Under the Greenwood Tree, set in the small village of Mellstock in Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex, is both a love story and a nostalgic study into the disappearance of old traditions and a move towards a more modern way of life. The book is divided into five sections, one for each of the four seasons of the year plus a final concluding section. The story begins in the winter, when we meet a group of villagers who play stringed instruments in the church choir. There’s a new vicar in Mellstock, the Reverend Maybold, and he has plans to replace the traditional choir with a new mechanical church organ. The organ will be played by another newcomer to the village, a pretty young schoolteacher whose name is Fancy Day.
The musicians are upset when they learn that they are going to be replaced, but one of them, Dick Dewy, finds himself falling in love with Fancy Day. However, unknown to Dick he has several rivals for Fancy’s love, including a rich local farmer and even the Reverend Maybold himself. The story of Dick and Fancy’s romance is played out over the course of a year, against a backdrop of the changing seasons and the changing landscape of Mellstock.
Hardy’s novels have a reputation for being bleak and depressing, but I can promise you that this one is neither. It’s actually quite an uplifting, optimistic story with an (almost) happy ending – very different from the other three Hardy books I’ve read (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and A Pair of Blue Eyes). It doesn’t have the depth and complexity of Tess or Jude and to be honest, I do personally prefer Hardy’s tragedies, but I enjoyed this one too and it did make a nice change from the darker books I’ve been reading recently. The strengths of Under the Greenwood Tree are its gentle humour and its portrayal of life in 19th century rural England. As usual with Hardy, his pastoral descriptions are beautifully written and I love the way he paints four different portraits of country life appropriate to each season of the year, from singing carols and making cider in the winter to gathering nuts and collecting honey from beehives in the autumn.
Where the book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the characters of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, because they just weren’t strong enough or interesting enough for me to really care about their romance. Fancy was actually quite an advanced and ‘modern’ character for the time and place, being well-educated and independent. However, she’s depicted here as being very silly and shallow and I felt that we never got to understand her properly. Dick was easier to like but his character wasn’t given a lot of depth either. I do think Hardy captured the naiveté of their relationship perfectly, but I would have preferred to have read more about the rest of the village community, with the love story pushed further into the background. Apparently Hardy had originally wanted to call the book “The Mellstock Quire” and it did seem to me that he was maybe more comfortable with that aspect of the book.
Although I’ve only read a few of Thomas Hardy’s novels he’s quickly becoming one of my favourite Victorian authors. I hope to read all of his books eventually, but I wish I’d left Under the Greenwood Tree until later as it’s turned out to be the first one I haven’t loved. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but it didn’t have the same emotional impact on me that the others had and it’s not a book I would want to read again and again.