Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
My mad love affair with the work of Thomas Hardy deepens and continues with The Woodlanders, the latest of his novels to grace my shelves. I found this well-preserved Penguin Classics paperback in a used book shop in Edinburgh for £2. I bought it (and a few other books) more so I could say I bought some books from a used bookstore in Scotland than for any other reason. But Hardy is one of those authors whose entire oeuvre I intend to consume, book by book. Though The Woodlanders is a relatively slim volume compared to some of his other works, and though I had the entire week off work thanks to the half-term, it took me an entire week to read it (compare this to the three days over which I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles). Sometimes, when it takes me that long to read a book, I lose patience with the plot, and my enjoyment suffers no matter how great the book is. This was not the case with The Woodlanders. I’m aware I come across as an insufferable fanboy, but I want to be honest from the start of this review: with each Hardy novel I read, my appreciation of him as an author grows more than I ever expected. Words alone cannot express the intense enjoyment that devouring Hardy’s words provides.
In many ways, the plot doesn’t start simmering until Grace and Fitzpiers tie the knot and those inevitable dominoes of marital woes begin to fall. However, I love the chapters that lead up to their marriage precisely because Hardy does such a good job of showing the reader why this marriage will be a rocky one, while at the same time keeping us interested. Hardy could have started the book just prior to their marriage and forced a bitter pill of an unwieldy prologue down our throats, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Thanks to my familiarity with Marty South, Giles Winterbourne, the Melburys, and Fitzpiers, Grace and Fitzpiers’ marriage had a lot more significance when it finally happened. I tweeted, “Grace just married that scoundrel Fitzpiers. This will all end in tears.” (Actually, I’m pleasantly surprised by the ending, but we’ll get to that.)
I’m not sure what it is about Hardy that gives me the urge to tweet as I read; I did it quite often for Tess, and I did it a few times for this book as well. I think it’s the operatic nature of the plot, the fact that the narrative deviates well into melodrama at several points. From the dashing but somewhat dastardly Fitzpiers to confused, uncertain Grace Melbury, Hardy’s characters are a complex mixture of conflicting and contradictory desires and deeds. There is plenty of interpersonal conflict in this book, but almost all of it originates not in malice but simpler, more sympathetic misunderstandings owing to differences in class, education, temperament, and opinion. As a result, bad things happen—quite a bit—but the question of whether any of them happen to bad people is more complicated.
This is the chief reason I fell so hard for The Woodlanders. Coming off the juggernaut of Tess, I was sceptical that this more obscure work would have anywhere near the same impact. I had calibrated myself for enjoyment more of the Two on a Tower or perhaps Jude the Obscure level. (I have to revisit the latter now, because so many people comment on how it is a maturation of the themes Hardy explores in this book. So if I loved The Woodlanders, maybe there is hope for Jude yet.) While this book might lack the central, defining incident of Tess, it shares Hardy’s incredible grasp of the subtle shades of human character.
Even the people in this book who serve as antagonists, such as Fitzpiers with his philandering, are sympathetic. Through judicious use of the limited third person narrator, Hardy allows the reader to understand why each character makes the choices that they do. So yes, Fitzpiers is a cad, and it’s easy for us to see what will happen to their marriage before Grace does … but he’s not a cad of the irredeemable, moustache-twirling variety. He’s a complex person trapped by his upbringing, his prejudices, and his flaws. Similarly, Grace—who, by her very name, is supposed to be the sympathetic heroine of this story—is trapped by her own naivety, as well as her father’s confused ideas about what will be the best for his little girl.
Mr Melbury’s designs on Grace’s future tugged at my heartstrings. He loves his daughter deeply and, having the means at his disposal, invested in her future by sending her away to an expensive school. As a result, she is more educated and more refined than the other inhabitants of Little Hintock. Melbury has promised himself that he will marry Grace to Giles Winterbourne, as a kind of apology for marrying the woman Giles’ father wanted to marry. Yet he worries that Grace is now too good for Giles, that having her settle for him will doom her to a simpler life than she deserves. Melbury vacillates throughout the entire first part of the book, debating whether to go ahead with his cockamamie attempt at karmic balance or to encourage Grace to follow her heart. This essential indecision in his character returns later, after he debates how to advise Grace during her estrangement with Fitzpiers.
I can sympathize with the class conflicts Hardy presents in these events. Little Hintock is a very isolated place, something I think Hardy tries to emphasize from the beginning, with the slow, rambling cart ride that takes us into the town and ultimately to the house of Marty South. Melbury, as a wood merchant, is one of the most successful and powerful men in the village, and he wants to give his daughter the best. If that best means escaping life in the village—as the companion of the young widow, Mrs Charmond, or the wife of the village’s new, up-and-coming doctor—then so be it. Of course, it doesn’t quite cross Melbury’s mind to ask Grace what she wants.
It is tempting to read The Woodlanders and interpret it as a criticism of the institution of marriage. Indeed, in his study here, Hardy shows how it can be found wanting—for both sexes. Yet there is more to it than that, for Hardy portrays all different manners of relationships. In Grace and Fitzpiers we have the unhappy marriage. Felice Charmond provides the perspective of a widow, as well as Fitzpiers’ latest and most enduring object of infatuation. And Marty South wants nothing more than to be married to Giles, who wanted to be married to Grace! In this complex daisy chain of relationships, Hardy demonstrates that happiness is not as simple as being or not being married. It depends on subtler, more elusive alchemy than that.
Will Grace and Fitzpiers eventually be happy? Hardy, unlike Dickens, does not provide a neat little epilogue with any definite conclusions. If Grace’s father is correct, Fitzpiers’ infidelity will continue in time, and it remains to be seen whether Grace can cope with that. But it’s notable that Hardy ends the book not with Grace and Melbury but where he started it, with Marty South. He ends the book with Marty at Giles’ grave, alone because Grace is no longer there to accompany her:
“Now, my own, own love,” she wispered, “you are mine, and only mine; for she has forgot ’ee at last, although for her you died! But I—whenever I get up I’ll think of ’ee, and whenever I lie down Ill think of ’ee again…. But no, no, my love, I never can forget ’ee; for you was a good man, and did good things!”
This choice to end reflecting upon Giles’ role in events seems to hint that Grace’s time with him, and particularly his death, has altered her forever. Grace “forgets” Giles because his death, and Fitzpiers’ subsequent absolution of her role in it, is a catalyst that allows her to reconsider her estrangement from her husband. Here, Hardy reminds us that even if Fitzpiers remains unchanged, Grace has been through much, and that will be a factor in whatever lies ahead for them.
The ending, then, is not a happy one. Marty’s unfulfilled love for Giles notwithstanding, it is not a tragic one either. It seems that, with The Woodlanders, Hardy strikes the balance of the human condition: real life seldom admits purely happy or tragic endings, but rather tends towards a solemn compromise of the mediocre. Grace and Marty’s respective choices result in their respective outcomes, neither of which are very dramatic but are simply … life.
And so, in an isolated village in one part of his Wessex, Thomas Hardy manages yet again to impress and astound. The Woodlanders is powerful because it is simple on the surface but profound in its subtext. With a small but complex cast of characters and straightforward but compelling plot, this book reaffirms my admiration for one of the greatest novelists of the nineteenth century. As I wrote in one of my comments below, Thomas Hardy is off the fucking chain. In my opening, I referred to “devouring Hardy’s words”, and that’s precisely the type of verb necessary to describe the intense pleasure of reading his work. Some books are meant to be read; others are meant to be inhaled and consumed. The Woodlanders is certainly one of the latter.