To repair an old wrong, George Melbury had long determined that his daughter Grace should marry his neighbour Winterbourne’s son. To make the gift as valuable as possible he gives her the best education he can afford. He sees his error, however, when at last she returns home more fitted for life in a large town than the obscure village of Little Hintock, and is caught between his old vow and his ideas of what’s best for Grace. She is content to do whatever is wished of her, though Giles Winterbourne is as much in love with her as ever. When the disaster that has long been looming over Giles falls, Melbury sees a way out in the form of local doctor Edred Fitzpiers. The actions of various characters - Melbury, Grace, Giles, Fitzpiers, Mrs Charmond, Marty South - all intersect in such a way as to ensure that happiness seems without the reach of all.
I think I would have liked this book better if I had liked the heroine better. Caught between two classes, she could have been interesting as she tried to reconcile her own wishes with those of her father. But Grace didn’t seem to have much by way of wishes and was largely content to do whatever was thought right. And such opinions as she did have were terribly prone to vacillation and never agreed with circumstances. Finally, a few of her bad decisions stuffed the ending for me even though with Hardy disappointment for all was pretty well assured from the start.
That’s not to say I didn’t like it; I did, even if I preferred Marty South to Grace Melbury. The village of Little Hintock was surrounded and insulated by the forest, which came to life on the page, without seeming claustrophobic. Other places were mentioned, and even seen, but it was hard to imagine that they could have anything to do with Little Hintock, which seemed a cozy world unto itself. Fitzpiers was well-drawn, as befits a character originally intended to have been the title one. As it is he remains central - it is his presence and actions that precipitate the events of the book - but it is the natives of Little Hintock who form the heart of the story. As such the ending is fitting, leaving those who remain to get on with their lives after Fitzpiers’s disruption. Not a happy ending, but one that carries a sense of inevitability thanks to the intricate interweaving of people and events, cause and effect which is the best thing about the book.