Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

cover illustration by J.H.Boddington from “Rustic Civility”

Delightful!  Charming!  Humorous! Clever!

Can you believe that I’m talking about a book by Thomas Hardy?  It’s true, I am.
Under the Greenwood Tree is a lovely read, a lovely read– about a small village in Victorian England.

Someone once said that there are only two plots in literature: somebody takes a trip, or a stranger comes to town.

Well, in Under the Greenwood Tree a stranger—the new vicar!–comes to town.  And if you’ve read any British literature at all, you know that a new vicar is big news.  As if that wasn’t enough of a stir, the long-established male choir is in danger of being replaced.  This group of stalwart country souls doesn’t take this development lying down and there is much meeting and fussing and to-doing about keeping the choir—or “quire”–intact and singing each Sunday.

Need more?  OK, there is another newcomer (!), Fancy Day, who will be the new schoolmistress.    Do you think she  might be pretty, have long curls, a precious cuteness about her person?  Do you think there will be a love interest developing somewhere in this little village?  And what will the old married wives think?  And what will their husbands think?  Might there be gossip while Fancy makes her way towards “catching” a husband?

One of my favorite parts, near the beginning, which hooked me in, was a description of the music books that the quire members kept.  They had very little printed music, so they had to make do with copying  hymns into their own notebooks.  And because they were clever men who loved singing and music, they often wrote their own songs.  These they would write in the back of their notebooks—-and once in a while the “real” hymns in the front and the “made-up” songs in the back, would meet in the middle of their notebooks.  I can picture it–cute.

Hardy’s description of Fancy Day conveys the mood which he creates in his writing: (slow down here . . .)  “Her dark eyes–arched by brows of so keen, slender, and soft a curve that they resembled nothing so much as two slurs in music–“.   Two slurs in music!  Who would think of it?  I love it!  Gentle, darling.   And,  ” . . .her nose was well shaped–which is saying a great deal when it is remembered that there are a hundred pretty mouths and eyes for one pretty nose.”  !!  So true!

And I love the part where the country folks are comparing the “old” vicar with the “new” one.  Why, you hardly saw the old one outside of a Sunday.  “Why, he never troubled us with a visit from year’s end to year’s end.  You might go anywhere: do anything: you’d be sure never to see him.”   But this new one . . . dropping in when least expected, etc.

In an earlier post, I gave the first line and made a disparaging remark about it.  I’m sorry now.  “To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.”  It’s true that different trees can make different sounds.  Hardy knew this and I know it, too.  For there is no way I’ll ever forget the sound of wind in the pines when I was growing up.  And sometimes now I’ll hear wind in the trees on a beautiful day and think to myself: this is what I want to remember going to sleep tonight.  It’s good to think about these kinds of things, and Hardy helps us remember to think about them.

The book is divided into friendly length chapters, and only 198 pages in mine.  My copy was an Oxford World’s Classics publication from 1999.  I know I said a while ago that I would read my older copy, but the Oxford has great endnotes, so that’s the one I read.

This book goes right along–and has a few surprises along the way, too.  It’s a good read.   Early Thomas Hardy.

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2 Responses to Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

  1. booksilver says:

    This is one of my favorite Hardy novels, too. He divided his fiction into three categories, “novels of character and environment,” “romances and fantasies,” and “novels of ingenuity.” This falls under the first category (which also includes most of his more dour plots), but I’ve always thought it belongs just as much with the novels in the second category, which are lighter in tone.

  2. I’ve read “Tess”, “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Return of the Native”. None of those seemed as jolly as Under the Greenwood Tree. I’m tempted to try another to see if I can find some of this quiet humor again. Thanks a lot for your information and comment.

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