Author: Thomas Hardy
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.
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.