Transported to Wessex: Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy’s cottage

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.

Lo-Mein & Hardy-Lite

It is hard to write about books.



Especially after you’ve eaten Vegetable Lo Mein at the supermarket.

I’ve been a vegetarian since September and suddenly could not bear the thought of any more broccoli-cheese soup.

Let’s go to the Hy-Vee and eat salad! I said.

I was sure the salad bar had crab or lobster, or at least fake crab or fake lobster.  I wanted protein.

No, it was just a bunch of lettuce, broccoli, and pasta salad.

So I went for the Chinese Express.

Did they have anything vegetarian?

Only Vegetable Lo Mein. The noodles hid some cabbage and onion, no other vegetables.   I “borrowed” broccoli from my mate’s plate of Chicken with Broccoli.

And now I am full of carbohydrates and inspired to let you know what I’ve been reading.

I’ve fallen a little behind.

For instance, my book journal tells me I finished Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders on August 27.  The writing is gorgeous and lyrical,  but this is not Hardy at his best, and so I never wrote about it.

It’s Hardy-lite.

Hardy-lite is better than most writers at their deepest and darkest, but I cannot recommend that you read this unless you have first read Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure.

The Woodlanders simply lacks the passion of most of his work.

The usual themes are there.  Class matters.  And inter-class love does not work.  Somebody is bound to die.

The Woodlanders rambles: it is not architecturally structured like Hardy’s best.  There is a bit of a wobble.

We are introduced early in the novel to Marty South, a young woman who supports her ailing father by making wood spars for thatch–this involves working with  something called “a bill-hook” and “straight, smooth sticks called spar-gads”–and other things with wood.  At first we believe she is the heroine.  A barber pursues her from town; he wants to buy her hair for a lady in the neighborhood whose hair is the same shade.

Marty is not beautiful, and that should have told me she was not the heroine.

Her face had the usual fulness of expression which is developed by a life of solitude….In years she was no more than nineteen or twenty, but the necessity of taking thought at a too early period of life had forced the provisional curves of her childhood’s face to a premature finality.  thus she had but little pretension to beauty, save in one prominent particular–her hair.  Its abundance made it almost unmanageable; is color was, roughly speaking, and as seen here by firelight, brown, but careful notice, or an observation by day, would have revealed that its true shade was a rare and beautiful approximation to chestnut.

She reluctantly sells her hair,  like Jo in Little Women (remember that scene?), because she needs the money.

And then Hardy almost drops her from the plot, except when she emerges to write  some choice graffiti regarding Giles Winterborne.  She doesn’t have the hair, so, by Jove, she’s not the hair-o-win.

Poor Marty.  She is in love with Giles Winterborne, a woodsman, and certainly he is kind to her, but he  has long been in love with Grace Melbury, the daughter of George Melbury, the rich timber dealer.

George wants his daughter to marry Giles because he wronged Giles’ father long ago.  But when Grace comes home from finishing school, she is so well-educated, well-dressed, and glowing that she no longer really belongs in Little Hintock.   And when Fitzpiers, a handsome, heartless doctor courts her, she is flattered.

They marry, but soon wish for divorce.  Felice Charmond, the lady of the manor, knew Fitzpiers long ago.  They have an affair.

The characters, unfortunately, are not very well-drawn.  They’re likable, but anemic.  We don’t get terribly excited about what happens.  Hardy has written The Woodlanders elsewhere better.

This is definitely a grade “B” book.  Read it if, like me,  you’ve read all of Hardy’s other books.

Caveat Emptor!  Or should I say, Caveat Lector!