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.
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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.
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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.
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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.