“Nothing ever had brought home to her with such force as this death how little acquirements and culture weigh beside sterling personal character.”
So thinks young Grace Melbury, as she stands by the grave of her rejected suitor, Giles Winterborne, near the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders.
Giles was an uneducated rustic, who earned his living from rustic occupations in the then remote and undeveloped New Forest: planting trees for timber, pressing apples into cider. Giles had forfeited his small inherited fortune by his unsophistication and incomprehension of the workings of the law.
Grace, the beautiful only daughter of a well-to-do timber merchant, had been educated as a lady at a boarding school in the nearby town. (Her father often marvels at the cost: including the necessary clothes, 100 pounds a year!) Although the town girls never ceased to dismiss her as rustic herself, her father has decided that she has become too fine an article for the abruptly impoverished Winterborne, and so he terminates the long-standing engagement between her and Giles and instead pushes the obedient Grace into what the elder Melbury regards as a much grander match to the local doctor, Edred Fitzpiers.
Fitzpiers is a descendent of the family that had ruled the county in the Middle Ages and the ruins of whose castle remains the most picturesque feature in the locality. University-educated, well-read and well-spoken, Fitzpiers impresses Mr. Melbury as Grace’s route to the highest levels of local society. On the eve of the wedding, Grace discovers that Fitzpiers is faithless and deceitful. Crumbling under paternal pressure and yielding to Fitzpiers easy way with women, she proceeds anyway.
Fitzpiers-Grace-Winterborne is one of many interlocking love triangles in the novel. Winterborne is the center of another, and Fitzpiers is involved in two more (!) All the triangles end in tragically unnecessary deaths: two violent, one (Winterborne’s) from easily preventable illness.
Yet nobody gains much wisdom from the tragedy. Grace ends the novel weakly succumbing once again to false promises of love. The larger social forces behind the tragedy – class prejudices, sexual double standards, the indissolubility of unhappy marriages – all remain in place despite their deadly effect.
(And despite Hardy’s relentless mockery. The Fitzpiers’ marriage is ruptured by Edred’s affair with the grandest lady in town, the young widow of the deceased owner of the great estate on which the characters all live. The deceased owner turns out to have been an out-of-town businessman who bought the estate for his retirement and immediately died. His widow is a mercenary and promiscuous former actress. Not even her hair is real: She wears a wig made out of the tresses of the daughter of one of her tenants.)
If human weakness remains fully in place at the novel’s end, the thing in the book that should be most powerful and permanent – the natural environment – is the most doomed and fragile.
The Woodlanders is set over a period of approximately two years between 1856 and 1858. (We know the date because one of the great turning points of the novel is the Melbury family’s delusive hope that the newly enacted Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 will emancipate Grace from her marriage to Edred. They cruelly discover that while a wife’s infidelity gives the husband cause for divorce, the reverse does not apply. A wife could divorce only if infidelity were joined to prolonged desertion, physical abuse, or bigamy.)
In Hardy’s telling, the woodland that gives the novel its name seems immemorial and changeless – indeed if anything the village of Little Hintock seems to be regressing toward a more primordial state of solitude and abandonment. Here is the novel’s opening scene-setting:
The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards. Here the trees, timber or fruit-bearing, as the case may be, make the way-side hedges ragged by their drip and shade, stretching over the road with easeful horizontality, as if they found the unsubstantial air an adequate support for their limbs. At one place, where a hill is crossed, the largest of the woods shows itself bisected by the high-way, as the head of thick hair is bisected by the white line of its parting. The spot is lonely.
The physiognomy of a deserted highway expresses solitude to a degree that is not reached by mere dales or downs, and bespeaks a tomb-like stillness more emphatic than that of glades and pools. The contrast of what is with what might be probably accounts for this. To step, for instance, at the place under notice, from the hedge 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.
