Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy
Romcoms get a bad press. They’re often seen as nothing but megaplex filler, Saturday night entertainments for the undemanding. Mostly of course that’s true.
As with anything though there are exceptions. Steve Martin’s LA Story is for me a thoroughly likeable film that’s easily borne several viewings, even though I hate every English character in it (including the female romantic lead). It’s a romcom, but it’s a good romcom. They do exist.
Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t of course a romcom (it predates cinema for one thing). Except, well, it sort of is. Boy meets girl. The path of true love proves bumpy. Will the boy and girl end up together in the final reel/chapter? All this against a backdrop of the impact of social change in mid-19th Century Britain as seen through the declining fortunes of a traditional church choir, facing replacement by new technology in the form of the church organ.
Hardy is a writer with a formidable reputation, perhaps for many readers too formidable as his classic status can be offputting. Some years ago my wife persuaded me to read The Mayor of Casterbridge which she was convinced I would love, and as so often she was right. The Mayor of Casterbridge is, quite simply, brilliant and utterly deserving of the word classic (and, as is true of so many classics, it’s actually not a difficult book to read at all).
More recently Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations have both been singing Hardy’s praises, and their reviews made me want to give him another try. Where better than at the beginning, with Under the Greenwood Tree, his first Wessex novel?
And, even though I didn’t read this edition but because it’s the best cover for it I’ve seen, here’s how the Oxford World Classics version looks:
The clue to Under the Greenwood Tree lies in its subtitle, “A Rural Painting of the Dutch School”. To draw analogies from another media again this is a pastoral, a romanticised and somewhat nostalgic depiction of an imagined country life.
It’s easy when reading a nineteenth century novel today to think of it as being contemporary fiction of its time, but Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t. It was written in 1872, but is set in (as best I can tell) the 1840s and it deals with the passing of country traditions that at the time of writing must already have been lost for a generation. It’s not therefore, strictly speaking, a realist novel. What it is though is a delight.
The village of Mellstock, in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex, has a new vicar and that means change. The old vicar, much loved by all, was a respectful man who didn’t bother you if you didn’t attend church and who would never have dreamt of visiting his parishioners as they went about their business. He kept to himself, and kept church for Sundays.
The new fellow, by contrast, is always calling on people to see how they are and making an effort to get to know his flock. That’s strange enough, but much worse is that he plans to abolish the ancient Mellstock Quire (choir) – a collection of locals who sit in the upper gallery in church and play music for the congregation, as well as going round at Christmas time to everyone’s homes and playing carols whether those inside want to hear them or not.
The quire by the way play string instruments, as god surely intended:
“I can well bring back to my mind,” said Mr. Penny, “what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church for two-and- forty year) when they thought of having clar’nets there. ‘Joseph,’ I said, says I, ‘depend upon’t, if so be you have them tooting clar’nets you’ll spoil the whole set-out. Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ‘em,’ I said. And what came o’t? Why, souls, the parson set up a barrel-organ on his own account within two years o’ the time I spoke, and the old quire went to nothing.” “As far as look is concerned,” said the tranter, “I don’t for my part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar’net. ‘Tis further off. There’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o’en; while angels be supposed to play clar’nets in heaven, or som’at like ‘em, if ye may believe picters.” “Robert Penny, you was in the right,” broke in the eldest Dewy. “They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog–well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye–well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker–good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings!” “Strings for ever!” said little Jimmy. “Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation.” (“True, true!” said Bowman.) “But clarinets was death.” (“Death they was!” said Mr. Penny.) “And harmonions,” William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, “harmonions and barrel-organs” (“Ah!” and groans from Spinks) “be miserable–what shall I call ‘em?–miserable–” “Sinners,” suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys. “Miserable dumbledores!” “Right, William, and so they be–miserable dumbledores!” said the choir with unanimity.
At the same time, the village has a new schoolmistress, Miss Fancy Day, daughter to a wealthy local farmer. As the quire perform their annual Christmas carrolling one of its youngest members, Dick Dewy, sees her and falls immediately in love. She’s pretty, spirited, has some measure of refinement and is every inch the desirable catch. So desirable in fact that Dick isn’t the only one with an eye on her. There’s another farmer who has considerably more money and position than Dick, and who is therefore a better match, and that new vicar is in need of a wife too. Can Dick win Miss Day’s heart, and if so can he keep it? It doesn’t help that Miss Day turns out to be something of a flirt…
The romance is at the forefront of the novel, but the looming obsolescence of the choir is never far away either. Miss Day you see will be the new organist. The vicar and Miss Day are modern, forward looking, bringing new ideas and new fashions (some shocking – a hat in church!) to Mellstock. Against that what chance have a group of old men with their fading traditions and battered instruments?
Looking at what I’ve written what strikes me is how dark this novel could have been. It isn’t at all. The quire make their case for survival, but they understand that times change and they’re not resentful men. Dick has rivals better placed than him to win Miss Day, but he’s a sound lad and not daunted. Miss Day hasn’t perhaps the most constant of hearts, and is perhaps overprone to vanity, but there’s no real harm in her. This is an extraordinarily affectionate work in which there is drama, yes, but a very gentle drama. Things may change, are changing, but Mellstock will remain.
Part of what makes Under the Greenwood Tree such a joy is Hardy’s slyly humorous prose. Dick is a young man “consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.” After he falls in love with Miss Day:
It followed that, as the spring advanced, Dick walked abroad much more frequently than had hitherto been usual with him, and was continually finding that his nearest way to or from home lay by the road which skirted the garden of the school.
There’s some lovely character humour within the quire, as well as comic interplay between wives and husbands. I loved too a throwaway line when a man is late for his wedding due to some honey bees suddenly swarming – “Marrying a woman is a thing you can do at any moment; but a swarm o’ bees won’t come for the asking.” Everything is a chance for comedy, from the quire’s debate with the vicar as they argue for more time to a country dance where Dick desperately tries to get as many dances with Fancy as propriety permits (and certainly more than his main rival).
Finally, it almost goes without saying that Hardy is a master at portraying nature itself. The novel follows the seasons, from Winter through to Winter and on to Spring again (and if you’re reading this because you’ve been set this book at school and found this blog looking for something to crib off, do look at how Hardy uses seasonal and weather imagery to underline the progress of the plot and character emotions, easy marks). Here’s one final quote:
The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears embarrassed with the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves;
Isn’t that lovely? The whole book’s lovely, though with sufficient notes of melancholic ambiguity to prevent it becoming oversweet. If you find yourself, as I did when I picked this up, in need of a book that’s well written but in which nothing bad can truly happen (and however robust we may be, we all at times need a little escape) this couldn’t be a better choice. My wife (naturally), Emma, and Guy were all right. Hardy deserves reading.
Update: Emma of bookaroundthecorner posted a review of this the same day I did (unfortunately I accidentally deleted her pingback). Her review is, as ever, excellent and well worth reading - particularly for how it brings out the novel’s musical themes. Emma’s review is here.