Sunday, 2 August 2009

56 - 'Under the Greenwood Tree' by Thomas Hardy

'Under the Greenwood Tree', one of Hardy's earliest (and shortest) novels, takes place against the usual backdrop of the imaginary county of Wessex early in the nineteenth century and is structured around two main plot strands: Dick Dewy's pursuit of the beautiful new schoolteacher, Fancy Day, and the last days of Mellstock's traditional church choir, replaced by the new trend of organ music. Both stories help the writer to discuss what was to become one of his central themes, namely the rapid disappearance of country life and traditions in the face of progress exported from the big cities to the English countryside, an alteration that Hardy believed was not always for the best.

One of the reasons for the change in lifestyle was the arrival of newcomers in what had been relatively stable communities. Fancy, flighty by name and nature, comes to Mellstock to work as a schoolteacher, and immediately causes several hearts to flutter. As well as the good-hearted tranter's son, Dick Dewy (what do you think I am Wikipedia? Look it up yourself...), both Farmer Shiner and Reverend Maybold, the newly arrived vicar of Mellstock, fall under Fancy's spell. Over the course of a year (the book's four main sections are named after the seasons), we see the progress of Dick's pursuit of the beautiful outsider, which is eventually crowned with success - but not without a few hurdles on the way, at least one of which comes as a bit of a bombshell...

As interesting and well written as the lovers' tale is though, Hardy himself was more interested in the accompanying story regarding the choir (or quire!). The story begins on Christmas Eve as the choir prepares to make its traditional rounds of the outlying houses, men carrying string instruments and their own voices, highly critical of the trend toward organ music replacing the traditional church choirs. Little do they know that there is soon to be an end to their right to play the hymns in church as two of the contestants for Fancy's hand in marriage discover her ability to play the church organ and decide to use this skill in Sunday services (ironically, the third suitor, Dick, is part of the choir...). While disappointed, the choir take the decision on the chin and, rather than causing trouble, agree a timetable for change with the vicar, allowing the proud old men an opportunity to retire on a high.

Hardy actually wanted to call this book 'The Mellstock Quire' (and chose the actual title on his publisher's advice as books with titles from songs sold better - plus ca change...), and the story of the choir has its roots in actual events from the author's life. While the introduction of organ music was seen by some as an imrovement to church services, Hardy argued that the downgrading of the role of the parishioners in the service had the effect of distancing them from the church. Whereas before a group of local men, young and old, were motivated to appear each Sunday and use their leisure time to practice together, the new regime had the result of creating an 'us and them' mentality which loosened the bond the villagers had with their religion,a bond which had just as much to do with community as communion.

In this book, despite the problems noted above, things turn out for the best. The novel ends with the expected wedding festivities under the Greenwood tree, and the villagers dance and feast as they have done for generations. However, by the time of the publication of this book, the customs described were, for the most part, long gone, leaving a bitter-sweet taste of nostalgia on the lips of the original audience (let alone on those of the 21st-century reader!). This book, short and sweet as it is, does end happily, but Hardy was to develop these ideas in his later works; as anyone who has read 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' or 'Jude the Obscure' knows, his later novels were a little more scathing in their criticism of modern life.