According to theLifeHardy had the idea for a woodland story as early as 1875. Not for another ten years, however, was this conception developed into a novel. He completedThe Woodlandersin February 1887. It was serialised in monthly instalments inMacmillans Magazine, running from May 1886 to April 1887. Macmillan published a three-volume version in March 1887.
Once again Hardy created a striking and defining context: his characters live, and in many cases work, in a remote area of woodland, centred on Little Hintock. Their lives and their various struggles are tacitly inter-connected with those of the trees in whose shadow they pass their days. InThe Return of the NativeClym Yeobright is troubled by the oppressive horizontality of the landscape. InThe Woodlandersit is as though oppressive verticality can have a comparable effect. The relationship between man and trees is a recurrent theme in Hardys work: variations on it appear in such poems as The Ivy-Wife, Logs on the Hearth and In a Wood. In his Preface, however, the author chooses to put the emphasis on matrimonial divergence, the immortal puzzle given the man and woman, how to find a basis for their sexual relation The lovers he writes of are mismatched and at cross-purposes not surprisingly, since they are an oddly mixed group. Giles Winterbourne and Marty South are the only true woodlanders, natives of the region, who actually work with trees. Grace Melbury has grown up in that environment, but has since been to private school and stayed on for a time as a governess. Felice Charmond, a cosmopolitan beauty, lives a solitary life at Hintock House, and Dr. Fitzpiers has quixotically elected to set up a practice in this remote woodland village. Their lives become as entangled and mutually destructive as those of the surrounding plant life, among which the lichen ate the vigour of the stalk, and the ivy slowly strangled to death the promising sapling.
Hardys curious title,The Woodlanders, seems to define his human characters as fellow inhabitants with the trees. The concept provides occasion for some of his most strikingly expressive episodes and vignettes, showing man and nature symbiotically linked. But there is a price paid for these intensities in terms of the degree of realism necessary to sustain his story. Little Hintock is unimaginable as a village: the reader is made aware only of people and trees. On occasion it can seem that Hardy is actually impatient with the requirements of story in the conventional sense. There are inconsistencies of time and distance and motivation. Even major characters can disappear from the narrative for long spells without explanation. In shortThe Woodlandersis a hybrid, part stylised vision, part contemporary novel. Occasional incongruities are inevitable.
The novel met with a mixed reception, but criticism tended to relate to what now seems the minor issue of the authors failure to punish vice and reward merit as contemporary convention required. Hardy himself thought well of the work: In after years he often said that in some respectsThe Woodlanderswas his best novel.
The most unlikely woodlander is undoubtedly Fitzpiers, doctor and scientist, who quotes Shelley and Spinoza, and claims to know several languages. As an intellectual he is a forerunner of Angel Clare, Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead, characters who deal explicitly in ideas, and are therefore not easily assimilated into Hardys well-practised mode of metaphorical suggestion.