Hardy has an amazing knack for thoroughly placing his reader into the environment of his novel. Interesting to me too, is that each of Hardy's novels tends to focus on a different environment and ecology found within the fictional Wessex region of southwestern England. For example, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, the reader becomes fully immersed in the beauty of the vales, forests, and sea-cliffs along the Cornwall coastline; in The Return of the Native Hardy brings vividly to life the peoples and environment of the Egdon Heath; and in Far From the Madding Crowd we are treated to the rolling hills and pastoral landscape of small rural English farms and pastures used by the sheep herders and their flocks; and, finally, The Mayor of Casterbridge largely takes place in the urban environment of his fictional town, Casterbridge.
In The Woodlanders the reader is introduced to the shaded and leafy world of the forest of Blackmoor Vale and the hamlet of Little Hintock. The novel's characters live in the midst of this forested world and make a living with and among the trees. They are involved in lumbering, forestry, and management of orchards. It is a beautiful environment, and lovingly described and re-described by Hardy as the course of the novel moves through the seasons of the year.
I love how Hardy integrates the 'mood' of his environment into the plot of the novel. The sounds, sights, and smells of the forest and bridle paths are as much a part of The Woodlanders as are the dialog, thoughts and actions of the characters themselves. In fact, I have come to realize that Hardy intentionally develops the environment in each of his novels to become a fully empowered character in the same sense as his human players. Also, this novel seems to have been one of Hardy's favorites as it was based upon the area where his mother had grown up, a location that he was apparently quite fond of.
The novel revolves around Grace Melbury, a young woman who returns to her father's and stepmother's home in Little Hintock, after some years away becoming educated and more socially refined. Unlike Clym Yeobright, in The Return of the Native, Grace is not quite sure that she really wants to remain in the forest of Little Hintock surrounded by the peasant class of her childhood. Her father sent her off to school and has always encouraged her to aspire to a 'grander' lifestyle. She returns to find the young man that still loves her, Giles Winterborne, is still there, and working for her father's timber business, and operating a traveling apple cider press during the harvest season. At first blush it would seem that all looks well for the future of Grace and Giles.
As is typical in a Hardy novel, Fate and Irony have a curious way of inserting themselves, generally quite tragically, into the lives of the plot's characters. Quickly the reader is also introduced to the novel's other players: the steadfast and loyal young peasant woman, Marty South; the newly arrived gentlemanly young doctor, Edred Fitzpiers; and the local landowner, the widowed Mrs. Felice Charmond. While Giles and Marty are relatively contented and happy folk of the forest, Dr. Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond are clearly out of their element in the Blackmoor Vale, and Grace Melbury is betwixt and between as she endeavors to determine the course of her future.
I really do not want to give anything of the plot away at all, but suffice it to say that the novel is quite seductive in that while the reader becomes completely enthralled with the pastoral scenes and life in the forest around Little Hintock, there is at the same time an incredibly epic and pathos-driven tragic drama that is unfolding and spiraling out of control that is of almost Shakespearean proportions. It really is vintage Hardy! I honestly couldn't put the book down for several days.
I loved the characters of Giles Winterborne and Marty South. These are two people who are completely in touch with the natural world around them in Blackmoor Vale. Hardy describes a scene deep in the forest with Marty helping Giles plant new seedling trees to replace those harvested by the foresters,
"Winterborne's fingers were endowed with a gentle conjurer's touch in spreading the roots of each little tree, resulting in a sort of caress under which the delicate fibres all laid themselves out in in their proper directions for growth. He put most of these roots towards the south-west; for, he said, in forty years' time, when some great gale is blowing from that quarter, the trees will require the strongest holdfast on that side to stand against it and not fall.
'How they sigh directly when we put 'em upright, though while they are lying down they don't sigh at all,' said Marty.
'Do they?' said Giles. 'I've never noticed it.'
She erected one of the young pines into its hole, and held up her finger; the soft musical breathing instantly set in which was not to cease night or day till the grown tree should be felled--probably long after the two planters had been felled themselves.Now that's just some great prose! I found myself, time and again, reading a section like this, and then re-reading it and just reveling in the lilting lyricism of Hardy's sentences and paragraphs.
A couple of final thoughts--
As you read the novel, periodically refer to the single stanza of poetry, written by Hardy, that serves as the novel's epigraph, and give it some thought,
"Not boskiest bow'r,Secondly, the reader will encounter the term "man-trap" periodically. These were large, metal traps that game-keepers and land-managers used to try and prevent poaching and other illegal activities on the gentry's lands and estates. Hardy's use of allusion and metaphor is wonderful.
When hearts are ill affin'd,
Hath tree of pow'r
To shelter from the wind!"
This was a beautiful novel to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! I highly recommend The Woodlanders. It is Thomas Hardy at his best. Five out of Five Stars, and a Personal Favorite for me!
[The black and white photograph that I have included within this review was one that I took in June 2008 deep in the forest at the "Bartholomew's Cobble Preserve" along the banks of the Housatonic River in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Somehow, this photograph evokes, for me, the image of the forest of Blackmoor Vale described by Hardy in The Woodlanders. For a larger view of the photograph, 'click' on the image.]