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NA0169 - HARDY, T.: Woodlanders (The) (Unabridged)
Thomas Hardy (1840–1928)
Thomas Hardy seems to have been in the habit—conscious or not—of alternating the writing of his major, tragic works with lighter novels, and in 1887, following The Mayor of Casterbridge and before Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he produced The Woodlanders. The title of The Woodlanders inevitably recalls his earlier novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, and its opening scenes suggest that this too will be a country idyll. The setting is the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock, isolated even by the standards of rural Dorset, where human lives merge with that of the woodlands that extend for some miles around, and with which the people live in symbiosis, their occupations being exclusively concerned with timber, apples and cider-making.
The story is evidently to be that of the love, growing since childhood, between the upright, attractive woodsman, Giles Winterborne, and Grace Melbury, the beautiful daughter of a local timber merchant. But this idyllic expectation is unfulfilled, for the novel takes another direction, firstly because Grace is sent away to be educated, so that her father conceives higher ambitions for her; and secondly because Hardy introduces two outsiders into the enclosed world of Hintock, outsiders whose character and conduct are greatly at odds with those of the rural folk. With Giles and Grace, these two outsiders make up a quartet of crossed lovers—one of Hardy’s favourite themes—whose feelings for each other vacillate, and whose perplexities arise largely from their social differences. Consequently The Woodlanders becomes to a great extent a social novel, not a rural idyll. Hardy probably conceived it as a tragedy, but whether it achieves tragic status is questionable; although it is full of pathos, none of the characters are magnificent enough or decisive enough to be felt as tragic.
Although Hardy is famed for his pessimistic view of the universe as hostile, and of nature and fate as implacable and blind to human happiness, he was just as concerned with society, its laws and conventions. Society embodied ‘the crookedness of things’ which was built into the universe as a whole, and which led to human misery. The barriers between the classes estranged man from man, and more especially man from woman. Hardy himself was deeply in thrall to the nuances of class, and his characters are always precisely located within the social scale. Encounters between his Wessex folk and their superiors, are central to his books. He was drawn to portray the ‘finer natures’ of these people, who possessed imagination, feeling and culture. This undoubtedly reflected Hardy’s own life and character: only a little above the peasantry by birth, yet distanced from his roots through his education and his emotional nature, he was determined to show that he understood and shared this ‘finer nature’. There was also the novelist’s commercial motive, for Hardy knew very well that the public wished to read about ‘superior people’—moneyed people who lived interesting or dramatic lives, rather than about the peasants of the countryside and their bleak, humdrum existence.
Yet the peasants are essential to his novels for they function like a chorus in a Greek play, commenting on the action, and they make articulate truths that are often invisible to the central characters. They are not characters, they are voices. Their language, like their way of life, is earthy, wise, stoical and comical, but they are not capable of noble, passionate or tragic experiences. They keep their heads below the parapet, avoiding the storms and stresses of life, leaving all that to their betters, yet seeming to pass ironic judgements on the folly and futility of all life’s striving. Between the peasants and the active protagonists of the drama, there is almost always an intermediary figure, a peasant with exceptional instinct and understanding who has links with both groups, in other words a self-portrait of Hardy himself. In The Woodlanders this is clearly Giles Winterborne, but it is also Marty South, the girl with the secret love for Giles, the girl who stands outside the love quartet, but who sees and understands what is going on within it. Hardy should have given us more of Marty, for she is a character more intensely alive than the mysterious lady of the manor with the laughable, theatrical name of Felice Charmond. Felice is an apt foil for the other outsider, Edred Fitzpiers, the implausible young doctor, who studies the occult, kills his patients, and manages to conduct simultaneous affairs with three women in a tiny village—all without getting himself run out of Hintock.
So the four lovers are shown meeting, and very often losing their way, in the dark towering trees of Hintock Woods, making their plans and their assignations, misunderstanding themselves and their emotions, deceived by the false veil of social convention and ambition. There could perhaps be a parallel here with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, except that Hardy is determined that this dream must end in death and tragedy, or at least in unhappiness, as indeed it does for all of them. He hints at the inner tensions of sex and marriage, but the inhibitions of nineteenth-century fiction prevent him from speaking of them explicitly. The details of Hardy’s life provide a number of clues to his genius, his obsessive themes, and his tragic view of life.
Hardy was born in the village of Higher Brockhampton near Dorchester in 1840, the son of a stonemason. After leaving school at fifteen, he was apprenticed to a local architect, where he worked for some years before moving to London to continue his career. In his youth he possessed a strong religious faith, and even dreamed of ordination and a life as a country clergyman. These ideas faded rapidly, and he became a convinced atheist. His early novels, written around the age of thirty, were sufficiently successful to enable him to become a full-time writer. He returned to Dorset, and soon married Emma Gifford. This proved a childless marriage, which later descended into estrangement and bitterness. For the last dozen or more years of their marriage, they lived in separate parts of their house, in a condition of mutual antagonism. Rumours of Hardy’s earlier, unhappy love affairs have never been substantiated, but, together with his bleak marriage, they offer a possible explanation for his habitual depiction of love as both transient and tormenting. Hardy abandoned novel writing in the mid-1890s, after the adverse criticism that greeted Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, which were accused of being irreligious and immoral, and he devoted himself to poetry. Emma Hardy died in 1912, and two years later Hardy married Florence Dugdale, a much younger woman who had been acting as his secretary. He died in 1928.
Notes by Peter Whitfield
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