Grace Melbury was promised to Giles Winterbourne by her father when they were both very young. Giles has held true to this promise, but Grace’s father has realised that in making Grace “worthy” of Giles, she has been educated far beyond the station of a tenant farmer. Giles accepts that Grace does not deserve the plain, simple life he leads and seems content to worship her from afar. Marty South loves Giles and would do almost anything for him but doesn’t believe that she deserves him. Meanwhile, Edred Fitzpiers, an ambitious doctor at the very beginning of his career has set his own sights on Grace…
Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) referred to The Woodlanders (1887) as his favourite book. It lacks the grand tragedy and drama of novels like The Mayor Of Casterbridge (1886) or Tess Of The d’Urbervilles (1891), but the small, domestic scale of it packs just as emotional a punch.
You can tell from my summary that the details of the story are hideously dated but it doesn’t matter. The characters are what make this novel. Hardy, like George Eliot and a growing number of writers that came after him, understood that Tragedy was all around us and was not reserved for the high and the mighty.
What makes Hardy so different from the entirety of literature that came behind him, then? After all, Austen wrote about people who might as well have been general members of the public. Victor Hugo built a career out of writing about the poor and downtrodden of society. Dickens, for crying out loud, Dickens made sure that people were exposed to what ordinary folks were going through.
Hardy, though, wrote about his readers. In all of his books, the overwhelming majority of characters are in the working- and middle-classes. His characters were the sort of people who bought his books. He also wrote about the issues of the day that a lot of people didn’t want to talk about: he was a highly political writer who believed that issues that were considered scandalous – domestic abuse, single mothers, access to education and justice – should be examined to see if they were as bad as the consequences meted out for them deemed them to be. Dickens may have lifted the stone that covered the issues of the lower classes, but it was Hardy who went the full Steve Irwin and poked them to see what they would do.
Like I said, though, it’s the characters who make this. Giles is our major character, and we see a big chunk of the book from his perspective. However, Grace and Marty are also major characters and we get a lot of the novel told from how they feel as well. And the result is a novel that oozes Class Struggle. Hardy knows how pointless issues of class are: his final novel, Jude The Obscure (1895), was all about the pointless and petty injustices faced by people who aren’t allowed to be judged by their intelligence and character because of their origins. The public reaction to that novel was enough to swear him off fiction for the remainder of his life (but please read it because it is amazing).
Anyway, The Woodlanders is pure pastoral soap opera with a story that could have been ripped from the screens of our modern televisions. But don’t let that put you off.
I came to The Woodlanders when it was set as a text in my English Lit class during my first go at Year 12. I didn’t pay much attention to it initially, regarding it as one of those texts that teachers placed in front of you to show that there was indeed life before you were born. Like a lot of students I had some nebulous idea that at some point Art was decided upon by some nebulous group of people as being made up of some stuff that they had been forced to study when they were younger and so on back through history: these books weren’t necessarily classics because they were good, they were just what “old people” thought were good. To cut a long story short (literally in this case), I read the first few chapters, skimmed the introduction and explanatory notes and wrote my essay about it based on that.
It came back with a 14/20 and a teacher’s comment that stated, “this is the best essay I’ve ever read by someone who very clearly did not read the book.”
For more years than should be considered proper, I took this as a compliment.
Jump forward a few months to the end of the school year and I was on my summer break and had nothing to read. Which isn’t strictly true: I had hundreds of books that I could have read but I didn’t feel like any of them. I was ferreting around my shelves trying to find something that I hadn’t read in the last year or so, and I came across The Woodlanders again. I shrugged and thought, “why not?” and lay down on the couch in the lounge room with it.
I didn’t raise my eyes from the page for nearly two hours. I was gripped. Part of it was the story, but most of it was Hardy’s prose. But the biggest difference between this reading and my previous reading was that I made use of the footnotes, and that explained a lot of the references that just seemed to pad out the word count to previous me.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll go from the beginning.
Hardy wrote in a style that made his stories easy to follow. He wrote in a way that used classical art and literature references the way that modern writers like Stephen King and Iain Banks use pop cultural references: to put the reader into the state of mind and place that their characters were in. There’s a scene where Grace’s father explains his desire to educate his daughter and it revolves around him not knowing “Who dragged Whom around the walls of What.” Mr Melbury remembers the shame of not being aware of what was obvious to the people around him and vowed that his own lack of education was not going to hold his daughter back.
Well, I also didn’t know who that story was referring to (annoyingly, Hardy never explains it either, possibly because knowledge of Homer was more widespread among bookreaders of the Nineteenth Century). Fortunately, there was a little number “36” next to the sentence. I knew it referred to a footnote, or, more technically, its more annoying cousin, the endnote (footnotes are great because you only have to glance down to the bottom of the page to find something out. Endnotes require you to flip to the back of the book and look it up there, which can really take you out of the story. They also require the use of two bookmarks when you are reading: one for the main story and one for looking up endnotes. Or is that just me…?). So I went to the back of the book (feeling a bit guilty because when I was in primary school, that’s where the answers to things were traditionally kept and it was frowned upon to look there) and discovered that Who, Whom and What were Achilles, Hector and Troy. While I was there I chanced to learn of some other stuff that Hardy was referring to. They explained a couple of things that had left me mystified when I first read them. I went back to the front of the book feeling a little more confident in my approach to the text.
I polished it off in a couple more days and felt as though something had changed within me. I had tackled a classic novel and not been defeated by it. I was keen to go another round with Literature and on one of my next trips into town I came across a cheap copy of Les Miserables – which I similarly devoured, despite the lack of foot/endnotes – and a new stage in my reading life was begun.
I went on to read a lot more of Hardy over the next few years. I went for Tess Of The d’Urbervilles soon afterwards and followed that up with Jude The Obscure shortly after that. Feeling the need for an ending in which some characters survived I went back and found The Mayor Of Casterbridge, The Return Of The Native (whose first line I knew from Monty Python’s “Novel Writing” sketch), Far From The Madding Crowd… before I knew it I’d read a sizeable chunk of Hardy’s oeuvre and had enjoyed it, despite its best efforts to the contrary.
And all of them had notes to crib from to aid my enjoyment. I have to stress, though, that I only needed them to flesh out my understanding: they weren’t crucial to me understanding the plot, just in getting the most out of the book as a whole. I mean, I was sold on Giles as the protagonist of this story when he held his terrible dinner party in Chapter 9. All the effort he went to making sure that it didn’t go wrong, only rebounded even further on him when it did, which is echoed tragically at the end of the book when he tries to preserve Grace’s honour when she comes to him after Edred has betrayed her.
But really, I was enjoying having a new window of my life opening up even more. Because what challenged me on my first reading was not an obstacle now: the past was no longer a foreign country because, while they did some things differently there, the people were largely the same as where I was from. And with that understanding I was able to appreciate literature in general a lot more. And that led to the biggest understanding I had about art and people which is that the work that resonates with the most people for the longest time is what survives. Which is why English Lit teachers keep presenting them to disinterested students, in the hope that some of it sticks.
You can find out more about Thomas Hardy at https://www.hardysociety.org/