Yet Hardy understands perfectly that appearances are deceiving, and that this forest landscape is not an unchanging one. The Melburys for example live in what was once a Georgian manor house, now sadly dilapidated. There is a suggestion that Melbury’s own ancestors may actually have built this house, but if so, it is a fact that time has effaced from Melbury’s knowledge. In the 18th century, the oaks of the New Forest provided masts to the Royal Navy. Little Hintock’s prosperity vanished so long ago that its people no longer remember their own former share in it.
Even more ironically, the pace of change will resume between the period in which the novel is set and the time of Hardy’s own writing. The Woodlanders was published in 1887. The first freight railway line through the forest was opened in 1847. A line connecting the forest to the outside world opened in 1858, the final year of the action of the novel. In 1888, the year after publication, these local lines were joined at last to the national railway grid, and a traveler from the New Forest could reach London within a day.
(No, I am not an expert on British railway history. The internet is a marvelous thing, and among its riches is this guide to the railway history of the New Forest region.)
This impending technological upheaval has to be kept in mind throughout this book’s pages. Trolling the Net for citable comments on The Woodlanders (normally a fruitless exercise with Hardy – he does not much appeal to the contemporary reader), I found this superb appreciation by an individual reader, Darragh O’Donohue, at Amazon.com:
[T]his is a novel written by a poet, and in its animation of the sexually charged woods, the lanes, glades, fields, sunsets, dawns, storms, drizzles, winds, breezes, nature is the book’s true hero, full of almost supernatural agency. Hardy’s gifts of description, his unearthing the unearthly, the uncanny, the inexplicable beneath the surface, are unsurpassed in Victorian fiction ….
All very true and well said, but it has to be remembered that Hardy knows fully as well as we, his later readers, that the ancient and uncanny is already yielding to a new world radically and even brutally reshaped by the careless hand of man.
Nature for all its grandeur is fragile and impermanent. Individual life is vulnerable to germs, guns, and trips. Only one thing endures: human folly.
Grace returns to Fitzpiers, forgetting her moment of enlightenment after Winterborne’s death. Winterborne’s grave reverts to the sole care of a woman who loved him without requital: the woman who sold the hair that adorned Fitzpiers’ former mistress, also now dead.
One more thought on that moment of enlightenment.
I suppose I was struck by Hardy’s final tribute to Winterborne, attributed to Grace, because they echo so loudly in our current political debates. The claim that education and attainments matter little beside character could almost be inscribed in the platform of the Republican party, so often do we assert it.
Unlike us, however, Hardy does not agree that the mere absence of culture in itself demonstrates superior virtue. It is possible after all to be both ignorant and unvirtuous, uncultivated and treacherous. (Indeed another of the novel’s love triangles, this involving Fitzpiers and a country girl and her future husband, depicts simple country people behaving with a sensuality, treachery, and premeditated viciousness that far exceeds the worst things done by the wealthier and better educated characters.) Giles Winterborne proves his worth by an act of unselfish gallantry so extreme that it probably killed him.
Already ill with typhoid fever, Giles is hanging onto life when Grace comes to him for refuge from her husband. Giles takes her in. But he understands, as she does not, that for the two of them to share a cottage roof even for an hour would be interpreted by their entire world as a confession of adultery. For that reason, Giles abandons his dwelling completely to her, moving himself to a woodshed. But it is autumn in England. Rain is falling unceasingly. The woodshed is not water-tight. Giles, already weak, sickens and dies. Too late, Grace realizes: “Cruel propriety is killing the dearest heart that ever woman clasped to her own.” To modern ears, Giles’ self-sacrifice seems foolish, almost absurd. But his act has saved Grace from a disgrace that for a Victorian woman might literally have been worse than death.
Giles owns only one book, a collection of psalms. His clothes and hat are flecked with the pulp of apples crushed for cider. His speech sounds strange and ignorant. He loses his patrimony because he is habit-bound to read the documents that confer his rights. And yet when it matters, he demonstrates a devotion stronger than bodily pain and the fear of death.
That is character: not a preference for pork rinds over pita chips, for cowboy boats over loafers, for snowmobiling over windsurfing, or – God help us – for ketchup over mustard.