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Books: The Woodlanders (1887) by Thomas Hardy

All you need to know about the books you meant to read
Plot: This time "Hardy country" is Little Hintock, an isolated and claustrophobic woodland community. George Melbury's daughter Grace is promised in marriage to Giles Winterbourne, a stolid timber merchant who is faithfully devoted to her; but Giles is adored by Marty South, a young girl who does odd jobs with logs. When Marty learns of Giles's betrothal she lops off her hair to sell to the local barber. Grace returns from finishing school and is now refined. Her father thinks she is too good for Giles and Grace is pushed towards the socially superior Edred Fitzpiers. They marry, but Fitzpiers takes up with the other outsider in the book, Felice Charmond. She is a champagne-swilling temptress who wears a wig made out of Marty's hair. George Melbury assaults Fitzpiers, who flees to the continent with Felice. Grace renews a relationship with Giles. Fitzpiers returns, having quarrelled with his volatile mistress. Grace runs away from him, taking refuge in Giles's hovel. Although it is cold and wet, Giles upholds propriety and spends the night outside in a nest of twigs. He dies of hypothermia/ a broken heart. Grace and Fitzpiers leave for the city, resuming the marriage made in the ante-room of hell. Marty is left to mourn.

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.