After a visit to Dorchester we stayed on New Year’s Eve in a B&B high above Bradford on Avon. At midnight all the guests stood outside as fireworks blazed in distant towns and villages. The house, several centuries old, was full of books available for us to read, and one that took my eye was Thomas Hardy’s The woodlanders (1887). I’d never read it before, and within a few chapters I was deeply absorbed in the remote Wessex village of Little Hintock and the chains of unhappiness that Hardy unfolds there.
Grace Melbury, the central character, returns to her native village after a spell away gaining an education and social accomplishments at the insistence of her solicitous father George, a timber merchant. His plan is for her to marry his workmate, the kindly but unsophisticated and obtuse Giles Winterborne, but when a new doctor of cosmopolitan interests, Edred Fitzpiers, settles nearby, he changes his mind and induces Grace to marry him, though she feels more admiration and curiosity than love towards him. Fitzpiers, though, is incapable of loyalty, has an affair with a village girl and is seduced by the local landowning widow, Mrs Charmond, with whom he flees to the Continent, deserting Grace. Grace takes up with Giles, who has always adored her, living with him in the woods (chastely, hopes of a divorce having been dashed) until illness overcomes him and he dies. Fitzpiers, apparently remorseful, returns, Mrs Charmond having died violently at the hand of a previous lover. He woos Grace afresh and persuades her to accompany him to a new home far away. And there the story ends. We’re not encouraged to assume the outcome will be happy.
Of the novel’s several themes – traditional rural society on the brink of change, ‘the immortal puzzle of how to find a basis for sexual relation’ (Hardy’s preface), physical and emotional isolation – one of the most striking is social class, in particular the harm social inequality and economic powerlessness can do to human relations. The villagers, though they live a secluded and simple existence – their world is centred entirely on the woodland and the traditional economics of its wood products – are straightforward and honest people. Of their social betters, Fitzspiers, for all his apparent intellectuality – later revealed to be little more than superficial dilettantism – lacks any moral compass, and Mrs Charmond lives an empty life of alternate boredom and sensuality. Grace’s troubles stem from her position between these two groups. Though brought up in the village she returns to it with the eye and mind of one who has experienced a taste of a wider intellectual and social world.
This theme is introduced in the first two chapters through a remarkable device, the selling of body parts. We first enter the remote village of Little Hintock in the company of a barber, Mr Percombe, who has come on a strange mission, to visit the cottage of a local girl, Marty South, and buy her hair on behalf of a client. Marty is a poor labourer – her father is too ill to work and she spends day and night laboriously and painfully making spars of wood for George Melbury – but she’s blessed with the finest hair (‘a rare and beautiful approximation to chestnut’), noticed and coveted by Mrs Charmond one Sunday in church.
This is a nakedly economic contract, and an unequal one, between a wealthy and socially powerful woman and another who can command almost no resources. Percombe observes that selling her hair will earn her what it will take three weeks to accumulate through ‘that rough man’s work’: ‘it’s yours for just letting me snip off what you’ve got too much off’.
Selling hair for money was common in Victorian times, and still happens today, even in this country.
Marty is initially horrified at – and feels diminished by – the proposal: ‘You go on like the Devil to Dr Faustus in the penny book. But I don’t want your money, and won’t agree’. Percombe turns from temptation to threat (‘’Twill be bad for you if you don’t’) and is forced to name his client, Mrs Charmond, who is the owner of Marty’s cottage and, says the barber, can have her and her father turned out from it. Still Marty refuses, and as he leaves Percombe plays his final card: ‘You’ve got a lover yourself, that that’s why you won’t let it go!’
Marty’s father tells her that they cannot be ejected from their house by Mrs Charmond as long as he lives. This partially relieves her fear, but not her poverty. As she works on into the night, splintering her wood, the two sovereigns Percombe has left in the house follow her, like ‘a pair of jaundiced eyes on the watch for an opportunity’. Later that night, delivering her finished timber, she overhears George Melbury talking of his plan to marry his daughter Grace to Giles Winterborne, and realises that her own hopes to marry him – she does have a lover, though Winterborne is unaware of her love – are likely to be doomed to fail. In despair
…she got a pair of scissors, and began mercilessly cutting off the long locks of her hair, arranging and tying them with their points all one way, as the barber had directed. Upon the pale scrubbed deal of the coffin-stool table they stretched like waving and ropy weeds over the washed garvel-bed of a clear stream.
She would not turn again to the little looking-glass, out of humanity to herself, knowing what a deflowered visage would look back at her, and almost break her heart; she dreaded it as much as did her own ancestral goddess Sif the reflection in the pool after the rape of her locks by Loke the malicious. She steadily stuck to business, wrapped the hair in a parcel, and sealed it up, after which she raked out the fire and went to bed, having first set up an alarum, made of a candle and piece of thread, with a stone attached.
