The Woodlanders

  
Title: The Woodlanders

Author: Thomas Hardy

Published: 1887

Synopsis:

In the small country village of Little Hintock Marty South harbours a deep and unrequited love for Giles Winterbourne, a country worker who is currently in business with Mr. Melbury. Unfortunately for Marty Giles is in love with Melbury’s daughter, Grace, who in an act of regret on her father’s part is unofficially betrothed to Winterbourne.  However in his attempt to better his daughter, Melbury’s has had her privately educated at boarding school, hoping for a better life for her and it is not long before his – and her – head has been turned by the new local do out, Dr. Fitzpiers. And so begins a tale of passion, ambition and heartache. 

My Thoughts: 

I don’t come from a family of big readers. My mum used to read a lot, but cancer medication kind of muddled her memory so she never seems to just sit and read, although to be fair she does have two dogs and a rabbit to look after at the moment so I guess she can use being busy as an excuse.  So when my uncle (mum’s cousin) suggested Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders I knew I had to give it a go, especially as my uncle is quite artsy and likes a certain kind of literature (he is an actor).  After over a year sat on my shelf, I finally picked it up at the start of the month and have been slowly making my way through it ; I say slowly like I didn’t enjoy it but it is actually because I have been pretty busy with work etc.  

I love Hardy.  Something about his writing always lures me in; it’s the characters, the rural setting of the Dorset area I know so well and the sense of impending doom.  I think it is safe to say you don’t turn to Hardy for a light hearted read.  The Woodlanders, despite being one of Hardy’s lesser known novels, is no exception.  From the moment poor Marty South cut and sold her long, luscious hair for the vain Mrs. Charmond I knew the characters were in for a hoot.  There is something about hair, especially the reluctant or forceful loss of hair that really gets to me.  Ever since I studied Jane Eyre at sixth form and we discussed Helen Burns having her hair cut I have seen it as a personal attack on women and the feminine body.  For me, hair is such a personal link to your identity so to loss it or have it taken from you against your will fills me with a she sees of dread and sympathy for that character/person.  This idea has only been exemplified through family members losing their hair to cancer treatment.  But maybe I’m just vain. 

The main action of The Woodlanders centres around the character of Grace Melbury’s and her – in my opinion – poor decision to marry Dr. Fitzpiers.  Both Grace and her father are victims of terrible snobbery and see Giles Winterbourne (Grace’s original choice of husband) as beneath her, especially as she has now gone off and had an education.  Neither show much remorse at breaking poor Giles’ heart and even though Grace has doubts about Dr. Fitzpiers and his dubious relationships with other women in the village, she still marries him.  She is so in awe of this intelligent and exciting man that she overlooks his flaws.  I found this frustrating, so I was almost glad when he did the inevitable and went off with a woman of a higher class and for me this brought about a change in my feelings towards Grace.  When her husband came crawling back, which of course he did, Grace turned in to a somewhat radical Victoian woman and refused to have him back.  She realised the error of her ways and wished that she had actually chosen  Giles. Unfortunately it was a case of too little too late, and poor Giles died of some terrible fever, leaving a ‘heartbroken’ Grace and a truly devastated Marty.  For a while this event allowed me to admire Grace; she realised her mistake, mourned the loss of Giles and refused to take back her husband.  But then she lived up to a stereotype of Victorian women and I decided that I didn’t actually like her very much at all. 

Although Marty South is not much more than a background character, for me she shows a true depiction of love and devotion.  She quietly appears in the background of the novel, much in the same way that she quietly appears in the background of Giles’ life and loves him from a distance.  It is with her that I feel the most sympathy and sadness and she has the most beautiful lines in the closing of the novel that for me sum up her as a character and the nature of true love.  Long after Grace’s interest in tending Giles’ grave pass, Marty finally gets the chance to be the only lady in his life: 

” Now my own, own love…you are mine, and only mine; for she has forgot ‘ee at last, although for her you died! But I whenever I get up I’ll think of ‘ee, and whenever I lie down I’ll think of ‘ee…if ever I forget your name, let me forget home and heaven!”

Although now I read this back maybe I think Grace was right in moving on and not mounting her lost love forever.  It’s what I would do, but it wouldn’t be a Hardy novel without some despair and unrequited love. 

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Tess of the D’Urbervilles

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Contains spoilers

After what felt like the longest wait ever, I finally arrived back home for Christmas yesterday afternoon. As I drove past the countryside I was reminded of my recent reading and in particular the last chapters of the novel I finished that morning: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I am lucky to have grown up along the Somerset/Dorset border and I currently live in Wiltshire, a mere stone’s throw away from Stonehenge, the setting for the final dramatic climax of Tess Durbeyfield’s life.

The first time I read Tess was in the summer between my second and third year of university; I was pretty certain I wanted to focus on female criminals in Victorian literature for my dissertation and my research led me to Hardy and ultimately to Tess. Having focused on and analysed Tess’ life in great detail during my third year, I put the novel aside and picked it up for the first time since back in November, again because I wanted to study/teach it.

Tess’ is a life of sheer hardship and sorrow. Encouraged by her parents to seek the help of an apparent wealthy ‘relative’ Tess soon becomes a ‘fallen’ woman and from that moment on she faces difficulty upon difficulty until her death at the end of the novel. It is fair to say that the catalyst and ultimately the route of all her troubles lies at the hands of Alec D’Urberville, the apparent wealthy ‘relative’. It is Alec’ persistent hunting of Tess and the ambiguous rape that leave Tess pregnant and alone; an event that haunts her and ruins her one chance at love and happiness in her marriage to Angel Clare.

