The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Women, know your place…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

George Melbury has been blessed with only one child, his daughter Grace, so he decides to spend his hard-earned money on educating her. A happy child, growing up among the woods that surround the tiny hamlet of Little Hintock and provide the people there with their living, Grace forms an early attachment to her childhood friend, Giles Winterborne, and it’s her father’s wish that she will one day marry him. But when Grace returns to Little Hintock after years spent at boarding school, she has become such a cultured lady that Mr Melbury no longer thinks Giles is good enough for her, and Grace tends to agree so doesn’t put up much of a fight. Instead, she is wooed and won by the new local doctor, impoverished scion of a once wealthy local family. Happy ending? Good grief, no! This is Hardy, so poor Grace’s troubles are just beginning…

First off, let me start by saying I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Hardy writes like a dream, and the woodland setting gives him the opportunity for some wonderful descriptive prose. Over the course of the book, the reader gets a clear picture of the society of the woodlanders, the trades they follow and how they make their living, their limited but enjoyed social life, the gradations of class even within the working population, the gender roles – a Hardy speciality – and the social and cultural gulf between the working people and the gentry.

But, Mr Hardy, what is the message of the book? We know you’re a feminist, and that’s as clear here as it is in Tess. So why do I come away from this one feeling you are issuing a warning to fathers not to educate their daughters above their station? Why does it seem as if you are saying that true goodness is the preserve of the poor and humble – that education corrupts? Why does Grace’s education change her from a loving child into a cold-hearted little snob? Why does she change from being a hearty, healthy daughter of the woods into a delicate little flower, who sews not and neither does she spin for fear of spoiling her pretty little hands? Even with the one rich character, whom I was willing to boo as being a parasite on society, what do we learn but that she too is a woman on the make, educated and married above her station? You as good as state that Grace would have been a happier, better woman if she’d never been taught to think and had married within the sphere to which she was born. This hardly reads like a paean to social mobility, especially not for daughters!

Book 12 of 20

I actually thought this might have been an early one, from before Hardy fully developed his feminism but it isn’t. It falls between The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I felt were clearer on Hardy’s views on the status of women. It’s not that he doesn’t sympathise with Grace’s position as a women educated out of her class, nor even that I feel the portrayal is inaccurate for the time. It’s simply that, whether he intended it or not, the underlying message seems to be, not that society should get a grip and accept that women should have the right to both an education and a happy life, but that it would probably be better for the poor little dears to stew in ignorance so they will make a happy child-bearer and home-cleaner for a worthy working man. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but even the ending left me wondering if he was really suggesting that men should be allowed to behave badly, but that women should find it in their sweet, feminine little hearts to forgive? Pah, I tell you, and forsooth!!

Thomas Hardy

Maybe I expect too much from him – he is undoubtedly far advanced in his portrayal of women in comparison to many of his contemporary male writers, especially in his recognition of women as sexual and, in Grace’s case, intellectual beings. But perhaps Grace isn’t quite tragic enough, or perhaps I missed out on nuance because I was listening rather than reading – a skill I don’t think I’ve yet fully mastered. Or perhaps it’s simply that I never grew fond of little Miss Snooty-and-Delicate who can’t order a meal for herself in a pub despite/because of her education, while I loved her rival in love, Marty, Miss Ignorant-but-Self-Sufficient, whose attitude to life is give me the tools and the opportunity and I can make a living for myself as well as any man. Why do the men all prefer Grace? Do men really want wives who need to be pampered and petted rather than ones who will share their burdens as equals? Pah!

Anyway, as I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this one – nothing I like better than having a one-sided argument with a great author who can’t answer back… 😉

I listened to the narration by Samuel West – again excellent. West father and son seem to be becoming my go-to narrators for a lot of the great English classics.

Audible UK Link

30 thoughts on “The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

  1. What? Are you suggesting that women should have aspirations? That they should insist on being treated well, and resent it when they’re not? That they should have ambitions? Perish the thought! 😉 Seriously, though, FictionFan, I do wonder if you put your finger on it with your comment that Hardy was of a certain era. It’s very hard – some would say impossible – to avoid being impacted by the views of one’s time. That said, though, Hardy does indeed write well. And it’s interesting to see his view of life in a given place at a given time.

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    • Haha, I know! Of course the only things we should be educated in are cooking and cleaning! We’d be much happier that way! Yes, I think Hardy’s reputation as a feminist made me judge him more than I would other writers of that time. Let’s face it – Dickens’ women aren’t exactly feminist icons, are they? 😉 But Hardy is always excellent on these rural settings, so I forgive him!

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  2. A thought-provoking book. As I read your review, I couldn’t help thinking of Sabrina, which starred Audrew Hepburn, who played a chaffeur’s daughter. After her education, she came back a cultured lady who catches the attention of the rich boss’s son. I’m sure you’ve seen that. Anyway, I see your point about being a product of the times.

