According to the Life Hardy 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 completed The Woodlanders in February 1887. It was serialised in monthly instalments in Macmillan’s 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. In The Return of the Native Clym Yeobright is troubled by the ‘oppressive horizontality’ of the landscape. In The Woodlanders it is as though ‘oppressive verticality’ can have a comparable effect. The relationship between man and trees is a recurrent theme in Hardy’s 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’.
Hardy’s 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 short The Woodlanders is 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 author’s 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 respects The Woodlanders was 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 Hardy’s well-practised mode of metaphorical suggestion.