The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

the-woodlanders I love Thomas Hardy but have been resisting the temptation to rush through his novels too quickly. I’m dreading there being none left for me to discover for the first time, so since reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles in 2010, I have been limiting myself to one or two a year. It’s been a while since my last Hardy, The Return of the Native, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to read another one.

The Woodlanders, published in 1887, is set in the small woodland community of Little Hintock. For generations, the people of Little Hintock have made their living from the trees around them. The timber merchant George Melbury, however, is keen for his daughter, Grace, to experience life outside the woodlands and so he sends her away to be educated. The novel opens as she returns to the village after several years of absence and finds herself looking at her old home through new eyes.

Although Grace is promised to Giles Winterborne, a neighbouring woodsman, now that she has become used to a different way of life she can’t help noticing his lack of sophistication, causing her father to question whether the marriage he had planned for her is still appropriate. Grace’s return to Little Hintock coincides with the arrival of a newcomer – Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor whom Melbury decides will make a much more suitable husband for his daughter than Giles. Despite his good intentions, however, Melbury’s meddling only succeeds in making everyone unhappy in typical Thomas Hardy fashion!

One thing I love about Hardy’s books is that although most of them are set in his fictional Wessex, each one covers a different aspect of Wessex life, from the rural farms of Far From the Madding Crowd and the country fairs and markets of The Mayor of Casterbridge to The Return of the Native’s wild and beautiful Egdon Heath. In The Woodlanders, we see how the lives of the characters have become defined by the woods which surround them, we see Giles Winterborne cutting down trees and pressing apples to make cider, and we see his neighbour, a young woman called Marty South, stripping bark from branches and shaping wood into spars to sell for thatching. It’s the two outsiders in the story – the newly arrived Dr Fitzpiers and the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond – who disrupt the harmony of life in Little Hintock, and Grace who is caught between the sophisticated, cultured world they represent and the simple traditions of her childhood home and friends.

Although this book isn’t as dramatic or tragic as some of Hardy’s others, there were still some scenes near the end that moved me to tears and others that had me holding my breath – and I found the final page beautifully sad and poignant. Not everyone gets the happy ending I would have liked, but that’s true to life, I suppose, and I don’t really expect happy endings from Hardy anyway.

The Woodlanders was apparently one of Hardy’s own favourites; he is quoted as having said, “On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all”. Now that I’ve read more than half of his novels, I have to say that I think I agree with him. It’s not as powerful or as heartbreaking as Tess or Jude the Obscure, for example, but I really enjoyed it and would definitely include it in my top two or three Hardy novels read so far.

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20 thoughts on “The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

  1. Sandra says:

    Hardy is a writer that I’ve never managed to get around to. I’m glad that I’ll be coming to his work later in life (I will get to reading him eventually). I have the sense that I’ll appreciate him much more. The Woodlanders sounds delightful.

    • Helen says:

      I think coming to Hardy later in life is probably a good thing. I’m sure you’ll find a lot to appreciate when you do get around to reading his books.

  2. jessicabookworm says:

    I have read Far From the Madding Crowd and while I loved it, I have yet to read anything else by him. After watching the BBC’s adaptation of Tess, which I found a little too sad and depressing, I think I have been put off. If this is not as heart breaking as Tess it might be a good one for me to try next.

    • Helen says:

      I loved Tess, but it’s definitely a very sad, heartbreaking book and so is Jude the Obscure – it would probably be best to avoid those for now and try one of his others.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    The Woodlanders is my favourite and I think it’s so important as he wrote about a way of life that has disappeared. I think I learned a lot from the book.

  4. justjase79 says:

    I’m working my way through Hardy too, and I am looking forward to this one. I just finished The Return of the Native and I hope to have my own review of it up soon, I’ll be reading The Woodlanders and The Mayor of Casterbridge next year.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll look out for your review of The Return of the Native. I read that one last year and enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of my favourites. I loved The Mayor of Casterbridge, though.

  5. FictionFan says:

    Sounds lovely! I have Tess on my list for a re-read, but I’m tempted to swap it out for this one which I haven’t read before. In fact, it’s years since I read any Hardy and yet he used to be one of my favourite authors. Thanks for nudging him back onto my priority list! 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I definitely think Hardy deserves to be a priority! This one is wonderful, though I think Tess is probably still my favourite of his books. I hope you enjoy whichever one you read (or re-read).

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Yesterday I finished re-reading A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. Besides my new-found amazement as to how much more I find in a favorite novel when I re-read it, I was stunned to find that he has a bunch of stuff in there about Hardy. John Wheelright, one of the main characters, is a teacher of literature to high school girls. One of the authors he teaches is Hardy. I was further stunned to realize that Irving was a Hardy fan, yet it explained to me why I like Irving so much. Just another example of synchronicity in reading!

    • Helen says:

      Oh, I love discovering connections between books and authors like that! I haven’t read anything by John Irving, I’m ashamed to say, but I do want to, particularly after hearing that he’s a Hardy fan. 🙂

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