    I read THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE back in college and thought it very good, though I wasn’t much into Thomas Hardy’s books. I preferred my classes on Dickens’s books.

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    • I haven’t seen Sabrina, but I do think it’s always been a difficult thing for someone to be educated out of their own class, until recently. I’d like to think that that’s one thing we’re more open about now – giving people a chance for social mobility. Sometimes, anyway!
      I prefer Dickens too and have read surprisingly little Hardy but I’ve been enjoying filling in some of the blanks over the last couple of years.

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  3. I haven’t read this one so I can’t comment specifically but it does sound as if he’s following the fashion for spiritually good and hard working country folk v morally suspect and devious urbanites, somehow we expect him not to fall in with such tropes though don’t we, even if he is of that time?!

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    • Yes, if it had been anyone other than Hardy I’d probably have been praising him for recognising that a female had the intellect to be educated, but somehow I do expect more of him, and this seemed very mixed in its messaging!

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    • Haha, I found myself wanting to give Hardy a severe talking-to about the message he was sending, so I just had to get it off my chest! But he’s still miles more feminist than most of his male contemporaries… 😀

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  4. Pah, indeed! I haven’t read this one and I’m not entirely sure I will. I’d probably get so frustrated with Miss Snooty–and-Delicate that I’d end up tossing it against a wall! Glad you found something enjoyable with it though.

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    • Haha, Miss Snooty did annoy me! I couldn’t understand why everyone treated her like a delicate flower – I’d have told her to get out and start working in the woods along with everyone else! But he really is a great writer and it’s only because I expect him to be fairer to his women than other writers of his generation that I felt he needed a telling-off for this one… 😉

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  5. I’ve never read any Hardy, though I have Far From the Madding Crowd on my CC list. I didn’t realize he had a reputation as a feminist!

    You’re doing well on the challenge…. and there’s still enough summer left to complete it! (unless it doesn’t follow my definition of summer, which ends with the equinox)

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    • Ooh, Far From the Madding Crowd is in my CC list too! Yes, well, an early feminist so don’t expect too much! But he does usually point out the unfair division of power and how women’s lives are determined by their fathers, brothers, husbands, etc.
      The challenge ends on 31st August so time is tight but I might actually make it! I’m listening to Book 17 now, and the last three are all deliberately quite short. But I’m supposed to review them all by 31st Aug, too… hmm!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love your analysis and response. This doesn’t sound like one of his I’d like to read. I recall starting Tess many years ago, but can’t recall if I ever finished it! Oh, what a feeble mind I have. Perhaps it’s time to put it back on the list. I know it’s lurking on my shelves.

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    • Haha, don’t be put off by my grumpiness! I did enjoy this one, despite feeling his message was a bit mixed. 😉 I’ve still not read much of him, but so far Tess stands out as his clear masterpiece – it’s one I’ve re-read often over the years. Well worth searching the shelves for!

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  7. Hardy has done well to make you love a book where you have such strong objections to how he has portrayed the main female character. And even though you didn’t like her (or who she became) Grace sounds believable. I wonder if the story would have worked better if Grace had been male?

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    • Yes, he writes so well about rural life and I did find Grace believable even though she irritated me! But they all irritated me for treating her like a delicate plant! I’d have made her get out into the woods and do some work along with everyone else! Hmm, interesting – I don’t suppose a man would have been able to marry above his class like she did, but on the other hand an educated man might have been able to set up his own business and raise himself up that way…

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    • Ha, I think it was largely because poor race annoyed me so much that I got caught up in the “message” – usually I’m much fonder of Hardy’s women! You’re right about the father, though – that really was a masterful piece of characterisation, and he was the true tragic hero, I think.

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    • Ha, don’t be put off by my argument with Hardy – I enjoyed it thoroughly regardless! But I do think both Tess and The Mayor of Casterbridge are probably “better” than this, and I also enjoyed The Return of the Native. Still lots I’ve never read though!

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    • Thank you! Ha, one of the side-effects of these rushed challenges is rushed reviews! I seem to be doing stream of consciousness at the moment and arguing with the authors rather than writing well-planned reviews – it’s quite fun! 😉

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  8. Hm, that is surprising that the book sways that way considering his earlier views from other books. If only we knew what they were thinking, and what people were saying about these books when they came out as contemporary novels! A juicy book club read that will get people stirred up? Who knows!

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    • Yes, it surprised me – I’d have expected him to be more pro-women’s education. I think he probably was, but his story kinda sent a confused message. It would be quite fun to read book reviews from the time, wouldn’t it? I wonder if any of them have been put online… hmm, I can see I’m now going to waste another few hours searching the internet… 😉

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