Paula's Reviews > The Woodlanders

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
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's review
Aug 24, 2007

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Recommended for: british lit fans
Read in August, 2007

So I read this book because I love Hardy's work--Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Far from the Madding Crowd. The Woodlanders isn't as famous as these three.

It's interesting to read Hardy and D.H. Lawrence together. Both focus on themes of marital/sexual alienation, discovery, and rebellion, and have great sympathy for women. Both were also poets, and Hardy went so far as to shun novel-writing for poetry later in his life, believing many of his novels, because they were serialized, to be too influenced by commercial necessity. As a writer, Lawrence is the more "modern" and self-consciously experimental of the two. Hardy is more austere in style, while at the same time more optimistic than Lawrence about the possibility of human goodness. Both writers were regarded as controversial in their lifetimes due to their frank treatment of sex and their latent critiques of the English class system.

The Woodlanders is a story about Grace and her close-quarters relationship with the three men in her life: her father who dotes on her and has invested his middle-class salary into her education, her childhood sweetheart Giles who comes to represent a purity/unity with nature threatened by industry and the upper class, and her adult lover Fitzpiers, a doctor with an aristocratic background. The novel starts at the point where Grace returns to her parent's woodland home after finishing school. Her father is tormented by his promise to "give" her to Giles, since her education has now elevated her above him in class and standing. Grace thus marries her social better, Fitzpiers, but comes to sorrow when he regrets his "slumming" and essentially abandons her.

The book focuses on the minutiae of propriety in the handling of a young unmarried woman, and the choices available to an abandoned wife when divorce was still only an option for the uber-rich. It's fascinating to see the ways in which Grace and her men must all constantly face acceptable social strictures governing their behavior, even when they attempt to defy these strictures. Hardy points to how this social structure ultimately keeps Grace imprisoned and alienated from herself. By the time she discovers how she really feels and what she wants, it's too late, and society, especially the divorce laws at the time, make sure to keep her from happiness.

Stylistically, the Woodlanders is not as mature as Jude the Obscure. Hardy lays it on a little thick at the end, and the characters often come across as too broadly sketched, where Grace = the doe-eyed ingenue, Giles = the Christ figure/pure of heart Nature Boy, and Fitzpiers = the heartless aristocrat. Still, serialized or not, the book is fascinating for its concentrated setting (one small village in the woods), and for the dense and darkly comical mood Hardy's sympathetic third-person narration evokes.

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