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on 12 March 2001
In 'The Woodlanders', Hardy explores the tensions between the rural working class and the educated middle class through the character of Grace Melbury, the local timber merchant's daughter. The story follows Grace's struggles to fit into a society where she is rejected by the class into which she has been educated, on account of her lowly birth. This is symbolised by her vacillations between her two suitors, the educated and intelligent Dr. Edred Fitzpiers and the simple and kind-hearted Giles Winterborne.
The woodland setting which dominates the lives of the characters is beautifully evoked by Hardy's richly detailed prose, and Hardy's sympathies clearly lie with the rural characters, in contrast with the middle classes characters of Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond who are often rather one-dimensional.
Grace herself is not a compelling heroine, lacking emotional depth at times and the story misses the power and emotional insight of some of Hardy's other works which tackle similar issues. However, I would still recommend it as a balanced and involving story of the interwoven lives of a remote rural community of the kind that Hardy understands as well as any other English writer.
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VINE VOICEon 29 July 2008
The other Hardy novels I've read, Return of the Native and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, centre around exotic, sensual women who stand out like a sore thumb in their community. Grace Melbury is no such heroine - she's more real. Instead of heaping superlatives on her, Hardy tells us early on that she looks completely unremarkable and that "what people therefore saw of her in a cursory view was very little; in truth, mainly something that was not she". She's a cautious, intelligent but sometimes naive girl, who's been alienated from her rustic roots through the faraway education and travels that her proud father insisted upon for his only, adored child. There's nothing innately special about Grace, but she bears her unwanted position gracefully. Then suddenly, she finds herself in a situation where resignation and grace are not enough. She takes responsibility for her actions, rebels and finds her passions. And then, in the end, she makes the best of her lot in an unexpected way. She's no idol, but a woman we can sympathise with, who finds she has to make tough choices and sacrifices as she grows up.

Typically, there is no neat happy ending. The book is filled with images of unilateral taking and longing. Each character aspires to someone 'superior'. Felice Charmond, the lady of the manor at the top of the scale, doesn't even know what she wants, as long as it will stave off her boredom for a few hours. She lives a rootless, vain life, involving herself in Little Hintock only to exploit it. Nobody has much to call their own - it's life for rent. Marty's hair, the life-hold cottages which must revert back to Mrs. Charmond, even the villager's own dying bodies which Fitzpiers tries to buy for scientific experiments. For me, it underlined the unfair lot of those who are tied to the land and held in contempt by their so-called betters. Considering the ill effects of Grace's 'over-education', Mrs. Charmond's ennui and Fitzpier's dissatisfaction and dilletantism in abstract philiosophy, I think Hardy felt that closeness to nature and a simple, focused life were the best way to happiness and integrity.

I also found The Woodlanders quite daring in its relative openness about sex and divorce. However, the more dramatic, emotional parts of the novel only really kick in after half-way through. I would still reccommend sticking with it in the slow first half, and absorbing the overlooked sadness of Marty South and the hapless, noble Giles, as well as the woodland atmosphere.

The witty side of this book needs to be spoken up for, too. It really isn't a misery-fest - several times I laughed, and not just in compartmentalised "rustic" parts, either. Unlike perhaps in Return of the Native, the main characters are not godly creatures living out their destiny on a superior plane, but are gently poked fun at every now and again. Giles' party and the man-trap incident spring to mind.

It is also beautifully written and I found it a little more immediately accessible than 'Native' and 'Tess'. It's not too long either, at 305 pages. I would definitely recommend it for somebody wishing to try Hardy out - after all, it was his own favourite!
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on 7 March 2007
This was the first Hardy novel I read - I chose it after hearing it was his favourite.

An enthralling account of the countryside of 1880's Dorset; Hardy's descriptions - which clearly show his love for the area - have stayed with me. It focuses on a tiny community reliant on the surrounding New Forest, into which comes a young doctor. Soon discontented with the "backwardness" of the woodlanders' lives, he becomes involved in a love triangle with tragic consequences.

Any lover of the English countryside, romantic fiction or those with a passion for words, will enjoy this book, particularly if you enjoy being prompted to consider arguments such as whether education makes us more or less happy and who knows better - the modern urbanites or the settled countryfolk.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 August 2007
This never gets rated as one of Hardy's 'great' novels (Tess, Jude, Native, Crowd) but it's always been my favourite. Something about the characters and their interactions just speaks to me.

As it is Hardy, expect melodrama, coicidences, and gut-wrenching emotions, but unlike so many books written today this is packed full of real characters, real emotion and a real plot.

