Volunteers’ Week: Read of the Week: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

This week’s Read comes recommended by Charlotte, Training and Support Lead for our Shared Reading North West Volunteers. She’s chosen Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.

“She had looked in her heart, and found that her early interest in Giles had become revitalised into growth by her widening perceptions of what was great and little in life …Having discovered by marriage how much that was humanly not great could co-exist with attainments or an exceptional order, there was a revulsion in her sentiments from all that had formerly clung to in this kind.

Honesty, goodness, manliness, tenderness, devotion, for her only existed in their purity now in the breasts of unvarnished men; and here was one who had manifested such towards her from his youth up.

Thomas Hardy said of his third novel, “I think I like it as a story, the best of all,” and there is something satisfyingly whole about the drama which unfolds in The Woodlanders which makes it one of my favourite novels of all time.

Perhaps it’s Hardy’s skilled movements from little to large, intimate to all-encompassing, between the interior and exterior of the village of Little Hintock.

Characters like Giles Winterborne, Marty and the Melbury’s live-out the ways of a traditional, stable, rural life: they give shape and spirit to the community whilst weaving their work, lives, loves and deaths closely with the surrounding woodlands. But the return of Melbury’s daughter, Grace, from Europe and the arrival of the progressive Doctor Fitzpiers, Hardy shows the transformations happening in a world beyond Little Hintock’s borders, which will inevitably press upon the old ideas and ways of life.

Running across this background of old v new is the tangled love story involving the mysterious Mrs Charmond, Dr Fitzpiers, Grace, Winterborne and Marty. It is one of the most beautiful and sad that I have ever read.

Through their partial and differing levels of connection both with the natural world around them and people they share the space with, Hardy reveals the wonderful contradictions of the human heart – resulting in comedy, tragedy and – sometimes – reconciliation.

As always, Hardy’s descriptions of the natural world are stunning: subtle yet darkly powerful. But in this novel more than in any of his others Hardy’s compassion for his characters and their hopelessly human understanding, makes for a story which both delights and breaks the heart.

“The casual glimpses which the ordinary population bestowed upon that wondrous world of sap and leaves called the Hintock woods had been with these two, Giles and Marty, a clear gaze.

They had been possessed of it’s finer mysteries as of commonplace knowledge; had been able to read its hieroglyphs as ordinary writing; to them the sights and sounds of night, winter, wind, storm, amid those dense boughs, which had to Grace a touch of the uncanny, and even the supernatural, were simple occurrences whose origin, continuance, and laws they foreknew… The artifices of the seasons were seen by them for the conjurer’s own point of view, and not from the of the spectator’s.

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