Book review, Literary criticism

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy pic

English writer Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)

There once was a time when romance meant novels about gallant itinerant horsemen, stressed long-haired girls, castles in need of a paint-job, and sour land-owners who really only needed a bit of understanding; think, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Ivanhoe (1820), and Lorna Doone, – “Sit doon Lorna, sit doon!” (1869). Today a romance means boy meets girl – boy looses girl (through a silly misunderstanding) – boy gets girl; think almost anything. However there also was a time when the old story of romance was transplanted to the lower, sometimes the very low, echelons of society, which over the eons has transmogrified into modern stories where teenage dreams, parental misunderstandings and happy endings revolve around tainted gossip, what a pretty girl – usually called Kimberley or Kylie – said or didn’t do, and a brave stance taken by a handsome boy – usually called Steve, Lance, or Duke; but it’s in that transference of action to the working class, and lower, that our modern romance stories find their roots. Works like Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and The Woodlanders.

The Woodlanders (1886) has all the trappings of a modern day soap opera. I know that term has a sour taste but the mechanics of the action are the same mechanics that make up the plots of tales in modern day prisons, hospitals, schools, country towns, white houses, and space.
There is a poor girl, Marty South whose long beautiful hair is craved by the gloomy rich lady, Mrs. Charmond, of the gloomy big manor, Hintock House, and the poor girl succumbs to selling it once she learns that the man she loves, Giles, loves another; a mysterious, but handsome, doctor, Mr. Fitzpiers, takes up residence in the house on the hill; a local – but well educated beauty, Grace, – feels obliged by family promises to marry beneath her; and a young but honest youth finds the choice of a wife far more difficult than scratching a living from a village, Little Hintock, in a dent in the woods. The names alone go far in setting the tone, time, and place.

 

It seems that, ironically given the title, what joins these human stories of a low society, and the actions they choose, revolve around the mortal threat, ownership, and spirit of one particular tree; but the forced fate of which has the opposite effect of that intended. As indeed do other actions of other characters: how soap-opera-ish is the denial of something which causes the want of it? This story set on a beach could be an episode of Home and Away if it were not for the language. Here is Hardy’s description of Mr Fitzpiers, the doctor who “descended, as from the clouds, upon Little Hintock”:

“His face was rather soft than stern, charming than grand, pale than flushed; his nose — if a sketch of his features be de rigueur for a person of his pretensions — was artistically beautiful enough to have been worth doing in marble by any sculptor not over-busy, and was hence devoid of those knotty irregularities which often mean power; while the double-cyma or classical curve of his mouth was not without a looseness in its close. Nevertheless, either from his readily appreciative mien, or his reflective manner, or the instinct towards profound things which was said to possess him, his presence bespoke the philosopher rather than the dandy or macaroni — an effect which was helped by the absence of trinkets or other trivialities from his attire, though this was more finished and up to date than is usually the case among rural practitioners.”

A modern novelist might translate this classic – as modern playwrights feel obliged to do to theirs- like this;

His face was soft, charming and pale; with a nose that a local sculptor, with time on his hands, might feel inspired to chisel, more elegant than powerful; and a mouth that was full and kissable. In short he looked more like a raconteur than a spiv, a look that was helped by him wearing clothes with no decoration which in this town labeled him a medical outsider.

But what an immense amount of pleasure would be lost. Go on! Give it a go! Read Hardy’s version out loud even if it takes two or three goes to get the unfamiliar intonation and punctuation right to reflect the meanings he intended.

Actually if you are a modern novelist of the Colm Tóibín kind you wouldn’t, or rarely, describe people, or places, at all. In Tóibín’s latest novel Nora Webster (2014) the only description of a person occurs on page 2: “May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat…” which is hardly a description, more the flavour of the woman. Such novelists leave the detailed descriptive work up to the readers’ experience which has its compelling justifications; but there is also something to be said for stretching your literary experience, reminding ourselves how the language was – and can be – used, and relishing the way little dark marks on a pale background can paint pictures in your head.

Of course the stories of these people in the woods end as you would expect or as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism deliciously say in The Importance of Being Ernest, “The Good end(ed) happily, and  the Bad unhappily. That’s what fiction means.” However Hardy wasn’t a popular and lauded novelist in his day for sticking rigidly to the form; he adds a few very intriguing surprises and “OMG” moments that would do very nicely today just before an ad-break.

Hardy is at his most entertaining, and prickly at times, when two people are caught in a room and what they want to say is stymied by custom, clothing, religion, morality, and social class; so what they actually say is layered and fraught with all kinds of meanings. Modern writers can learn a lot from Hardy’s use of dialogue: it propels the action, paints character, exposes hypocrisy, uncovers hidden motives, makes you laugh, and sometimes makes you weep.

A go at the classics now and again sharpens our literary minds to tackle and appreciate more clearly the literature that’s written and read now; it brings depth and experience to what we need when we read a modern novel.

It doesn’t have to be Hardy; it can be Dickens, Franklin, Collins, Hemingway or Twain, Stevenson or Woolf, Richardson or White. You won’t regret it, I promise.

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