48 pages 1 hour read

Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1887

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Summary and Study Guide


The Woodlanders is an 1887 novel by British author Thomas Hardy. In it, Grace Melbury, daughter of timber merchant George, returns to her local village of Little Hintock after time away at boarding school. Mr. Melbury had initially promised his neighbor, and Grace’s childhood sweetheart, Giles, that he could marry Grace. However, following a series of social faux pas, and after Giles loses his house, Mr. Melbury makes it clear that apple farmer Giles is no longer a suitable match for his daughter. Subsequently, Grace and Giles encounter a series of events that test their love and resolve. The novel addresses such critical themes as the myth of the pastoral, property versus propriety, and the destructive nature of rigid social status and social mores.

This guide uses the 1996 Wordsworth Classics edition of The Woodlanders.

Plot Summary

Twenty-year-old Grace Melbury returns from boarding school to her father’s home in Little Hintock. Grace’s father, George, has promised Grace to local farmer Giles and encourages him to pursue Grace. Giles begins his courtship by picking Grace up from a nearby town. Showing up earlier than expected, the well-dressed Grace is embarrassed by having to greet Giles while he is still working. To win Grace’s love by making a better impression, Giles next decides to throw a Christmas party. The Melburys arrive early though, while Giles is still preparing food, and they overhear crude singing by other guests. Following this, Mr. Melbury makes Grace promise not to see Giles again.

When a local man dies, Giles loses his home because the house, which was on a “life lease” with the man, returns to the wealthy Mrs. Charmond’s control. The man’s daughter, Marty (who is in love with Giles), writes on Giles’s wall that having lost his home, “he will lose his Grace” (91). Grace, seeing these words, and imagining that Giles is watching her, changes “lose” to “keep.” However, Giles does not see her do this, and Grace abandons interest in Giles when he does not respond.

When Grace’s servant falls ill, Grace visits the new doctor, Dr. Fitzpiers. Later, while watching the process of “barking” in the woods, Dr. Fitzpiers sees Grace again and helps her from her carriage. At a midsummer ritual designed to determine future partners by running down a ridge where men are waiting, Dr. Fitzpiers jumps in front of Giles to catch Grace. Finally, when Mr. Melbury goes to Dr. Fitzpiers for advice about a cough, Dr. Fitzpiers asks his permission to court Grace and Mr. Melbury agrees. Dr. Fitzpiers sees Grace numerous times over the summer, and Grace eventually agrees to marry him.

When the couple returns from their honeymoon, Dr. Fitzpiers hears that local aristocrat, Mrs Charmond, has been involved in an accident. He goes to visit Mrs. Charmond, who reveals that she had recently seen him in a hotel and recognized him as her partner in an adolescent romance. They then rekindle their old romance. When Mrs. Charmond goes away to the town of Middleton, some miles away, Dr. Fitzpiers rides to visit her there, telling Grace that he is seeing a patient. Grace discovers that this is a lie when she finds a ticket for a toll gate from Middleton in his jacket. Mr. Melbury also discovers the affair when Dr. Fitzpiers accidentally whispers Mrs. Charmond’s name—Felice—in front of Mr. Melbury when half sleep.

Weeks later, Dr. Fitzpiers returns from work and, seeing Grace gone, rides to Mrs. Charmond, who is now back in Hintock. Mr. Melbury follows him and, on the way back, finds a delirious Dr. Fitzpiers on the ground, unsaddled by his ride. Unaware of who is helping him, Dr. Fitzpiers says that he would be free if Grace were dead. Mr. Melbury throws him onto the road, and Dr. Fitzpiers crawls back to Mrs. Charmond’s house, where he writes Grace a letter saying that he will not see her again. Both Dr. Fitzpiers and Mrs. Charmond eventually leave for France. Several months later, however, Dr. Fitzpiers returns to Little Hintock, prompting Grace to run away to Giles’s cottage in the woods.

Grace had wanted Giles to help her escape to a nearby town, but she accepts Giles’s offer of shelter in his cottage for the night while he sleeps in a hut nearby. Giles soon becomes severely ill, and Grace, after caring for the sick Giles, goes to Dr. Fitzpiers for help. Dr. Fitzpiers observes that Giles is dying of typhoid, and Giles in fact passes away shortly after. Dr. Fitzpiers also reveals that Mrs. Charmond has died at the hands of an ex-lover. Months later, Dr. Fitzpiers arranges another meeting with Grace and a connection is re-established between the couple. This comes to a head when Grace nearly steps in a trap set for Dr. Fitzpiers by the jealous husband of local woman, Suke Damson. Dr. Fitzpiers thinks Grace is dead when he sees a scrap of her dress in the trap. However, it was only her dress that was caught. On hearing how upset Dr. Fitzpiers is at her “death,” she decides to begin a romantic relationship with him again.