If you've never read Hardy before, this probably isn't an ideal place to start (try Tess, or for a lighter Hardy Far from the Madding Crowd), but then come back to this. I have read and re-read repeatedly and still cry - a sign of a superlative writer and story-teller.
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on 14 April 2001
Why do there seem to be so many underrated novels? Perhaps in this case it is because Hardy has written so many great novels. In my opinion, "The Woodlaners," "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" and "Far from the Madding Crowd" are is chef-d'oeuvres.
Although the genesis of the novel may seem quite difficult, it soon becomes an absolute pleasure to read. In portraying the life Grace Melbury and Giles utter devotion for her Hardy surely produces a novel of tragic proportions - even worth of the tragedy of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Hardy succeeds in creating characters whom we loathe and whom we love by weaving a complex mood where passion, money , ambition and love are principal themes. His descriptive power is hypnotic and he is surely one of the best writers ever.
"The Woodlanders" was the first Thomas Hardy that I read and I would recommend it highly to anyone who has not read Hardy before.
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on 21 October 2007
Thomas Hardy is my favorite prose writer and The Woodlanders is my favorite of his novels. No one writes like Thomas Hardy. The Woodlanders is special-beautifully written and classic. I highly recommend it.
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on 22 May 2008
I have to agree with other reviewers - this, too, is my favourite Hardy novel. Although Thomas Hardy's stories are always fatalistic, he gives us a wonderful insight into 19th Century rural life and, as I love Dorset, I can really immerse myself into his tales. Although primarily a love story, The Woodlanders also deals with the subject of educating women to a high level; particularly educating them in order to obtain a better chance of marrying 'well'. As Hardy observes, this can lead to estrangement from the lifestyle of a girl's childhood and a difficulty in understanding where she now belongs. Although the social climate has changed a lot since this novel was first published in 1887, love and all its idiosyncrasies remain the same. And many of Hardy's observations still hold true today. eg., speaking of one of the main characters in the novel (Grace), he says: 'Nothing ever had brought home to her with such force as this death how little acquirements and culture weigh beside sterling personal character." As always, a most enjoyable and very thought provoking novel.
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on 27 February 2008
Hardy must rate as one of the best authors that can effortlessly project the life and times through every part of his book, allowing you to feel you know the place intimately, breath the atmosphere and understand the social structure of the untouched and unchanged Victorian country folk he depicts. This is one of his best stories that will have you experiencing many different feelings right through to tears. Excellent and in my top ten reads of all time.
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on 8 March 2012
The plot focuses on the relationship of one woman with more than man. The woman in question is Grace Melbury, a resident of Little Hintock and childhood sweetheart of Giles Winterbourne. Giles' father was a good friend to Grace's father and the senior Mr. Melbury had promised that he would allow Grace to marry Giles.

Through circumstances beyond his control Giles ends up as a man of very modest means and Grace's father decides that his daughter's marriage to Giles is no longer the best option. Enter onto the scene Dr. Edred Fitzpiers. He approaches Grace's father and asks for permission to court and marry Grace. Deciding that the wife of a doctor is a reasonable future for Grace, Mr. Melbury agrees.

However, all is not well in the marriage. Though I shan't spoil too much, Grace is given cause to become greatly unhappy; news of which reaches her father. Through a sequence of meetings, news comes forth that there may be a legal loophole through which Grace may divorce Fitzpiers and be married to Giles. In Hardy's time, this would have been most scandalous, and it is a major feature of his writing in general that he challenges what were the socially accepted norms.

Yet again, though, things do not work out well to the say the least. But I would recommend you read the book to find out exactly how.

For much of the first half of the book, I was wondering if it really was one his better written books, as it didn't seem to come close to the likes of Tess of the D'Urbervilles or my own favourite, The Mayor of Casterbridge. By the end, though, I was brought around to the writing. The reason is that the first half of the book has some seemingly disjointed sections which don't sit well within the narrative. But by about 2/3rds of the way through Hardy starts pulling these threads together and the reader finally gets to the see the whole picture. The main climax to the narrative doesn't seem come at the very end, so as I was reading I was wondering how the novel would actually end, given it seemed to be petering out.

Then, at the very last, the final piece of the puzzle is put back in place, which harks back to the opening scene. So I now recognise the brilliance of the writing, though the actual plot itself I felt lacked a little of the richness that his more novels have.
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VINE VOICEon 14 November 2010
In The Woodlanders Hardy tackles some of the darker conclusions to be drawn from the works of Darwin, as well as addressing his more familiar themes regarding what happens when an honest working class man sets his heart on a woman whose status in life is far above his own. It's bleak stuff but it is perceptive about human nature; strangely beautiful; full of engaging characters (I particularly liked old John South, and his dread of the giant tree that looms meanacingly over his house) and written with a great poetry and a deep love of landscape.

At the centre of The Woodlanders lies a little circle of people, each in love with someone who is, for one reason or another, either unwilling or unable to reciprocate. The hard working and melancholy Marty South loves Giles Winterborne. Giles, barely even aware of Marty's existence, loves Grace Melbury. Grace, educated above and beyond the status of her birth, is fascinated by the learned but somewhat aimless doctor Fitzpiers. Fitzpiers, in turn, does make a play for Grace but then, too late, finds himself in thrall to Mrs Charmond, the lady of the manor.

Inevitably, this being Hardy, motives are misunderstood and fate proceeds to deal everyone a shabby and barely playable hand. What Hardy does brilliantly in this novel is to show how some of the gloomier conclusions of Darwinism clash head-on with conventional (and religious) notions regarding the desirability of selfless, restrained and compassionate behaviour. Fitzpiers acts in a despicably shabby and self-serving manner while Giles is all noble self-sacrifice and concern for the woman he loves but, well, it's no surprise which one, in a Darwin and Hardy driven universe, will ultimately get the girl.

I've always thought The Woodlanders was a touch under valued. It somehow sits in the shadow of Tess and Jude and The Mayor of Casterbridge but I'd say it was every bit as good as its more famous companions. The descriptions of nature are beautiful, although again the Darwinian struggle for existence is played out even by the trees and plants as they compete for space and light, and the characters are skillfully drawn - particularly Marty, with her resigned fatalism and never stated love for Giles, and Grace, with her New Woman attitudes and ambitions to be something more than a beautiful arm adornment for a man. It's all terrific, melancholy, maddening, magical stuff. Heartbreaking to be sure, but gorgeous and flecked with moments of truly perceptive insight into the human condition. Hardy is one of my favourite authors, and I'd say The Woodlanders was one of the great man's very best.
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