The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

the-woodlanders 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.

Thomas Hardy by Jane Drake (Wessex Books)

Wessex Books are a publishing house based in Wiltshire who specialise in books about the history, mysteries and legends of the Wessex region of South West England. I was unaware of Wessex Books until they contacted me before Christmas to offer me a review copy of one of their titles, Thomas Hardy by Jane Drake, and as Hardy is one of my favourite authors I was very happy to receive this beautiful 32 page guide to his life and work.

Thomas Hardy, as you probably know if you’ve read any of his books, set most of his work in a fictional Wessex and Jane Drake’s book begins with a useful fold-out map and a list of the place names found in his writing. The pages that follow give some basic biographical information about Hardy with a focus on how his life related to his work. There are also some beautiful illustrations and photographs (many of them in colour) showing some of the places that were important to Hardy, including his birthplace at Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester. And interspersed throughout the books are some of Hardy’s poems: Tess’s Lament, The Ghost of the Past, After the Last Breath, and a few others.

With all the poems, extracts from his novels, quotations, photos and captions taking up so much space, there’s not a huge amount of original text to read in this book. It’s not a comprehensive biography and at only 32 pages it’s obviously not intended to be. However, the book is lovely to look at and I’m sure it would make a nice gift either for someone who is interested in Hardy’s work or who is planning a visit to that part of the country.

Review: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance – blue as the blue we see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface, and was looked into rather than at.

I’m loving Thomas Hardy more and more with every book of his that I read. A Pair of Blue Eyes was one of his earliest books, originally serialised in Tinsley’s Magazine from September 1872 to July 1873. Although this is not generally noted as being one of his better novels and is certainly one of his least well known, there was something about it that appealed to me – and I would even say that of all the classics I’ve read so far this year, this might be my favourite.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is the story of Elfride Swancourt, a vicar’s daughter living in a remote corner of England, who is forced to choose between two very different men. One of these, Stephen Smith, is a young architect whom she meets when he is sent by his employer to survey the church buildings. At first, the vicar approves of Stephen and encourages his daughter to spend time with him. It soon emerges, however, that Stephen has been hiding an important secret from the Swancourts; something that could put his relationship with Elfride in jeopardy. Later in the book, another man arrives at Endelstow Vicarage – Henry Knight, an essayist and reviewer from London – and Elfride has to make a difficult decision.

As you might expect with this being a Hardy book, nothing goes smoothly for any of the characters. I would describe A Pair of Blue Eyes as being similar in some ways to the later Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though not as dark and bleak – and not quite as tragic either. Although I didn’t find Elfride particularly likeable, I thought she was an interesting character. Her lonely, secluded life gives her a childlike innocence and vulnerability and at one point Hardy draws a comparison with Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – both characters have little knowledge of men and a male visitor is a big event (and Elfride even plays chess with Stephen Smith and Henry Knight as Miranda did with Ferdinand in The Tempest). Of the two men, Stephen was the only one I had any real sympathy for. Knight, although another interesting character, annoyed me almost as much as Angel Clare in Tess annoyed me.

The descriptions of scenery in this book are stunningly beautiful and bring the setting vividly to life. If you’re familiar with Hardy you’ll know that he sets most of his works in the fictional region of Wessex in the southwest of England. This story actually takes place in Off-Wessex or Lyonesse, which equates to Cornwall. I had no problem at all in picturing the lonely vicarage, the windswept hills, and the dark cliffs towering over the sea below. Speaking of cliffs, it is thought that the term ‘cliffhanger’ originates from a scene in this book, though I’m not going to say any more about it than that!

Another interesting aspect of this book is that it’s loosely based on Hardy’s relationship with his first wife, Emma Gifford. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Hardy to have picked up on all the allusions and references to events in his own life. I would like to eventually read a biography as I think it would help my understanding of both this book and his work as a whole.

I found A Pair of Blue Eyes very easy to read. I thought the pacing and flow of the story were perfect and the pages flew by in a weekend. It’s so sad that this book has been ignored and underrated to the point where, until not long ago, I hadn’t even heard of it. Maybe it won’t appeal to everyone and it might not be the best introduction to his work, but I loved it and would highly recommend it to all Hardy fans.

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Durbeyfield’s life changes forever when her father learns that he is descended from the noble D’Urbervilles. After discovering that he has some wealthy D’Urberville relatives living nearby, Tess is sent to visit them in an attempt to improve the family’s fortunes. While there she is taken advantage of by Alec D’Urberville and returns to her parents pregnant. A few years later when she falls in love with Angel Clare, the parson’s son, she is forced to decide whether to trust Angel with the truth about her past…

It seems that people either love or hate Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Among those who hate it the main reasons for disliking it appear to be that the book was too dark and depressing, or that Tess was too passive and weak. Although I can understand these complaints, I personally fall into the group of readers who loved the book. I don’t have a problem with a story being tragic, melodramatic or depressing as long as it’s well-written. And Hardy’s writing is beautiful. With other books I am often tempted to skim through pages of descriptions of trees, fields, sunrises etc, but Hardy’s portrayal of nature and the English countryside is so poetic I wanted to read every word. Be prepared, though – you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about milking cows, threshing wheat and slicing turnips!

It’s true that Tess doesn’t stand up for herself enough – there were plenty of times when I wanted to scream at her – but I mostly felt sorry for her. She was young (sixteen I think at the start of the book), innocent, naive, and didn’t have the best family life, with a father who was often drunk.  It seemed that everything that could go wrong for her did go wrong. More than poor Tess, it was Alec d’Urberville and Angel Clare who both really infuriated me – and I actually thought Angel was worse than Alec in some respects.

The injustice of a society with different sets of rules for men and women, Christianity vs pagan symbolism, the Industrial Revolution, and the class system of Victorian England are some of the interesting topics this book covers. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the ending – the final chapters just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel.

So, if you haven’t read this book yet give it a try – you might hate it…but you might just love it like I did.

Highly Recommended

Genre: Classics/Pages: 464/Published:BBC Books (Random House)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1891)/Source: Library book