trees and pressing apples to make cider, and we see his neighbour, a young woman called Marty South, stripping bark from branches and shaping wood into spars to sell for thatching. It’s the two outsiders in the story – the newly arrived Dr Fitzpiers and the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond – who disrupt the harmony of life in Little Hintock, and Grace who is caught between the sophisticated, cultured world they represent and the simple traditions of her childhood home and friends.
Although this book isn’t as dramatic or tragic as some of Hardy’s others, there were still some scenes near the end that moved me to tears and others that had me holding my breath – and I found the final page beautifully sad and poignant. Not everyone gets the happy ending I would have liked, but that’s true to life, I suppose, and I don’t really expect happy endings from Hardy anyway.
The Woodlanders was apparently one of Hardy’s own favourites; he is quoted as having said, “On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all”. Now that I’ve read more than half of his novels, I have to say that I think I agree with him. It’s not as powerful or as heartbreaking as Tess or Jude the Obscure, for example, but I really enjoyed it and would definitely include it in my top two or three Hardy novels read so far.