This remarkable passage links the grim business deal to be transacted, complete with its mechanical candle, thread and stone alarm clock, not just with the extinction of Marty’s hopes of happiness (coffin-stool, weeds, the raked-out fire) but with her symbolic rape (deflowered visage). Sif, a Norse earth goddess, according to the Edda, is forcibly deprived by the vicious Loke of her fruitfulness, her golden hair. On the face of it this is ‘self-rape’: as Marty confesses to Winterborne a little later, ‘I’ve made myself ugly – and hateful – that’s what I’ve done’.
As Elisabeth Gitter notes in her study of the power of hair in the Victorian imagination, once monetised and corrupted, Marty’s missing locks work mischief in the outside world. Mrs Charmond uses their charms in her seduction of Fitzpiers, which brings about the destruction of Grace’s marriage. He first sees her, a femme fatale seated in state like Cleopatra, at her manor house, Hintock House:
… a woman of full round figure reclining upon a couch in such a position as not to disturb a pile of magnificent hair on the crown of her head. A deep purple dressing-gown formed an admirable foil to the peculiarly rich brown of her hair plaits; her left arm, which was naked nearly up the shoulder, was thrown upward, and between the fingers of her right hand she held a cigarette, while she idly breathed from her plump lips a thin stream of smoke towards the ceiling.
Fitzspiers finds excuses to revisit her several times, walking through the woods, woods that reflect, in a way Hardy uses time and time again through the novel, the emotional and moral climate of the narrative:
He went on foot across the wilder recesses of the park, where slimy streams of green moisture, exuding from decayed holes caused by old amputations, ran down the bark of the oaks and elms, the rind below being coated with a lichenous wash as green as emerald.
It would be hard to better this sentence as nature’s equivalent of corporeal debauchery and spiritual corruption, of spilled semen and decayed morals.
Her hair makes a final appearance when Marty sends a letter to Fitzpiers, an ‘apple of discord’, telling him about the sale of hair to Mrs Charmond. He reads the letter out aloud in her company, thus ending the relationship between the two of them. It’s a Pyrrhic victory for Marty, though. She is the last person we meet in the novel, placing fresh flowers on Giles Winterborne’s grave.
Curiously, Hardy is not content with just one example of body sales. If Marty’s sale is tragic, Grammer Oliver’s is its comic counterpart. Grammer is an aged servant in George Melbury’s household. She is another worker hard pressed to make a living from one wage, and has a second job cleaning for Fitzpiers. It is she who first piques Grace’s curiosity about the young doctor on the hill, his books, his laboratory and his taste for ‘higher things’. She also tells her about his extraordinary offer – to buy her.
Not my soul—my body, when I’m dead. One day when I was there cleaning, he said, ‘Grammer, you’ve a large brain—a very large organ of brain,’ he said. ‘A woman’s is usually four ounces less than a man’s; but yours is man’s size.’ Well, then—hee, hee!—after he’d flattered me a bit like that, he said he’d give me ten pounds to have me as a natomy after my death. Well, knowing I’d no chick nor chiel left, and nobody with any interest in me, I thought, faith, if I can be of any use to my fellow-creatures after I’m gone they are welcome to my services; so I said I’d think it over, and would most likely agree and take the ten pounds. Now this is a secret, miss, between us two. The money would be very useful to me; and I see no harm in it.
At the time Grammer takes a more commercial and cynical view of her bodily transaction than the younger Marty (‘I shall keep him waiting many a year yet’), but when she falls ill she falls prey to doubts and nightmares, and asks Grace to persuade Fitzpiers to annul the bargain (she had spend part of the ten pounds). She herself has already asked him, in vain: ‘Yours is such a fine brain, Grammer, ‘er said, ‘that science couldn’t afford to lose you. Besides, you’ve taken my money’. Reluctantly Grace agrees to introduce herself to Fitzpiers and visits him at home. He immediately cancels Grammer’s contract and refuses to take his money back, but a tacit transaction does take place, as he determines to win her and call her his own. The transactional nature of the encounter is made explicit later by Grammer herself when she sees the pair together. Her butcher’s metaphor is both comic and chilling, and she unwittingly anticipates Fitzspier’s adultery:
Instead of my skellington he’ll carry home her living carcass before long. But though she’s a lady in herself, and worthy of any such as he, it do seem to me that he ought to marry somebody more of the sort of Mrs. Charmond, and that Miss Grace should make the best of Winterborn.
This was not the first time Hardy had used the motif of human sales. At the beginning of his previous novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) he has Michael Henchard, the future Mayor, sell his own wife. But in The woodlanders he could not have found a more dramatic and shocking way of dramatising the corrosive effects of commercialism on social relationships and the impotence of the dispossessed in the face of superior resources.