Monday, November 21, 2016

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble” - Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders

Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders (1887), is the book I recently read; my sixth Hardy novel, it means I have moved to the second tier of fame if not quality.  I thought it as good as the more famous Wessex novels that preceded it, like The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886).  What it does not have, perhaps, is a character as gigantic and alive as The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye or Casterbridge’s Henchard or Tess.  Maybe a bigger Hardy fan than I am has insight into this mystery.  I enjoyed The Woodlanders as much as any of the others, but enjoyment only goes so far.

The forest setting of The Woodlanders is as exciting and metaphorically rich as is at this point typical in Hardy.  It is not as ceaselessly strange as Egdon Heath in Native, but is otherwise as interesting.  It is pretty strange:

They went noiselessly over mats of starry moss, rustled through interspersed tracts of leaves, skirted trunks with spreading roots, whose mossed rinds made them like hands wearing green gloves; elbowed old elms and ashes with great forks, in which stood pools of water that overflowed on rainy days, and ran down their stems in green cascades.  On older trees still than these, huge lobes of fungi grew like lungs.  Here, as everywhere, the Unfulfilled Intention, which makes life what it is, was as obvious as it could be among the depraved crowds of a city slum.  (Ch. 7)

The moss, fungi, slugs – lotta slugs in this novel – and the strange sounds of the trees add weirdness to many of the best descriptive passages in the book.  I’ll do another post on the scenery, as good as any Hardy writing I remember.

Now that I have read six Hardy novels I finally see how he repeats himself, rearranging character and story elements in new combinations.  A forester, Giles Winterborne, takes on a Tess-like role, his luck constantly bad, fate always working against him, but merely fate, not Fate.  His bad luck is less cosmically meaningful than Tess’s.  Grace Melbury is like Native’s Eustacia Vye, educated out of her place in the landscape, educated away from Giles –

He rose upon her memory as the fruit-god and the wood-god in alternation; sometimes leafy, and smeared with green lichen, as she had seen him amongst the sappy boughs of the plantations; sometimes cider-stained and starred with apple-pips…  (Ch. 38)

– and towards something less leafy, specifically a demonic doctor.  They “meet cute” over an old lady’s severed head, which is pretty odd.  Much of the story of the novel is built out of the pull on Grace between the wood-god and the doctor.  As Grace’s parents say:

“Fancy her white hands getting redder every day, and her tongue losing its pretty up-country curl in talking, and her bounding walk becoming the regular Hintock shail and wamble!”

“She may shail, but she'll never wamble,” replied his wife, decisively.  (Ch. 11)

Exactly!  Much of the rest of the story comes from the doctor being a total hound dog, a story as old as any fruit-god.


  1. I thought I would be able to finish re-reading The Woodlanders before you started writing about it, but I'm a few days behind you.

    I was sure that you would quote from the opening paragraph of Part One, Chapter Four: "There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child." Somewhat more bleak than F. Scott Fitzgerald's sunset as a bruise in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz."

    I shall continue reading as you report out; perhaps I'll be done by the time you are and can comment on why I think this may be Hardy's greatest legacy to the novel, as it made Lady Chatterley's Lover a possibility in the 20th century.

    Hardy's tried and true formula of the "geometry" of relationships (as a character calls it in "The Phantom of Thomas Hardy" by Floyd Skloot) is repeated frequently in his novels (three women, one man--Far From the Madding Crowd, e.g.); here it is more of a quadrangle--two women, two men, with an extra female member of the gentry thrown in for good measure). This novel's fascination with fire, light and shadow, and fairy-tale like characters (particularly in the opening pages) is most closely connected to Return of the Native. Other parallels and similarities abound; part of Hardy's genius is that the parameters of his fiction and poetry were always small, but deepened by frequent turns toward different facets of his beloved Wessex.

    I hope you'll comment on fairy tale motifs, and I look forward to your deconstruction of the setting. Also consider looking at the beautifully wrought novel, "Winter," by Christopher Nicholson, where the writer gives voice to Hardy's belief that trees are living creatures (which might explain the fungal lungs).

  2. Ha ha ha - you are so right! See the next post, which I was writing as you wrote this comment. Wonderful.

    Or I am so predictable that I should rethink the whole blog.

    I am eager to hear more about the path to Lawrence. I do not know Lawrence's work well enough to comment myself.

    I am afraid it really did take me this long - six novels - to see the geometry you describe so well.

    What a valuable comment - thanks - for the recommendation, too, of a novel I had not heard of.