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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
on 29 April 2001
There are several writers like Hardy, whose hard, yet ultimately humane, eye is not for everyone. They last, but they don't pick up too many honours in their own lifetimes and they never have the mass popularity of either Dickens or Austin. Both those geniuses also had the knack of appealing to a broad audience without frightening it. Hardy frightens you. He certainly discomforts you and refuses to let you suck your thumb. The only element of escapism in him, really, is the scenery itself! And that's an escape we all make, given the chance, from time to time. He keeps his eye on the subject. He tells you things you might not otherwise want to know and he tells a powerful version of the truth. All 'lads' should read Hardy so that they know what a realistic, 'hard-edged' writer is really like. Hardy despaired after the failure of Jude and happily for us went back to writing poetry, but, like George Meredith or George Gissing or today's DeLillo or Moorcock, Hardy is just too unsentimental for the average reader. The opposite of sentimentality is not swagger and aggression or a catalogue of terrors, but this -- a good-hearted, wise man with a wonderful eye who really can tell the wood from the trees! And to push the comparison harder than Hardy would ever have done, if you don't know Hardy, this is a very smooth entry into the dark, sometimes dramatically bright, forest that is Hardy's genius and a place where all lovers can come. And where they will always learn something to their advantage.
on 15 July 2001
A superb novel of rural life in Victorian England, which deserves to be as well known as the more famous 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' and 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'.
Hardy's detailed knowledge of woodland trades and the life of the people who pursued them is set to serve a tale of passion across social divides. In the figures of Giles Winterborne and Marty South the author creates characters who in many ways prefigure our own time's preoccupation with living in harmony with nature. Against them are ranged the young man of science, Dr. Fitzpiers, and the rootless cosmopolitan, Mrs. Charmond, who embody other and more 'modern' ways of living. Between these two groups stands Grace Melbury, a timber-merchant's daughter educated out of her station, belonging to neither yet drawn to aspects of both.
The complex emotional relationships between these figures allow Hardy to explore the nature of human love and the problems created by the stress of social restraints on individual ambitions. Behind this, the author's deep knowledge and love of his native country shines through.
In the end neither wholly a tragedy nor a comedy, the tone of the novel is complex and piquant, in the manner of a late Shakespeare play.
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.
on 30 July 2006
The basic plot here is young woman has to choose between rich man and poor man. And no surprise the rich man is a liar and philanderer, whilst the poor man is modest and honourable. Which does she choose? The liar and cheat, of course. But it is not entirely Grace's fault. Indeed, she is basically told to marry the aristocrat Fitzpiers by her father, who in his obsession with social status and advancement for his daughter effectively ruins her life. The plot may not be especially original, but the story is entertaining and explores some interesting issues.
The Woodlanders is a bit different from some of the other works of Hardy I've read. I was surprised, and somewhat relieved, when I reached the end of the book that things didn't turn out as they could have done. Yes, there is tragedy as you would expect, but there are also rays of hope for the characters. The Woodlanders is also a little harder going than some of his more popular books. I found I had to concentrate quite hard with some of the earlier chapters as the language was quite ornate. However, it is typical Hardy in so far as it is a very good read, with believable characters, and some very interesting insights into life in pre-industrial times.
The eternal love triangle in the middle of a sylvan setting. Little Hintock is a place of meditation, passivity, narrow reasoning and very closely knit. The returning hero is not some male hussar but teenager Grace educated beyond her 'peculiar station'.
Grace Melford is not a very appealing figure; tame, passive, a bit of a daddy's girl. To be fair, through no fault of her own she is trapped 'between two planes of society'. The two planes are exemplified by the Concorde that is snobbbish Dr Fitzpiers and the Tiger Moth that is 'earthly' Giles Winterbourne.
Fitzpiers is far more fun than 'man of the soil' Giles. He behaves like a proper mountebank considering himself 'a different species' from the locals, availing himself of both the village trollop and the upper class totty before driving a coach and horses through the topical Divorce Laws.
Many critics believe this to be some sort of Darwinian inspired novel but I found this more a novel about social class and choice. I would love to be in the classroom if this book is being taught in a culture which supports arranged marriages.
Other reviewers rate this as one of Hardy's best but I found it a bit worthy and, like Mr South's tree, in need of a bit of pruning. I also endorse another reviewer's comments about the spoiler 'Notes' in the Penguin edition.