Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thomas Hardy's "The Woodlanders"

Thomas Hardy published The Woodlanders in 1887.

Penny Boumelha is Jury Professor of English Language and Literature at The University of Adelaide and a world-renowned expert on the works of Hardy.

She wrote the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Hardy's The Woodlanders, and now has applied the "Page 99 Test" to the novel reported the following:
The Woodlanders is a novel that sets its stories of love and marriage within an investigation of the social and economic relationships that shape the lives of the various lovers. Page 99 of the current Oxford World’s Classics edition illustrates characteristically this interplay of personal feeling and social circumstance. It encapsulates in a single episode the long and wavering emotional commitment that forms the centre of the novel, between the timber waggoner Giles Winterborne and Grace Melbury, once promised to him by her father but then sent away to town for an education that has changed their relationship to each other. Grace’s father is keen not to ‘waste’ the expensive education he has given her by letting her marry a man socially beneath her. At the same time, Giles’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse as he inadvertently allows the lease on his cottage to expire, and stands to lose both his home and his business. In The Woodlanders, the lives and feelings of the characters are often overshadowed by the life of the wood itself, the sounds of the trees and the birds that live in them, the light and shade of the forest. Here, Giles first thinks the ‘scraping on the wall outside his house’ that he hears is made by the boughs of a rose that grows there, ‘but as no wind was stirring he knew that it could not be the rose-tree.’ By the flickering light of a candle, he discovers instead the anonymous but pervasive human malice embodied in charcoal graffiti on his wall:
‘O Giles, you’ve lost your dwelling-place,

And therefore, Giles, you’ll lose your Grace.’
Several of Hardy’s novels contain such scenes, where characters encounter anonymous texts that seem to express a community judgement upon their own individual lives. But in this episode, it is not the last word. Set in a small woodland community in which everybody knows everybody else’s business, the novel is full of scenes of people watching one another, stumbling upon each other’s secrets or eavesdropping on their conversations. In this scene, Grace herself, out for a morning walk, sees the inscription, and, fired with a sense of injustice and a longstanding loyalty to Giles, decides to change it so that it now reads … but that‘s on page 100.
Professor Penny Boumelha's DPhil thesis at Oxford was on Thomas Hardy, and a significant proportion of her scholarship has been on the same author. Her first book, Thomas Hardy and Women (1982), was published in the UK and USA and was reprinted in 1984; sections from it have been widely reprinted in collections and anthologies. Charlotte Bronte (1990) and the edited Casebook on Jude the Obscure (2000) are two further books. Penny Boumelha has continued to publish on Hardy, on other nineteenth-century writers (including Meredith, Bronte, Eliot, and women writers of the fin-de-siecle ), on ideologies of gender and race, and on literary genres. She has provided critical introductions for new editions of three Hardy novels by Oxford University Press and Penguin, and is to provide a chapter on Hardy for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to English Novelists.

Professor Boumelha was elected a Fellow of the Academy of the Humanities in 1997. In 2003 she was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to Australian society and the humanities in English language and literature.

--Marshal Zeringue