“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy – seeing the wood for the trees

In the woodland hamlet of Little Hintock, literally “in the sticks” and so isolated that the inhabitants “deemed window curtains unnecessary”, timber merchant George Melbury is tortured by a dilemma. To prove his worth, he has educated his daughter Grace to be “fit” for a husband in a higher social class, but has also promised her in marriage to Giles Winterborne, a young man in the apple and cider trade, whose father he feels guilty about having wronged in the past. The temptation to break this agreement is too great when Doctor Fitzpiers, recently arrived in the neighbourhood, takes a fancy to Grace, and Giles is too proud and restrained to press his own case. Attractive, and educated with noble ancestry but no money, Fitzpiers proves an inveterate womaniser, so that a degree of tragedy seems inevitable.

On a spectrum of Hardy’s novels, this lies somewhere between the largely lighthearted pastoral romance of “Under the Greenwood Tree” and the bleakness of “Jude the Obscure”. Sad incidents are made bearable by Hardy’s wry observations, sometimes tipping into comic farce, and his subtle insight into complex human behaviour which also helps to make events seem more plausible, relying as they often do on unlikely coincidences. It’s also a model for skilful plotting and development.

Hardy’s accounts of rural life in Victorian England are fascinating: poor Marty South, working for a pittance at night to cut pointed rods for securing thatch, but forced to sell her beautiful hair (her sole asset apart from her unrecognised perceptiveness), to make a wig for the self-absorbed lady of the manor; the annual ritual of the “barking season” where the locals “attack like locusts” to strip the bark from trees for use in tanning; Giles covered in apple-rind and pips as he operates his portable cider press in a hotel yard.

Yet what really sets this novel apart is Hardy’s remarkable portrayal of the woods on which the people depend for a living. His fundamental desire to write poetry flows out in passage after passage of unique, vivid prose, describing the trees in all seasons and weathers, from widely differing viewpoints, all showing how closely Hardy must have observed the world. A description of the woods after a damaging storm: “above stretched an old beech, with vast armpits, and great pocket-holes in its sides where branches had been removed in past times…. Dead branches were scattered about like ichythosauri in a museum”….rotting stumps of trees which “had been vanquished long ago, rising from their mossy setting like black teeth from green gums…..moss like little fir trees, like plush, like malachite stars; like nothing on earth except moss”.

The novel may feel dated with the frequently slightly garbled quotations from and allusions to long-forgotten texts. The tyranny of social conventions to which some of the characters submit seems ludicrous to us, and at times even to them as well, invariably when it is too late. Despite this, “The Woodlanders” retains the power to move us, and to feel a connection with a past way of life.

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