The Woodlanders is generally considered by scholarly English-teaching types to be one of Thomas Hardy's lesser novels, although the author considered it his favorite. Hardy was firmly rooted in the countryside of Wessex, and is at his most poetic and lyrical in his descriptions of the woods, copses, brambles, and thickets of southern England.
According to the author's own journals, the work of the Impressionist painters had an enormous impact in freeing him to rise to even more extravagant descriptive heights than traditionally found in Victorian literature. Hardy's prose style became more lush, more florid, more overblown, and at its apex becomes nigh unto inaccessible to the modern reader. But I dare say, that if the reader allows their sensibilities to be swept away by his dappling stream of effusive consciousness, by his sympathetic and vivid portrayal of the resplendent visualization of the characters, all aglow in the luminous countryside verdant with the foliage of the turning of the seasons, then Hardy's creation will blaze a refulgent trail across one's mental landscape.
In other words, Hardy isn't Hemingway -- he's a poet writing in novel form. It works, if you give it a try.
The novel was serialized in MacMillan's Magazine (in England) and Harper's Bazaar (in North America) between May 1886 and May 1887. As was usual, Hardy struggled with Mrs. Grundy, and had to make revisions demanded by the publisher, so as to not offend the decency and moral standards of the readers. (When the revised edition was published in 1912, Hardy restored his original text.)
For example, in one scene a bosomy unmarried woman is leaving Dr. Fitzpier's house around 5am. Hardy originally wrote that she left his house wearing "a nightdress." His editors made him bowdlerize it to "a long loose garment." An incomprehensible change to us, but the very cutting edge of community standards back then.
While it would be easy to give a detailed plot description, to do so would be to miss the point of the novel. Even more so than Thackeray or Trollope, Hardy is not writing about who did what to whom. Instead, his primary focus is on the landscape of Wessex, on how the woodland setting has affected the very character and nature of his woodlanders.
More than any other book I've read, Hardy shows how the day to day life of the woodlanders constrains their nature. Not only how the grueling physical labor conforms their higher sensibilities, but also the ways in which that existence exalts and gives real meaning to their lives.
It's a love story, as all Victorian novels were forced to be. It has the standard stock characters of the heroine torn between duty and love, the tragic earthy hero, the aristocratic cad. But they do not stay stereotypical for long.
Grace Melbury is the daughter of a prosperous wood merchant. While well to do, the family is most definitely lower class: their speech, their dress, their behavior all scream it. Grace is sent away to a finishing school to learn how to act like a lady.
There is much discussion in the novel by the characters as to whether this was a big mistake by her father. After all, she is now unfit to marry another woodlander, and given the lowliness of her birth, is unlikely to be accepted by The 10,000. Hardy does not appear to venture his own opinion in the text.
Grace returns from school. Her father had previously arranged a marriage with Giles Winterborne, an itinerant cider-press man. But now that must be called off, because everyone agrees that Grace is too good for him. Including Grace. Instead, she marries Dr. Fitzpiers.
Fitzpiers is a complex character. He is not quite a gentleman (in the aristocratic sense of the word), but he does dabble as a man of science. He is intelligent, and a good match for Grace. Except for one damning flaw -- he is a philanderer. Fitzpiers had a romantic encounter with an old flame, the local gentrywoman, Mrs. Charmond. The two of them spend three or four chapters rediscovering their love, agonizing over it, and finally fleeing to the Continent.
Grace decides that Giles is her true love, but the divorce falls through. According to English Law, Fitzpiers has not been sufficiently brutal to her. Mrs. Charmond is shot by a former lover, and Fitzpiers returns and tries to pretend nothing happened. A few more agonizing chapters ensue, as Grace realizes how impossible her position is and struggles against it within the confines of Victorian sensibilities.
The editors demanded a happy ending. Hardy revised last chapter tacks a sorta-cheerful one on, but the text feels quite rushed. His original was restored in the 1912 revision. and is much more moody, dark, and sincere in pointing out that since Fitzpiers will not change in any meaningful way, Grace will be condemned to live a lie the rest of her life.
Sounds like the author was writing what he knew; Hardy was estranged from his first wife and eventually married his secretary...
Introduction to the Penguin Edition of 1983, by James Gibson
ftp://metalab.unc.edu/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext96/woodl10.zip ( Gutenburg etext)