Places: The Woodlanders

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: serial, 1886-1887; book, 1887

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Places DiscussedWessex

Wessex. Woodlanders, TheFictional region of England in which Thomas Hardy set most of his major novels. It is situated east of the Cornish coast, between the River Thames and the English Channel. At the time in which this story is set it is still very much a rural setting.

Little Hintock

Little Hintock. Wessex village so closely intertwined with the forest surrounding it that a traveler from a nearby town cannot locate it without the help of locals. In some spots the foliage is so dense that it obscures the road to the village, cutting it off from the outside world. The majority of Little Hintock’s residents live in harmony with their natural setting. Many cut timber in the forests owned by George Melbury or help Giles Winterbourne press cider in the apple orchards. These are trades that villagers have plied for centuries, and Hardy depicts the village as largely untouched by the present and the many changes transforming the English countryside in the nineteenth century. The townspeople still follow many of the old customs and traditions, including a primitive Midsummer’s Eve ritual, in which the unmarried village women try to use enchantments to conjure glimpses of their future husbands.

The village’s isolation contributes to its simple, tranquil character. Little Hintock is what Hardy calls a sequestered spot “outside the gates of the world” where meditation is more common than action, and listlessness more common than meditation. However, even so harmonious a setting is not without its problems. The village is a place where grand and even Sophoclean dramas unfold because of the concentrated passions and interdependence of the villagers.

Little Hintock evokes a sense of the simple, uncomplicated past, and the dramas that unfold there are consequences of collisions between things from a simple past and those from a complicated present. For example, in an effort to redress an injustice George Melbury committed while a young man, he plans to engineer a marriage between his daughter Grace and Giles Winterbourne, son of the man he wronged. At the same time, Giles’s fortunes are based precariously on an old land lease that the current landlord chooses not to renew.

Fitzpiers cottage

Fitzpiers cottage. Modest village described as “box-like and comparatively modern.” In contrast to the wildness of the countryside, the cottage and its garden are exquisitely designed and maintained. The artificiality of the grounds suits Edgar Fitzpiers’s nature as a modern, educated man, with a fondness for things from the European continent–which makes him out of step with other villagers. He considers himself superior to his rustic neighbors, and as a physician seems incapable of understanding them in any but cold, clinical terms. Shortly after moving to the village, he recommends cutting down a tree to cure a patient of his psychological fixation on it, inadvertently hastening the man’s death and demonstrating his failure to appreciate the symbiotic relationship of the townspeople to their environment.

Melbury house

Melbury house. Comfortable middle-class household that was once the manor house in Little Hintock, but has since been supplanted by the house of Mrs. Charmond, whose adjoining estate is slowly absorbing it. The faded grandeur of the Melbury house suggests that the family’s fortunes are declining, as are other aspects of the past that Melbury’s woodcutting trade represents. Indeed, Melbury has sent his daughter Grace away to school in the hope that she might rise socially above her hometown origins, setting the stage for her relationship with the newly rich Mrs. Charmond upon her return to Little Hintock.

Hintock house

Hintock house. Manorial house on the outskirts of Little Hintock that is home to Mrs. Charmond. Though it rises picturesquely from a deep glen, it is damp and overgrown with ivy and vegetation. Notable for its “unfitness for modern lives of the fragility to which these have declined,” it is one of several dwellings in town grander than the home of the average woodlander, and thus out of character for the natural setting. Similarly, its owner, a former stage actress, is out of place among the humble people of Little Hintock.

BibliographyBoumelha, Penny. Thomas Hardy and Women: Sexual Ideology and Narrative Form. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982. Comparison of contemporary notions of women with Hardy’s view. Includes a chapter on The Woodlanders, which notes elements of disparate genres and treats the novel’s self-consciousness and its echoes of pastoral elegy. Also points out the realistic treatment of sex and marriage.Brooks, Jean R. Thomas Hardy: The Poetic Structure. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. Includes a chapter on The Woodlanders, which emphasizes the organic connection between plot and place. Stresses social hierarchies in comparison with natural environment. Lucid explication of characters and themes and of the interconnections of natural, human, and cosmic themes.Kramer, Dale, and Nancy Marck, eds. Critical Essays on Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Helpful overview. Includes a chapter on The Woodlanders that synthesizes earlier criticism and analyzes divisions in characters that reflect Hardy’s conflicts. Stresses a strand of “secret humor” that keeps the novel realistic.Moore, Kevin Z. The Descent of the Imagination: Postromantic Culture in the Later Novels of Thomas Hardy. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Approaches Hardy’s relationship to and departure from Romanticism. Concludes that The Woodlanders represents William Wordsworth’s crossroads of British culture, where choices are forced between the culturally antithetical railway and the woodland.Sumner, Rosemary. Thomas Hardy: Psychological Novelist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Analyzes the character of Grace Melbury as a divided woman, an educated woman in a static village. Points out that Hardy drew Grace with clinical precision. Also treats the “modern” elements of The Woodlanders and notes that surface conflicts reflect deeper divisions.
Categories: Places