Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

My intention over the last few months has been to read tons of contemporary fiction and literary non-fiction before starting my classics project in January.  During this period, I especially enjoyed A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book.  And I am especially looking forward to holiday reads of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Edward Jones's The Known World.

I also found myself reading classic literature from the 19th century--knowing that it might be a while before I can get back to books from that era once I start my project.  The Classics Circuit inspired me to read Trollope (as you saw last week), and Christopher at the blog ProSe inspired me to read Thomas Hardy.  Although I planned to start with Far from the Madding Crowd at his recommendation, circumstances (which I will talk about next time) encouraged me to read his lesser known novel Under the Greenwood Tree.  Be sure to check out Chris's review of this novel.

*   *   *


Under the Greenwood Tree (Penguin Classics)The novel establishes the the setting of many of Hardy's later novels: Wessex, his representation of rural southern England.  Under the Greenwood Tree tells the story of the social life of Mellstock, a small town in Wessex, though the lens of the community's musicians.  Joining the community as the story starts is Fancy Day, the attractive--and ambitious--new school mistress.   Although the Mellstock musicians have served as the parish choir (or "quire") for many years, the community's vicar decides to replace their traditional music with a harmonium played by Fancy.  Like Trollope's Rachel Ray (discussed last week), Under the Greenwood Tree--written less than ten years after Trollope's novel--gently explores the issues that arise as an isolated rural community goes through great social changes as it enters a more cosmopolitan world.

The novel begins with fiddlers and singers caroling throughout the village on Christmas Eve. When the musicians come to the schoolhouse, Dick sees Fancy for the first time and is entranced. But others in the town are charmed by the schoolmistress as well: a wealthy farmer as well as the parish vicar.  Eventually Fancy faces a choice: marriage to the man she loves of whom her father disapproves, marriage to someone who can give her status and luxuries, or marriage to a man who shares her modern worldview.

I loved the pastoral imagery of the novel as well the gentle loving portrayal of the wide variety of "rustic" characters.  When I was reading a bit of the novel aloud to my eleven year old son, he pointed out that as I was breaking into my native dialect and making them all sound like they were raised in the US South.

This is a charming novel, although I gather that it is quite different from Hardy's later (darker) style.  Although the novel is a very happy one in general, there is a small complication at the end to keep you thinking.  Hardy is also known for his insight into character--something not especially well developed in Under the Greenwood Tree.  If you know those limitations going in, you'll find this a perfect holiday read.

*  *  *

Similar to what Trollope does in Rachel Ray, Hardy uses characters' names to reflect their personality.  Miss Fancy Day does, in fact, try to usher in new days of  what she sees as lavish and modern elegance.  As Tony points out, she is flighty and subject to the whims of fancy.  And Dick Dewy has the naive dewiness of first love.

*  *  *

The title of Hardy's novel is taken from Shakespeare.  In the play As You Like It, characters gather in the forest of Arden--a place removed from the troubles of the rest of the world--to celebrate the possibilities of love.  The only troubles possible, says the song, are "winter and rough weather."  I wrote about the  fluidity of gender roles and sexuality in the forest of Arden in a post called "TransShakespeare" on my old blog--but Hardy really doesn't play with that kind of idea in Under the Greenwood Tree.  He does echo Shakespeare's idea that society removed from urban concern and rooted (so to speak) in the natural world of the seasons is the place for love to grow--and a place that is seemingly changeless and at the same time a place of profound change.

Shakespeare's work is also echoed in the similarity between the Mellstock Choir and the Rude Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Like Shakespeare, Hardy draws his characters with a loving and gentle humor.  Sometimes the Bard is a bit broader, but both authors encourage us to think of their characters as deeply rooted in the land, full of both wisdom and naivete, and connected to each other in ways the modern world does not always allow.

23 comments:

  1. are you planning on signing up for the Classics Circuit ancient Greek event-I hope to read The Bacchae by Euripides-can be read online at dailylit.com (in older translation)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mel: Yes indeed! What perfect timing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I nearly picked up this book at Half Price Books yesterday...

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is a lovely holiday read, begininning as it does with a Christmas scene. I enjoyed it very much--but keep in mind that it is pretty different from a lot of Hardy novels.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I enjoyed the BBC adaptation of this one, although now I'm wishing I'd waited so I could read the book first. I read Tess when I was 12, and I didn't get along with it at all, so I've kind of written Hardy off since then. I want to give him another go next year, but I'd like something a bit cheerier!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I've always shied away from Hardy for wholly irrational reasons but may try one now.

