As part of one of my Goodreads groups, I am doing a Hardy project this summer. The Woodlanders isn't the first Hardy I've read - in 2015, I read Far from the Madding Crowd and I read The Mayor of Casterbridge some time prior to 2011. As is my custom, I saved the scholarly introduction for my edition until after I read the book.
The Woodlanders is one of Hardy's later books, published in 1887, and is set in the woodland village of Little Hintock. It explores many of the usual Hardy themes: marriages (not good), sexuality (unrestrained), and social class (snobbery), especially class mobility (resulting in misery). It wouldn't be Hardy without a fair amount of melodrama, including several assaults, a man who dies because he is deathly afraid of a tree, and attempted maiming with something called a "man-trap," an off-screen murder, and a lingering death from typhoid. I don't think that Hardy hits the melodrama meter quite as aggressively as he did with Far from the Madding Crowd, but since that book was basically bat shit, that's damning with faint praise.
The primary plot revolves around a young woman, Grace Melbury, and her romantic travails. She is in love with a young man, Giles Winterbourne, who is a "woodlander," by which I mean that he works in the woods cutting down trees and pressing cider and the like. Grace is the only daughter of Mr. Melbury, who is a bit more affluent than most of the citizens of Little Hintock, and he has made substantial financial sacrifices to send Grace away from her home to a school. She returns after completing her education, and, as a result, is "neither fish, nor flesh, nor fine red herring," as the old expression goes.
From her father's perspective, she has been elevated above Giles, and he encourages to look a bit higher in marriage than an impoverished woodlander who doesn't even have a house. Along with Giles & Grace, we have Edred Fitzpiers, a young doctor who comes to Little Hintock to practice medicine, and Felice Charmond, the wealthy and beautiful young widow who owns a nearby estate. Notice that on the one hand, we have two very staid British names - Giles & Grace - and on the other hand, we have two poncy French names - Edred & Felice. This is not a coincidence.
Edred falls hard for the lovely Grace, who is persuaded by her father to let him pursue her. Initially, it seems that Edred has less than honorable intentions, but he ultimately marries her. It's unclear if this is because he knows that she won't engage in a dalliance with him, or if he actually falls in love with her.
Once Grace & Fitzpiers are married, the book grows much darker. Fitzpiers strikes up an affair with Felice, which Grace learns of from her father. Winterbourne mopes around like Bella after her sparkly vampire abandoned Forks, going into a decline. It's sort of fun to see the Victorian male version of a decline, since it's usually the Victorian woman who fall into a decline for no apparent reason whatsoever. It involves typhoid and a cider press because a man's got to eat, even if he is desperately unhappy over the loss of his beloved. There is weeping, gnashing of teeth, a spot of assault, and a flight to the continent. Things end badly for Felice - who is murdered by a stalker that she has bewitched with her saucy flirtations - and Giles - who expires in noble sacrifice, nursed by Grace, clearing the road for a reconciliation of the miserable couple.
The Woodlanders explores the unhappy impact of unwise marriage. Victorian society was moribund, and social mobility was out of the reach of most people. The single exception to that rule was really marriage - through marriage, partners reach one another's level. It pulls up lower classes and pulls down upper classes. We are left with the impression that it was Mr. Melbury, by educating Grace above her station, put into motion a series of events that resulted in misery pretty much across the board. As a well-educated woman from the twenty-first century, this sort of irritates me. On the other hand, I get his point.
This book has a semi-happy ending, with Edred and Grace finding some equilibrium. It was apparently one of Hardy's favorites of his own books, which makes me pity his wife. A lot of people find Hardy very difficult to read because he is so grim. I can't take him seriously, however. There is just too much drama.