Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just Finished: The Woodlanders

What a perfect name for a book. What a perfect book to read in October. And oh how nice to get back to some classic literature--there's something so much more grounded about it. Perhaps its the 100 years or so years it's had to be mulled over.  I am so bad at writing book reviews...anyway.

The Woodlanders is my second Thomas Hardy book and while not as heart rending as Jude the Obscure it is does have plenty of weight. Much like Jude the Obscure focuses primarily on Jude, The Woodlanders is a novel about a group of people who inhabit a small wooded area called Little Hintock. The whole novel is covered in leaves as Hardy describes this hub in the woods where nature and the seasons are almost a character unto themselves.

There is no one main character in the novel, but several major players and they are connected by the themes of love, desire, and loyalty.

First there is Grace. Her father, a timber merchant, vowed that his daughter would have the best education and so sends her to a finishing school. When she returns, she is a educated, poised, and somewhat at odds with her rural upbringing. This is problematic for the timber merchant because he has sort of promised her to Giles Winterbourne in an effort to make up for a wrong he did to Giles' father in the past.

Giles Winterbourne is a hardworking, honest character who is close to the land. He plants trees that grow better than anyone else and travels around the countryside making cider in the autumn. Yet, when he meets Grace again, who is he hopelessly in love with, he too sees there could be problems with her accepting someone so rough and uncultured as himself. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Grace and her father walk past Giles while he is in the woods, but because he is so focused on watching the trees, he doesn't notice them. Usually he is all too eager to please and frequently blunders in his efforts to impress Grace.

Grace's Father is rather simple and takes everything at face value. Seeing that Grace is so far above all the people of Little Hintock, he tries to dissuade her from marrying  Giles, but then must contend with his own conscience.

Dr. Fitzpiers is new to Little Hintock. By virtue of his education and his family background, he is held up as someone of a higher class. But we learn that he is impulsive and given to following his desires without much thought for consequence. His presence captures Grace's attention and threatens any future she might have with Giles.

Felice Charmond, a wealthy widow who owns a lot of property in Little Hintock, also enters the scene. Moody, impulsive, and selfish, she becomes tied to a number of the characters through her own uncontrollable desires. Ultimately Felice becomes part of a love quadrangle that threatens to disentangle everyone involved.

Hardy clearly has much to say on marriage, society, choice, and freedom through this novel. There are no wholly moral characters. Almost everyone shows their faults very clearly, which makes them very human, as they struggle between their natural desires, truth, and responsibility--all of which blur together.

I found it a very compelling read and the more I read the more I was anxious to find out if and how everything would be sorted out. I was struck by the fact that the book is called The Woodlanders yet it feels like a village of individuals where everyone is made to fend for himself rather than a community. Also, the idea of choices and being swayed by superficiality that could lead to irrevocable harm was something to think about--even in our society today where things are (legally speaking) so much easier to undo.

Ok I don't think I've given anything away...

Next up: The Unlikely Disciple

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