    I hope you enjoy Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It's a few years since I read it but I did enjoy it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hardy is such a deep and complex writer that the tragedy doesn't put me off. I also love his portrayal of pastoral and rustic life. I haven't read this one yet, but it's on my list. When I initially made my Hardy reading list, I left off some of his lesser known works then later decided that I'd go back and read them after I finished the others.
    I wasn't aware of the Shakespeare connection in the title but incidentally I was planning on reading As You Like It next year as I will be seeing a live production of it in February.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Eva: The adaptation (which I'm planning to talk about on Friday) is in some ways quite different from the book. I have not yet read Tess, but my partner David has almost scared me off!

    Falaise: I'm really looking forward to Strange and Norrell. My family is going on a long drive and are thinking about listening to it on audio.

    Everybook: Now that is the kind of comment that is reassuring since deep tragedy is right up my alley. The Shakespeare is deep comedy, on the other hand. My 11yo played Jacques--the grumpy one--in a local homeschooler production a few years ago and fell in love with the play. Hope you do, too.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love Hardy, although I haven't read this one. I think the rootedness you mention is very much key to my enjoyment - whether I'm reading one of his hard-core tragedies or one of his few happier books, it's the landscape and the rural dialogue that really strike me. They have an almost tactile quality that's endlessly appealing (to me).

    ReplyDelete
  10. Emily: I was just talking to my father the other day about this book and its emphasis on the natural, and he told me he that when he was in grad school in folklore, his class studied the links between Hardy and the folklore of his community. I guess in a sense, nature and culture are opposed--but Hardy shows the flip interpretation so beautifully, of a culture deeply connected to the natural world in a way that is hard to imagine now.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I read this at the start of the year (possibly), and it's a lovely, light introduction to Hardy. Now, Tess..

    ReplyDelete
  12. Tony: I'd love it if you'd link to your review. And Tess is definitely on my tbr list, despite my partner's shivers every time he hears the name Tess.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Tess and Jude the Obscure are some of the books I've read that have really stuck with me. I enjoy the tragic side of Hardy because he does tragedy so well, but I'd like to try this lighter novel.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Anbolyn: Greenwood Tree is not necessarily a book that will change your life, but it is a lovely holiday read. Definitely recommended.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have had Norell and Strange sitting on my shelves for ages. So many, many good books waiting to be read. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    ReplyDelete
  16. http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com/2009/08/56-under-greenwood-tree-by-thomas-hardy.html

    Here's my review :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderDecember 16, 2010

    While Hardy clearly was linking to Shakespeare with Greenwood Tree, I wonder if he also was thinking about the Greek myth of Paris and the golden apple. Fancy is faced with the choice of youth and beauty (Dewey/the gift of Aphroditite), power (Mr. Shiner/Hera), or culture and learning (the Parson/Athena). While not a perfect mirror, I heard an echo. Fortunately while both Paris and Fancy chose the gift of Aphrodititie, Hardy does not suggest that Fancy's choice leads to a war.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Trisha: I've heard such great things about Norell and Strange. Should be fun!

    Tony: Thanks!

    Slow: Very cool observation--but I'm not sure the parallel is quite so neat. Dewy is appealing to Fancy mostly because he loves her, not because he is beautiful, for example. It is fascinating how much at least Western culture thinks in threes, is it not? And Hardy even uses the trope of one person choosing between three lovers again in a later novel.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I really enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - although the first 200 pages are very slow the novel really does come together as a whole.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks, Karie. It is always helpful to know. I know I've loved a couple of long books that started off slowly.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I just saw you're thinking about doing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on audio. I'm a HUGE fan of audiobooks, but in this case the print edition has a ton of footnotes. So I'm not sure how the narrator would handle that...just something to think about. ;) (I loved JS & Mr. N and am going to reread it next year.)

    ReplyDelete
  22. Eva--Thanks for the heads up. Will keep that in mind.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think the suggestion of a relationship between the ancient Greek classicists and Hardy's fiction is an astute one. Many of Hardy's novels seem to be organizational structured like a tragedy, and his use of the choric interludes with his country rustics seems pretty obvious. I recall from my reading of Millgate and Tomalin's biographies that Hardy was pretty well taken with Aeskylus and Sophokles. Given my love of the ancient Greeks and Hardy, it is a topic I should explore more fully and blog about. I'm glad that you enjoyed Under the Green wood Tree, it is always one that I come back to--like an old friend. Cheers! Chris

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...