Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers. I frequently reread him and am mentally transported to Wessex, the fictional countryside of his novels based on his native Dorset and other parts of southwestern England.
This week I reread The Woodlanders, a masterpiece, and A Laodicean, which is quite a page-turner. (I’ll write about A Laodicean later.) There is a curious modernity to Hardy’s sharp observations, his sexy characters, and understanding of psychology. (It is easy to see why D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the only great 19th-century writer.) Hardy’s spare lyricism and modern treatment of classical themes move us in the direction of twentieth-century literature, away from the verbose satire of Dickens and the Gothicism of Charlotte Bronte. Hardy was always being accused of writing too much about sex. Some critics thought Tess of the d’Urbervilles pornography. (I cannot imagine!)
This is my third reading of The Woodlanders, and the first time I’ve loved it. The language is lyrical, the dialogue lively, and the plot revolves around two inter-class love triangles. Set in Little Hintock, a tiny woodland village that is fantastically hard for outsiders to find, this brilliant novel is one of Hardy’s best explorations of class struggle. The upper-class characters, Mr. Fitzpiers, a doctor who comes of an aristocratic, if impecunious, family, and Mrs. Charmond, a rich, self-absorbed widow who lives at the Manor, are charming when they want to be, but also deceptive and promiscuous.
Is the middle class any better? Well, yes, they have better morals. The timber merchant, Mr. Melbury, and his wife are decent people who have worked hard for what they have. They are proud of their well-educated daughter Grace, just home from boarding school.
And what about the working-class? Are they the best of all? Well, not quite; they have too many problems. Two of Hardy’s most memorable characters, the clever Marty South, who takes over her father’s work making “wood-spars” for thatch when he becomes ill, and the level-headed Giles Winterborne, a woodsman and smart businessman, should be well-matched but are doomed to unhappiness. Marty loves Giles, but Giles prefers Grace Melbury, whom Mr. Melbury promised to him long ago. While Grace is educated above her class, Giles loses his property and falls down a few class levels.
I love Hardy’s description of Little Hintock, the tiny woodland village that is so very hard to find: in the first chapter, Hardy humorously describes Barber Percomb’s arrival near the village after dark and his search for Marty South, so he can buy her beautiful hair for the lady of the manor, Mrs. Charmond, who wants to supplement her thinning locks. He alights from a van and “plunged towards the umbrageous nook, and paced cautiously over the dead leaves which nearly buried the road or street of the hamlet.”
Life is slow, unbelievably slow, in Little Hintock, but it is picturesque .
It was one of those sequestered spots outside the gates of the world where may usually be found more meditation than action, and more passivity than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises, and results in inferences wildly imaginative; yet where, from time to time, no less than in other places, dramas of a grandeur and unity truly Sophoclean are enacted in the real, by virtue of the concentrated passions and closely knit interdependence of the lives therein.
Though there’s not much action, the character have powerful emotions. Fitzpiers courts Grace Melbury but thinks nothing of giving a tumble one night to Suke, a voluptuous gal who is happy to make love in a field. Grace has her doubts about Fitzpiers, but her father thinks he is a good catch. Anything to elevate Grace’s status!
Oddly, the last time I read this I thought the book was dull and the characters anemic. This time, I found it very quiet but beautifully-written, and the characters well-drawn. I very much like thoughtful Grace Melbury, who is kind to Giles when he throws a Christmas party where everything goes wrong: the Melburys arrive too early, and end up helping make the pies. Mind you, Grace likes Giles anyway. But she does doubt that he is her ideal beau.
In the late 19th century, when a marriage falls apart, is divorce possible? The law did not favor women. Life would have turned out very differently for several of our characters if the laws were just.
But what about Mary South? She is a strong character, as likable as Grace, but Hardy gives her short shrift. She is important in the opening chapters, and then disappears until the end, except to interfere occasionally when Giles is hurt. Why doesn’t Marty get Giles? Or get a man? Is it because she does sell her hair (like Jo in Little Women) when her father is sick, and her hair is her one beauty? Would Fitzpiers have loved Mrs. Charmond if she didn’t have Marty’s hair?
One wonders. Maybe it is that simple.