Another somewhat well-preserved Penguin Classics paperback of Hardy, this time acquired not in a used bookstore abroad but taken abroad after receiving it as a gift from someone who went to a used bookstore. The very slimness that signals its brevity also makes it quite attractive as a travel book. Since it’s Hardy, I knew I would be in for a treat, for prose that is both readable and poetic, for characters who are truly interesting specimens of rural England. Under the Greenwood Tree also has the unique reputation of being rather optimistic for a Wessex novel.
The plot of this book is, in some ways, the prototypical plot that Hardy is trying on for the first time and will later perfect throughout his novel-writing career (perhaps most notably in The Woodlanders). There are echoes of these characters in later works too. As someone who has read many of Hardy’s later novels before coming to this book, it feels both familiar and strange simultaneously. I try to put myself in the position of someone for whom this is an introduction to Hardy; while I hope the book would give a favourable impression, I don’t think it offers an accurate showcase of Hardy’s impressive skill as a writer.
The central conflict in the book concerns whether Dick Dewy will be able to marry Fancy Day (agh, the names to my modern ear—“fancy day” indeed!). Dick and Fancy are in love, but Fancy’s father considers her too good for the son of a village tranter (carrier and hauler of goods). It’s the same old story, and Hardy doesn’t do anything new here. Dick has a rich rival whom Fancy doesn’t love, and there’s a related subplot about the village choir being replaced by Fancy playing the organ. Perhaps the most surprising part of the whole plot is the relative timidity with which it develops: for most of the novel, Dick’s courtship proceeds without many setbacks; it’s only when Dick and Fancy seek her father’s permission for marriage that they encounter a real problem.
Regarded in this light, Under the Greenwood Tree is underwhelming, valuable mostly for its role as precursor to the greater novels that Hardy would go on to produce. I’ll be honest: it grabs me nowhere near as much as The Woodlanders or Tess of d’Urbervilles did. The latter works are undeniably crisper, more well-developed, better.
But it would be a mistake, I think, to dimiss this book so quickly. Visible in Under the Greenwood Tree, even more so than many of the later novels, is Hardy’s poetic regard for the Dorset landscape that inspires his Wessex. In his descriptions of the forests and meadows through which his characters travel, Hardy strives to capture the beauty of their surroundings. That beauty, for him, is inextricably linked to its origins in nature. Mellstock and its surrounds are idyllic villages, small eruptions of humanity amidst an otherwise undisturbed world. Casterbridge, the nearest big town, is close enough to be within reach yet far enough that it can seem like a different world entirely.
Of course, this is a world that never actually existed. Being an idyllic vision of rural England, Mellstock is Hardy’s attempt to impose his ideal, Platonic image of rural England onto the real thing. Under the Greenwood Tree acknowledges the beauty that he finds in the simple life, and it also shows how this life is vanishing amid “progress” in the replacement of the choir with an organ and organist. Hardy is chronicling the disappearance of a world he loves dearly, even if this means that, at times, he idealizes that world in his fictional portrayal of it.
For related reasons, I found Hardy’s descriptions of the characters’ dress and mannerisms very fascinating. There’s a memorable episode in which Fancy makes much out of what dress she should wear on Sunday. She invites Dick to wait in her rooms while she fixes the dress she wants to wear, and the task takes overly long. Meanwhile, Dick is brooding about the fact that she is taking such care over her appearance when he won’t be there to appreciate it. He’s not satisfied with her explanation that she wants to appear in a dress the other girls haven’t seen yet.
To our modern sensibilities, these problems can seem absurd and farcical. (There is a scene much earlier in which Hardy makes much out of heavier men having to discard their outer coats while at a country dance because they are so warm.) But it’s a valuable depiction of what country life and social norms were like in the middle of the ninteenth century. Fancy is reasonably well-off compared to Dick, but she still doesn’t have that many dresses. She takes pride in what she owns, cares for these garments. Yet she has been raised with certain expectations regarding her appearance, which places constraints on what she can wear. When considered in more general terms, it’s something we can still identify with, even if we happen to own more dresses these days, and can thus more easily avoid the embarrassment of wearing the same one twice in front of the same people.
Freed of extra layers of subtext and characterization that Hardy deploys in later books, Under the Greenwood Tree provides a more streamlined glimpse of these things. That doesn’t elevate it in my eyes to be on par with Hardy’s other novels. However, it’s enough to convince me that there is something interesting and worthy to this book, something more than its context relative to Hardy’s other works. Although its simplicity and upbeat tone makes it very accessible, I’d still hesitate to recommend it as a starting point; it lacks some of the more typical conceits that Hardy eventually makes his own, and so it’s still not quite representative of the author. It is, instead, better as a quick read, maybe as a used book squeezed into the top of an over-stuffed backpack bound for adventures far beyond any greenwood tree.