Tragedy in the Woodlands

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The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy, 1887

I adore this book. I know I roasted Thomas Hardy just a few days ago, but we are back in a good place with The Woodlanders. What an underrated gem of a novel.

Like many another Hardy novel, we begin with a man walking along a rural road. No shade. This is an excellent way to start a novel. That man is up to something. He is going to interact with our main characters. He will kickstart the plot. Importantly, he will traverse the landscape, providing reason for Hardy to describe the setting to us. Oh boy. What at setting. We have abandoned the moors for the woodlands. Squirrels! Wood pigeons! Larches! Foxes! Metaphors about the Teutonic antecedents of the characters! You know you want to read Hardy’s metaphors about trees, squirrels, broken hearts and Ginnungagap. Your really do.

In The Woodlanders, the man on the rural road is a barber. He has traveled from a city to purchase the hair of Marty South, whomst I love. The barber finds Marty hard at work crafting spar gads. Oh you don’t know what a spar gad is? Neither do I . It has something to with thatch.

Anyway, sweet, perfect Marty is making spar gads, secretly completing her father’s work so that they don’t lose his income while he is ill. Marty! The barber explains that the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond, noticed in church that Marty’s hair is the same rare color as hers and she wants it to adorn her own head. Marty surmises that the widow Charmond wants to allure some man with additional hair, but Marty wants to keep her own powers of allurement, because she is in love with Giles Winterborne.

Oof, you can tell from the name that he will have a sad fate. If he was born during such an inauspicious time of year, you know Thomas Hardy will plague him with bad luck and misery the way only Thomas Hardy can. He is part of a tragic love pentagram. Yes, I meant to write pentagram, not pentagon. It’s a more romantic name for a five-pointed shape.

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The five points are:

Marty—a lonely, hard-working, woodland lass.

Giles—a cider-maker and part-time harvest diety.

Felice—a rich widow with a past that doesn’t bear looking into.

Grace—a merchant’s daughter.

Edred—a devilish doctor who dabbles in metaphysics.

Marty loves Giles. Giles and Edred love Grace. Edred also loves Felice. Grace loves Giles, but she is not fully aware of her own feelings. Felice loves Edred. Nobody loves Marty. Except for me. I love you, darling. Down to the last spar gad your nimble fingers ever crafted.

Now, I will not tell you the entire plot. There isn’t much to it. The drama unfolds in the characters’ hearts. Their shifting feelings about each other constitute the most important “action” of the novel. And, oh, the relationships are so subtle and complex. The details Hardy provides are beautiful. Grace’s father loves her so much that he refuses to clean the smudge mark of her reading candle from the ceiling over her bed. Giles begins to lose his shot at genteel Grace when he awkwardly encounters her while standing in the middle of a public square under an apple tree sapling that he is trying to sell. Grace becomes aware of the intellectual new doctor in her village when she notices his fire changing colors due to his chemical experiments. Her maid informs her that she has sold her eventual cadaver to this doctor. “Kaleidoscopic dreams of the face of a weird alchemical surgeon, Grammer Oliver’s skeleton, and the face of Giles Winterborne, brought Grace Melbury to the morning of the next day.”

And the themes! They are not new for Hardy, but he does them so well. This man was strongly opposed to marriage without the possibility of divorce. Characters learn too late that they have married the wrong person and are doomed to a loveless and bleak existence, because Victorian mores will not allow them to escape the chafing bonds of matrimony or form meaningful attachment with someone whose companionship could provide true comfort in this pitiless world. Gah! It’s so bitter and tragic and true. I sob every time I read this book. Which has been a lot of times. Hardy also satirizes the Victorian tendency to value social status above character. True again, Hardy.

Of course, it is profoundly beautifully written. Open any page and you will find a sentence that makes you emit your soul from your body in a sigh of pure aesthetic pleasure. Like this one “The two trees that had creaked all the winter left off creaking, the whir of the night-jar, however, forming a very satisfactory continuation of uncanny music from that quarter.”  Uncanny woodland music! Yes, please!

I think what I love most about this book is the unexpected compassion the characters exhibit towards each other in tense situations. Women who might look upon each other as rivals show care and tenderness towards each other. I don’t find this unrealistic. I think there are plenty of people out there who still exhibit concern for another’s feelings even when that person’s interest runs contrary to their own in a deeply personal and emotional matter. It happens.

I almost left out the Best Scene. Sweet, perfect Marty is holding saplings upright for Giles to plant. I might cry. It is already so beautiful. Marty helps him in his humble work, which lofty Grace cannot do. So, she understands Giles and knows his true value better than Grace can. While they are planting, Marty observes:

“How they sigh directly we put ‘em upright, though while they are lying down they don’t sigh at all,” said Marty.

“Do they?” said Giles. “I’ve never noticed it.” (And you never noticed Marty either, you unlucky fool.)

She erected one of the young pines into its hole, and held up her finger; the soft musical breath instantly setting in, which was not to cease night or day till the grown trees should be felled—probably long after the two planters should be felled themselves.

Gah! Marty South forever!

You might like The Woodlanders if:

  • you enjoy a woodland setting
  • you enjoy things that are good

You might not like The Woodlanders if:

  • you are not in the mood to fling yourself on your sofa and sob

Final thoughts: I love it! I don’t think I have ever used this many exclamation points in a post.

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