Continuing my year of Hardy, I read The Woodlanders. This is my favourite so far – the characters (apart from Giles) are more nuanced less black and white. It is typically Hardy – there a love triangles/quadrilaterals, a fabulous sense of place (you could almost here the wind in the leaves), social class issues, pride, vanity and unhappy endings.
Here’s the summary …
The story takes place in a small woodland village called Little Hintock, and concerns the efforts of an honest woodsman, Giles Winterborne, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury. Although they have been informally betrothed for some time, her father has made financial sacrifices to give his adored only child a superior education and no longer considers Giles good enough for her. When the new doctor – a well-born and handsome young man named Edgar Fitzpiers – takes an interest in Grace, her father does all he can to make Grace forget Giles, and to encourage what he sees as a brilliant match. Grace has misgivings prior to the marriage as she sees a village woman (Suke Damson) coming out of his cottage very early in the morning and suspects he has been sleeping with her. She tells her father that she does not want to go on with the marriage and he becomes very angry. Later Fitzpiers tells her Suke has been to visit him because she was in agony from toothache and he extracted a molar. Grace clutches at this explanation – in fact Fitzpiers has started an affair with Suke some weeks previously. After the honeymoon, the couple take up residence in an unused wing of Melbury’s house. Soon, however, Fitzpiers begins an affair with a rich widow named Mrs. Charmond, which Grace and her father discover. Grace finds out by chance that Suke Damson has a full set of teeth and realises that Fitzpiers lied to her. The couple become progressively more estranged and Fitzpiers is assaulted by his father-in-law after he accidentally reveals his true character to him. Both Suke Damson and Mrs Charmond turn up at Grace’s house demanding to know whether Fitzpiers is all right – Grace addresses them both sarcastically as “Wives -all”. Fitzpiers later deserts Grace and goes to the Continent with Mrs Charmond. Grace realises that she has only ever really loved Giles but as there is no possibility of divorce feels that her love seems hopeless.
Melbury is told by a former legal clerk down on his luck that the law was changed in the previous year (making the setting of the action 1858) and divorce is now possible. He encourages Giles to resume his courtship of Grace. It later becomes apparent, however, that Fitzpiers’ adultery is not sufficient for Grace to be entitled to a divorce. When Fitzpiers quarrels with Mrs. Charmond and returns to Little Hintock to try to reconcile with his wife, she flees the house and turns to Giles for help. He is still convalescing from a dangerous illness, but nobly allows her to sleep in his hut during stormy weather, whilst he insists on sleeping outside. As a result, he dies. Grace later allows herself to be won back to the (at least temporarily) repentant Fitzpiers, thus sealing her fate as the wife of an unworthy man. This is after Suke’s husband Timothy Tangs has set a man trap to try to crush Fitzpiers’ leg but it only tears Grace’s skirt.
No one is left to mourn Giles except a courageous peasant girl named Marty South,who has always loved him. Marty is a plain girl whose only attribute is her beautiful hair. She is persuaded to sell this at the start of the story to a barber who is procuring it for Mrs Charmond, after Marty realises that Giles loves Grace and not her. She precipitates the final quarrel between Fitzpiers and Mrs Charmond by writing to Fitzpiers and telling him of the origin of most of Mrs Charmond’s hair.
Another review …
Here is the enotes page for The Woodlanders