Under the Greenwood Tree, published in 1872, is the first Thomas Hardy book I’ve read. I’ve been informed that this book is Hardy-Lite, that his later books are much more serious and well written. But I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and was pleasantly surprised by the humor and, even with plenty of dialect in the dialogue, the easy readability.
There are two stories going on in the novel. The first involves the Mellstock Quire – a group of men who have been the church musicians for ages, singing and playing (stringed instruments ONLY: Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation… clarinets was death… sinners… miserable dumbledores! Page 31) The men suddenly find themselves deposed by an organist – a beautiful young woman, Fancy Day, who steals not only their coveted musical role but also the hearts of several men in the village, among them Dick Dewey.
Which leads to the second story – the courtship between Dick and Fancy. There are the usual problems of class and gender differences, miscommunications, secrets, jealousy and lack of trust between the two lovers. And they must abide by the Victorian mores, hiding their relationship and sneaking kisses.
With much humor and irony, Hardy explores the gender disparity. My favorite scene involves Dick waiting for Fancy while she has a dress altered. It’s a rare half day off work, and he wants to go nutting with Fancy (harvesting nuts in the woods). He’s a good sport while he waits – at first - then Hardy evokes the epitome of boredom and restlessness:
Still the snipping and sewing went on. The clock struck four. Dick fidgeted about, yawned, privately, counted the knots in the table, yawned publicly, counted the flies on the ceiling, yawned horribly, went into the kitchen and scullery and so thoroughly studied the principle upon which the pump was constructed that he could have delivered a lecture on the subject…the clock struck five, and still the snipping and sewing went on.It’s a fun, sweet story, not great literature, but a pleasure to read. One complaint I have about the novel is that Hardy dropped the story about the choir almost completely after the romance began to bloom. I so enjoyed the sparring and teasing of the choir members among themselves that I wanted more. But I will forgive him this gaffe and recommend this book. (4/5)
Dick attempted to kill a fly, peeled all the rind off his walking-stick…produced hideous discords from the harmonium, and accidentally overturned a vase of flowers, the water from which ran in a rill across the table and dribbled to the floor where it formed a lake, the shape of which after the lapse of a few minutes he began to modify considerably with his foot till it was like a map of England and Wales. (page 140)