The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy.
The Woodlanders is, I believe, Thomas Hardy's eleventh novel, serialised between 1886 - 1887, and published in novel form in 1887. It is classified as one of his 'Wessex Novels' and one of his 'Novels of Character and Environment' (others including Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge). It is very typically Hardy - the Wessex countryside setting, a bad marriage, and a fairly miserable tone throughout (with a few breathtakingly bleak similes peppered here and there, most notably "There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child."). I have a difficult relationship with Hardy - some of his novels, such as Jude, Tess, Under the Greenwood Tree, and Two on a Tower, I adore: some of these are in fact masterpieces. Some others, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far From the Madding Crowd at best bore me. Though I think The Woodlanders is a fine novel, I think it may fall into my latter camp.
In the preface, Hardy writes,
In the present novel, as in one or two others of this series which involve the question of matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle - given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation - is left where it stood; and it is tacitly assumed for the purpose of the story that no doubt of the depravity of the erratic heart who feels some second person to be better suited to his or her tasts than the one with whom he has been contracted to live, enters the head of reader and writer for a moment. From the point of view of marriage as a distinct covenant or undertaking, decided on by two people fully cognizant of all its possible issues, and competent to carry them through, this assumption is, of course, logical. Yet no thinking person supposes that, on the broader ground of how to afford the greatest happiness to the unites of human society during their brief transit through this sorry world, there is no more to be said on this covenant; and it is certainly not supposed by the writer of these pages. But, as Gibbon blandly remarks on the evidence for and against Christian miracles, 'the duty of an historian does not call upon him to interpose his private judgement in this nice and important controversy.The novel begins,
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 wayside 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.He goes on to tell the story of Grace Melbury, Giles Winterbourne, and Edred Fitzpiers: Grace was betrothed to Giles, a woodsman, however her father sent her away to be educated and when she returns, more fashionable and refined, it is decided she is more suited to the village doctor - Edred. This is of course a disaster, and I say of course because this is Hardy. Edred cheats on her repeatedly, first with Suke Damson then with Mrs. Charmond, the lady of the manor. Impossible to divorce, Grace is trapped in the marriage and wishes she had married Giles. Giles still loves her, and then there is Marty South, a peasant girl, who loves Giles. It's a very complicated affair all round. Giles is an earthy man, a good man, and Hardy describes him in Keatsian prose:
He looked and smelt like Autumn's very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-color, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his boots and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him that atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards. Her heart rose from its late sadness like a released spring; her senses revelled in the sudden lapse back to nature unadorned. The consciousness of having to be genteel because of her husband's profession, the veneer of artificiality which she had acquired at the fashionable schools, were thrown off, and she became the crude, country girl of her latent, earliest instincts.The other descriptions, those of the woodland, are beautiful, and I did love Giles and Marty, in fact all the characters are well-drawn and the unfolding drama makes for an interesting read. But, as sometimes happens to me with Hardy novels, I just couldn't engage with it. I wanted to love it mainly because I loved the setting, the forest surrounding Little Hintock in Dorset, north of Dorchester, and the premise - the drama within the tiny, sedate village. But it was not to be, I couldn't get into it at all whilst knowing that it was a good novel, it is not perhaps his finest. Nevertheless, because of my sometimes love for him, I still look forward to A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), which I think will be my next Hardy novel.