Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Three kinds of novel, Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’

The difficulty in reading The Woodlanders is in knowing what kind of novel it is. Sometimes it reads like a psychological case study, sometimes like a fable or even a parable, at others, in its determination to inflict on its characters every possible kind of suffering, like an instrument of torture.

The narrative concerns the inhabitants of the woodland hamlet of Little Hintock, all but two of whom are the woodlanders of the title. The outsiders are Mrs Charmond, a beautiful young widow, and Fitzpiers, a handsome young doctor.

In the first kind of novel, Hardy’s omniscient narrator does not merely describe his characters, he explains them. Telling us everything about them, their actions and reactions, their motivations, their state of mind and emotion, he holds back only what is necessary to make the reader keep turning the page.

He explains, for example, that the equanimity of Giles Winterborne, a woodlander who is central to the plot, is often mistaken for indifference. He is pictured early in the novel, on his way to meet the woman he has loved since they were children, by a narrator who understands him better than he understands himself.

Winterborne sped on his way to Sherton Abbas without elation and without discomposure. Had he regarded his inner self spectacularly, as lovers are now daily more wont to do, he might have felt pride in the discernment of a somewhat rare power in him — that of keeping not only judgment but emotion suspended in difficult cases. But he noted it not. 

Towards the end of the novel, Hardy notes something else known only to him in the character of the woman Winterborne went to meet at Sherton Abbas. By then she is married to Fitzpiers, who is having an affair with Mrs Charmond and has not been seen for some time. When word comes that he has been seen riding back to Little Hintock, Grace’s father insists that she should wait up for him. At first she refuses, but then gives in and does as he wishes.

In the darkness of the apartment to which she flew nothing could have been seen during the next half hour; but from a corner a quick breathing was audible from this impressible creature, who combined modern nerves with primitive emotions, and was doomed by such co-existence to be numbered among the distressed, and to take her scourgings to their exquisite extremity.

Not only her psychological state but her ultimate fate are known to the author — he is after all responsible for them both and could change them if he wished — and if not exactly revealed, then more than hinted at, to the reader.

When a new divorce law gives hope that Winterborne and Grace might be married after all, the author offers another insight into the woodlander’s psychology and another hint at the novel’s foregone conclusion.

He was one of those silent, unobtrusive beings who want little from others in the way of favour or condescension, and perhaps on that very account scrutinise those others’ behaviour too closely. He was not versatile, but one in whom a hope or belief which had once had its rise, meridian, and decline, seldom again recurred, as in the breasts of more sanguine mortals.

In the second kind of novel, it is the woodland itself that drives the story. The trees, as in old tales, are animate beings. Their branches tap on windows and knock on doors, their roots trip people up. The author writes as warmly about the trees as about his human characters. He begins by imagining what a rambler would see on a walk ‘from Bristol to the south shore of England’.

Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing as the case may be, make the wayside hedges ragged by their drip and shade, their lower limbs stretching in level repose over the road, as though reclining on the insubstantial air.

In the next paragraph he looks forward to the story’s end.

To step … from the edge of the plantation into the adjoining pale thoroughfare, and pause amid its emptiness for a moment, was to exchange by the act of a single stride the simple absence of human companionship for an incubus of the forlorn.

Winterborne has a way with trees that has more sympathy in it than his way with people, which is often brusque and thoughtless.

He had a marvellous power of making trees grow. Although he would seem to shovel in the earth quite carelessly there was a sort of sympathy between himself and the fir, oak, or beech that he was operating on; so that the roots took hold of the soil in a few days.

As the story moves towards its conclusion and Grace is alone in Winterborne’s woodman’s hut, hidden away from the returned Fitzpiers, the trees are an almost human presence.

From the other window all she could see were more trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss. At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots, and tall fungi with more stem than stool. Next were more trees close together, wrestling for existence, their branches disfigured with wounds resulting from their mutual rubbings and blows.

When some of the woodland girls revive an old superstition, going into the woods late at night to have the names of their lovers and future husbands revealed to them, Fitzpiers and Grace have their first accidental — or fated — meeting. As the excited girls run down the hillside, Fitzpiers is waiting.

Stretching out his arms as the white figure burst upon him, he captured her in a moment as if she had been a bird.

“Oh!” cried Grace in her fright.

“You are in my arms, dearest,” said Fitzpiers; “and I am going to claim you, and keep you there all our two lives!”

She rested on him like one utterly mastered…

He lets her go, but not before the author has taken the opportunity to let his readers anticipate the unwinding of fate — or chance.

She waited another few moments, then quietly and firmly pushed him aside and glided on her path, the moon whitening her hot blush away. But it had been enough; new relations between them had begun.

In the third kind of novel, the fiction is meant to embody a poetic truth. The made-up story and its invented characters are like the drawings that traumatised children repeat endlessly as a way of coming to terms with memories that are too hard to bear. Class divisions, the humiliation felt by an intelligent but uneducated man in the presence of educated but unintelligent men, the differences that divide men from women, women’s faithlessness, the inevitability of failure, the reward owed to goodness that is never paid, are recurring themes of Hardly’s novels. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.

If Heaven would only give her strength, but Heaven never did!

Mrs Charmond is quickly disposed of and nobody sheds any tears. When a jealous woodlander decides to take his revenge on Fitzpiers by setting a man-trap for him, fate steps in to make sure that the intended victim escapes and the vicious instrument does no more damage than to tear off a piece of Grace’s dress.

But of course it is not fate that steps in, but Thomas Hardy, omniscient narrator, able to manipulate his narrative in order to paint God or chance or fate in the worst possible light. In this kind of novel, a writer, like a traumatised child, can play God.

Jude the Obscure, finally, was that kind of novel and no other. It is The Woodlanders in winter, just bare branches, unsoftened by leaves, which is why many people find it hard to read. The reaction it provoked was what made Hardy stop writing novels and go back to writing poetry. It is one of literature’s ‘little ironies’ that fiction should be made a vehicle for truth. Going back to poetry let Hardy write the truth plain and simple, instead of turning it into a made-up story, the same story endlessly repeated, the same drawings of a trauma that kept returning, until he stopped drawing.

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This entry was posted on August 15, 2020 by in Fiction and tagged , .
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