The novel reflects common Hardyan themes: a rustic, evocative setting, poorly chosen marriage partners, unrequited love, social class mobility, and an unhappy ending to the plot. As with most all his other works, the reader is left feeling frustrated without a greater sense of finality to the romantic relationships, as opportunities for fulfillment and happiness are forsaken or delayed. None of the characters are left fulfilled by the end of the narrative.
Plot: The story takes place in a small woodland village called Little Hintock, and concerns the efforts of an honest woodsman, Giles Winterborne, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury. Although they have been informally betrothed for some time, her father has made financial sacrifices to give his adored only child a superior education and no longer considers Giles good enough for her. When the new doctor – a well-born and handsome young man named Edred Fitzpiers – takes an interest in Grace, her father does all he can to make Grace forget Giles, and to encourage what he sees as a brilliant match. Grace has more awe than love for Fitzpiers, but marries him nonetheless. After the honeymoon, the couple take up residence in an unused wing of Melbury's house. Soon, however, Fitzpiers begins an affair with a rich widow named Mrs. Charmond, takes to treating Grace coldly, and finally deserts her one night after he accidentally reveals his true character to his father-in-law.
Melbury tries to procure a divorce for his daughter so she can marry Giles after all, but in vain. When Fitzpiers quarrels with Mrs. Charmond and returns to Little Hintock to try to reconcile with his wife, she flees the house and turns to Giles for help. He is still convalescing from a dangerous illness, but nobly allows her to sleep in his hut during stormy weather, whilst he insists on sleeping outside. As a result, he dies. Grace later allows herself to be won back to the at least temporarily repentant Fitzpiers, thus sealing her fate as the wife of an unworthy man. No one is left to mourn Giles except a courageous peasant girl named Marty South, who all along has been the overlooked but perfect mate for him, and who has always loved him.
Review: The Woodlanders is a masterpiece and absolute joy to read for two reasons. Not the characters, who rarely rise above their stock roles - the decent, honourable heroine impossibly torn between passion and propriety; the manly, back-to-nature hero, who could come straight from Cold Comfort Farm; the impoverished aristocratic cad; his wealthy lover, the promiscuous bored ex-actress golddigger; the bumbling middle-class trader of lowly origins. What astonishes first is Hardy's plot, related by a weirdly troubling narrator, awesomely intricate in itself, but full of an almost Nabokovian sadism. Situations, desires, hopes are set up and cruelly dashed as the beautiful narrative machinations begin cranking - the man-trap scene had me literally sweating. This irony, however, also has an emotional effect, as it reveals characters trapped by the social, gender and psychological limits the plot symbolises, and forces them into a humanity beyond their stereotype. Mostly, though, this is a novel written by a poet, and in its animation of the sexually charged woods, the lanes, glades, fields, sunsets, dawns, storms, drizzles, winds, breezes, nature is the book's true hero, full of almost supernatural agency. Hardy's gifts of description, his unearthing the unearthly, the uncanny, the inexplicable beneath the surface, are unsurpassed in Victorian fiction; while his non-didactic anger at social injustice is so much more compelling than the more literal Dickens'.
Hardy has an amazing knack for thoroughly placing his reader into the environment of his novel. Interesting to me too, is that each of Hardy's novels tends to focus on a different environment and ecology found within the fictional Wessex region of southwestern England.
In The Woodlanders the reader is introduced to the shaded and leafy world of the forest of Blackmoor Vale and the hamlet of Little Hintock. The novel's characters live in the midst of this forested world and make a living with and among the trees. They are involved in lumbering, forestry, and management of orchards. It is a beautiful environment, and lovingly described and re-described by Hardy as the course of the novel moves through the seasons of the year.
Hardy integrates the 'mood' of his environment into the plot of the novel. The sounds, sights, and smells of the forest and bridle paths are as much a part of The Woodlanders as are the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters themselves. In fact, I have come to realize that Hardy intentionally develops the environment in each of his novels to become a fully empowered character in the same sense as his human players. Also, this novel seems to have been one of Hardy's favorites as it was based upon the area where his mother had grown up, a location that he was apparently quite fond of.
The novel revolves around Grace Melbury, a young woman who returns to her father's and stepmother's home in Little Hintock, after some years away becoming educated and more socially refined. Unlike Clym Yeobright, in The Return of the Native, Grace is not quite sure that she really wants to remain in the forest of Little Hintock surrounded by the peasant class of her childhood. Her father sent her off to school and has always encouraged her to aspire to a 'grander' lifestyle. She returns to find the young man that still loves her, Giles Winterborne, is still there, and working for her father's timber business, and operating a traveling apple cider press during the harvest season. At first blush it would seem that all looks well for the future of Grace and Giles.
As is typical in a Hardy novel, Fate and Irony have a curious way of inserting themselves, generally quite tragically, into the lives of the plot's characters. Quickly the reader is also introduced to the novel's other players: the steadfast and loyal young peasant woman, Marty South; the newly arrived gentlemanly young doctor, Edred Fitzpiers; and the local landowner, the widowed Mrs. Felice Charmond. While Giles and Marty are relatively contented and happy folk of the forest, Dr. Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond are clearly out of their element in the Blackmoor Vale, and Grace Melbury is betwixt and between as she endeavors to determine the course of her future.
The reader is enthralled with the pastoral scenes and life in the forest around Little Hintock, there is at the same time an incredibly epic and pathos-driven tragic drama that is unfolding and spiraling out of control that is of almost Shakespearean proportions.
Opening Line: “The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards.”
Closing Line: “If ever I forget your name, let me forget home and Heaven!--But no, no, my love, I never can forget 'ee; for you was a GOOD man, and did good things!"
Quotes: "In the hollow shades of the roof could be seen dangling and etiolated arms of ivy which had crept through the joints of the tiles and were groping in vain for some support, their leaves being dwarfed and sickly for want of sunlight"
Rating: Very Good.