The Woodlanders

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The Woodlanders
The Woodlanders.jpg
First edition title page
Author Thomas Hardy
Language English
Genre Pastoral, Tragedy
Publisher Macmillan and Co
Publication date
Text The Woodlanders at Wikisource

The Woodlanders is a novel by Thomas Hardy. It was serialised from May 1886 to April 1887 in Macmillan's Magazine[1] and published in three volumes in 1887.[2] It is one of his series of Wessex novels.

Plot summary[edit]

The story takes place in a small woodland village called Little Hintock, and concerns the efforts of an honest woodsman, Giles Winterborne, to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Melbury. Although they have been informally betrothed for some time, her father has made financial sacrifices to give his adored only child a superior education and no longer considers Giles good enough for her. When the new doctor – a well-born and handsome young man named Edgar Fitzpiers – takes an interest in Grace, her father does all he can to make Grace forget Giles, and to encourage what he sees as a brilliant match. Grace has more awe than love for Fitzpiers, but marries him nonetheless. After the honeymoon, the couple take up residence in an unused wing of Melbury's house. Soon, however, Fitzpiers begins an affair with a rich widow named Mrs. Charmond, takes to treating Grace coldly, and finally deserts her one night after he accidentally reveals his true character to his father-in-law.

Melbury tries to procure a divorce for his daughter so she can marry Giles after all, but in vain. When Fitzpiers quarrels with Mrs. Charmond and returns to Little Hintock to try to reconcile with his wife, she flees the house and turns to Giles for help. He is still convalescing from a dangerous illness, but nobly allows her to sleep in his hut during stormy weather, whilst he insists on sleeping outside. As a result, he dies. Grace later allows herself to be won back to the at least temporarily repentant Fitzpiers, thus sealing her fate as the wife of an unworthy man. No one is left to mourn Giles except a courageous peasant girl named Marty South, who all along has been the overlooked but perfect mate for him, and who has always loved him.

Literary analysis[edit]

The novel was later classified by Hardy for the Wessex Edition of his works into the primary group of "Novels of Character and Environment", versus the other two lesser categories of his novels. Despite its place among the higher echelons of Hardy's prose, the novel is 'something of an anomaly', given its shallow resemblance to the tragedy of both its predecessor The Mayor of Casterbridge and its successor Tess of the D'Urbervilles.[3]


The novel reflects common Hardyan themes: a rustic, evocative setting, poorly chosen marriage partners, unrequited love, social class mobility, and an unhappy ending to the plot. As with most all his other works, the reader is left feeling frustrated without a greater sense of finality to the romantic relationships, as opportunities for fulfilment and happiness are forsaken or delayed.[4] None of the characters are left fulfilled by the end of the narrative.

The return[edit]

Casagrande, in particular, highlights the return of Grace Melbury to Hintock as the central plot and theme of the novel, central because of its consistency with the main themes of Under the Greenwood Tree and The Return of the Native, between which chronologically Hardy's "woodland story" was conceived, albeit not composed.[3]

Marriage and sexuality[edit]

The Woodlanders marks the beginnings of controversy for Hardy's novels. At this point in his career he was established enough as a writer to take risks, especially in the areas of sex, sexual attraction, marriage, divorce, marital fidelity, unconventional plots and tones, and seemingly immoral conclusions.[4] Hardy's edgy portrayal of sexual morality lead to his depiction as part of the 'Anti-marriage league'.[4]

That marriage is less-than-exclusive in the novel is highlighted most clearly through the words and thoughts of Grace Melbury; as heroine and betrayed wife of an unfaithful husband, she ought to represent the moral centre, but she openly acknowledges sexual and marital infidelity. On Fitzpiers' illness, she welcomes well-wishers into him with the unsubtle, "Indeed, you have a perfect right to go into his bedroom... Wives all, let's enter together!" When abandoned by him, she calls nature "bountiful" in so soon replacing him with another of "undiluted manliness".[4]


Florence Emily Hardy, his second wife, recorded that Hardy "put aside a woodland story he has thought of (which later took shape in The Woodlanders)" in 1874, ten-year prior to the composition of the novel.[1] It was intended to be the successor to his 1874 Far from the Madding Crowd, but he laid the concept of the novel aside to try other genres and works.[4]

Hardy eventually decided to publish after the editor of Macmillan's Magazine in October 1884 for a new serial. It was eventually published as a serial in this magazine in the United Kingdom and in Harper's Bazar in 1887. It was first published in three-volume form in March the same year.[4]


The Woodlanders was widely praised. It was declared by the Saturday Review in April 1887 to be, "the best [novel] that Hardy has written", by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, "his loveliest if not his finest book", by William Lyon Phelps, "the most beautiful and most noble of Hardy's novels", and by A. Edward Newton, "one of the best novels of the last half century".[5]

The novel remained a personal favourite of Hardy's. Newman Flower recounted that Hardy named it to him as his "favourite novel", and 25 years after its publication, Hardy wrote that, "On taking up The Woodlanders and reading it after many years, I like it as a story best of all."[5]


The Woodlanders was made into a film of the same name in 1997, starring Emily Woof and Rufus Sewell. It had a budget of £4.3 million.[6] It was earlier adapted by the BBC in 1970, starring Felicity Kendal and Ralph Bates.

The Woodlanders was read on BBC Radio 7 during the Thomas Hardy classics series in 2009.

The novel was adapted as an opera by Stephen Paulus; it was premiered by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 1985.[7]


  1. ^ a b Matchett, William H. (March 1955). "The Woodlanders, or Realism in Sheep's Clothing". Nineteenth-Century Fiction 9 (4): 241–261. 
  2. ^ John Sutherland (1990) [1989]. "The Woodlanders". The Stanford Companion to Victorian Literature. p. 679. 
  3. ^ a b Casagrande, Peter J. (March 1971). "The Shifted '"Centre of Altruism" in The Woodlanders: Thomas Hardy's Third "Return of the Native"". ELH 38 (1): 104–125. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Boumelha, Penny (2005), "Introduction", in Kramer, Dale, The Woodlanders, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. xi–xxvi 
  5. ^ a b Weber, Carl J. (July 1939). "Hardy and The Woodlanders". The Review of English Studies 15 (59): 330–333. Retrieved 16 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984–2000, Orion Books, 2005 p271
  7. ^

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