Sometimes it’s nice to go back to an author where you know exactly what you’re going to get. As I make my way through Hardy’s rural back catalogue, I am conscious of the fact that I am knowingly avoiding the most depressing and shocking of his titles, Jude the Obscure. And, of course, it’s often hard to ignore that he wasn’t a very nice person, especially after having visited his former homes in Dorset and read all about just how quickly he moved on from his wife Emma when she died in 1912… but anyway, I digress.
The arrival of two newcomers in the quiet village of Mellstock arouses a bitter feud and leaves a convoluted love affair in its wake. While the Reverend Maybold creates a furore among the village’s musicians with his decision to abolish the church’s traditional ‘string choir’ and replace it with a modern mechanical organ, the new schoolteacher, Fancy Day, causes an upheaval of a more romantic nature, winning the hearts of three very different men – a local farmer, a church musician and Maybold himself.
Under the Greenwood Tree is one of the shortest and silliest of of Hardy’s novels. I came to it looking for something comforting and nostalgic, and that’s exactly what I found. Hardy uses a lot of his works to mourn a pastoral idyllic England that is fast disappearing to him, and I felt this most acutely with UTGT. As is usual with him, there’s a sense of village and country folk being the purest essence of what it means to be English, and the portrayal of the Mellstock parish choir really evokes the heart of village life, and the problems its inhabitants face.
I found the love story between Dick and Fancy to be played with humour and a dose of irony. The couple is fickle and often unromantic, and Hardy seems to be pointing at the idea of an imperfect match and relationship with his ending which has Fancy keeping “a secret she would never tell” from her new husband – that she had been briefly engaged to the vicar, Mr Maybold.
Overall, it wasn’t my favourite Hardy novel (ahem, Far from the Madding Crowd), but Under the Greenwood Tree is certainly and explicitly symbolic of the Wessex Hardy so loved and wanted to protect, and it definitely gave me that warm, cosy feeling that makes reading Hardy so pleasant, especially at this time of the year, and especially when the world is continually changing away from the country life he depicted.