I loved rereading Tess (especially seeing the notes I made the first time I read it) and I have so much I want to share about this novel, but I am going to narrow it down to a few things in particular. As I mentioned I am teaching this at the moment, focusing in particular on the difficulties Tess faces. There are many, but what I found amazing as I read the novel is how much I hated Alec D’Urberville; he truly is a vile character and I imagine the type of man who was not uncommon in the late 1800s. Having raped Tess in a dark and foggy woodland clearing, his shock and sheer audacity when she leaves seems very stereotypical of the time period and the patriarchal society Tess has the misfortune to live in.
“I didn’t understand your meaning until it was too late”
“that’s what every woman says.”‘

How easily Alec turns his actions onto the innocent victim, showing no remorse or guilt, as though it was his birthright to act as he pleased. This mysogonistic attitude is displayed later in the novel when Alec again blames his downfall from religion on Tess, showing how quick he is to pass the blame and ignore the consequences of his actions.

Unfortunately for Tess, Alec’s attitude is not out of character for men of the era, with Angel quick to cast Tess aside as soon as he learns of her past. The irony of this lies in how Tess willingly forgives Angel for a similar discretion, highlighting the clear double standards of the Victorian age. Before we started studying Tess we looked at the context of the period and my students were shocked by how few rights women had, how their husband essentially owned her the second he married her, taking all her belongings and beating her whenever he wished. It is unbelievable to think that this was happening a little over a century ago.

There is a part of me that feels as though I have been ploughing through Tess for months and whilst I have been reading it for a fair few weeks it has not felt like a burden. It truly is an enjoyable and engaging read and I love reading about the surrounding countryside, trying to pinpoint the real life counterparts of the villages and towns mentioned in the novel. Tess’ plight is heart wrenching and it is hard not to feel great sympathy for her as a character and how her life would have been different if she had been born into different circumstances or a decade or two later.

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I feel as though I have become slightly Tess obsessed as alongside my reading of the novel I have been watching an excellent BBC adaptation from 2008starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne. It is a fantastic version and every time Alec appears I want to boo at the screen, so I highly recommend it. I have also been dipping into The Connell’s Guide to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which is another great aide to support a reading of Tess and has certainly made me think about things I hadn’t noticed myself.

Rereading Tess has sparked an urge to reread several books I studied at university and hopefully I will find the time for a few more rereads in 2014-I especially look forward to seeing more comments and quotations I highlighted during my original reading.

The Mayor of Casterbridge

The Mayor of Casterbridge has been quietly residing on my bookcase (admittedly different bookcases) for nearly two years; a pristine copy just chilling out there between thumbed copies of Frankenstien and Far From the Madding Crowd patiently waiting to be read. Finally, its moment came. I hadn’t planned to read this novel. I hadn’t spend hours agonisingly gazing at my bookcases waiting for a book to leap out at me and be read that instance. Instead I just picked it up, didn’t think about it, and began reading. I relish this pain free method of choosing what to read; it doesn’t happen often, but when it does I appreciate it.

I’m going to pinch a line from the synopsis of my copy, but it is too perfect a summing up of the novel; The Mayor of Casterbridge ‘is about a man haunted by his past.’ Henchard, his wife and small child stop off at village fair, and during their stay in a food tent, Henchard begins to drink:

‘At the end of the first basin the man had risen to serenity; at the second he was jovial; at the third, argumentative; at the fourth, the qualities signified by the shape of his face, the occasional clench of his mouth, and the fiery spark of his dark eye, began to tell in his conduct; he was overbearing – even brilliantly quarrelsome.’

It is whilst he is in this drunken state that Henchard commits the shocking mistake that haunts him for the rest of his life. He quickly swears off alcohol and makes a fresh start in a new village, rising to the position of Mayor. However, his past cannot stay secret forever, and it soon comes back to turn his world upside down and brings new joy, heartache and trials for Henchard to deal with.

I thoroughly enjoyed this return to the beautiful Wessex countryside of Hardy novels. Having grown up and lived in or near the Wessex region of South West England for all my life (thankfully I missed out on the accent) I find a comforting sense of familiarity in Hardy’s writing, despite the fact few places/landmarks are explicitly mentioned. His sheer love and appreciation of the countryside shine through in all his novels, with rural life providing a perfect backdrop for his memorable tales of love, loss and moralistic messages. I currently live just outside a city and every so often I get an urge to move to a bigger city and experience life in the hustle and bustle of a thriving metropolis…and then I read something like The Mayor of Casterbridge and I am reminded that I would miss the beauty and ever changing nature of the countryside, the pheasants pecking about in the fields and the glorious misty mornings where the fog lingers on the hillsides and the valleys for what feels like an eternity. And let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t be allowed chickens in the city, and I really want some. Possibly my favourite description from the novel centres on the countryside: ‘The sun was resting on the hill like a drop of blood on an eyelid.’ Eerie and forboding as well as beautiful imagery.

The narrative was full of many twists and turns, again something I love in a novel, and if I am honest, something I wasn’t quite expecting from The Mayor of Casterbridge for some reason. The rise and fall of Henchard always seems to be balancing precariously on a coin edge, and to a fair degree it is always his own fault and his jealousy and rage that lead to his downfalls. There are many points in the novel where I felt sympathy for Henchard and I could almost understand why it acted in a certain way, and I was delighted by his attempts to come good at the end of the novel. Hardy has created yet another doomed protaganist with a sense of the inevitable clear throughout his novel. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed The Mayor of Casterbridge and it has left me eager to reread Tess of the D’Ubervilles, the subject of my undergrad dissertation…maybe I will aim to get there sooner rather than later.