Theme: The "immortal puzzle" of "how to find a basis for sexual relation". (Hardy's Preface) All the characters are isolated fantasists who have immense difficulty communicating.
Style: As ever with Hardy, there are some disconcerting shifts from the lyrical to the bronchial: but the narrative voice maintains its puzzled tone and seldom lapses into coercion.
Chief strengths: The countryside escapes being sentimentalized because Hardy senses the evolutionary struggle that charges both landscape and character: "On older trees still than these, huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs. Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention...was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum."
Chief weaknesses: Giles is good, but he is rather a wet lettuce. His fidelity to Grace can seem a facet of his chronic absence of empathy.
What they thought of it then: Some journalists found the Charmond-Fitzpiers relationship a little "distasteful", but the reviews were favourable and The Woodlanders proved to be Hardy's biggest hit since Far From the Madding Crowd (1874).
What we think of it now: The least appreciated "major" Hardy novel. It lacks the nostalgic tug of his early work and is not as marmoreally "tragic" as the later stuff. Hardy himself, however, thought it his best story.