Thursday, March 29, 2007

Review: Under the Greenwood Tree

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and edited and with an introduction and notes by Simon Gatrell. Highly recommended.

In Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy combines many of the elements that would define his career as a novelist—colorful common folk and their equally colorful language, an ironic narrator, an unflinching perspective on changing times, and the marvelous "Wessex" countryside. All that is missing is a plot, the lack of which contributes to the uncharacteristic happy ending.

Under the Greenwood Tree addresses two related matters: the fate of the Mellstock choir and of the charming new schoolmistress. Although the members of the choir acknowledge that their way is becoming an anachronism, they see that it is not only the inevitability of change that is pushing them aside. Both Farmer Shiner and the vicar show a strong interest in schoolmistress Fancy Day, who happens to have musical ability. By eliminating the choir and installing Miss Day at Farmer Shiner's behest, the vicar believes he will achieve two objectives: modernizing a parish that has no desire to be modernized and impressing a woman who does wish to be wooed.

At the same time, the sight of Fancy at the window with her hair undone in the wee hours of Christmas morning is enough to win the heart of young choir member Dick Dewy, who devotes his energy to attracting Fanny's notice and attention. While he is more educated than his father and the other members of the choir, he seems to represent honest labor, sincerity, and singlemindedness, while his rivals the vicar and the farmer, represent culture and money, respectively. Fancy is educated and cultured, while her father is revealed to have some money. The question is not about her choice but about whether it is the right one—a question that cannot be answered by the end of the novel.

Fancy's response to the vicar shows some ambivalence about her commitment. At times, the parish's long-standing couples reveal their own sense of fate about their spouses and marriages. Mrs. Penny tells the tranter's Christmas gathering, " . . . and lo and behold the coming man came: Penny asked me if I'd go snacks with him and afore I knew what I was about a'most, the thing was done." Later she tells Fancy to reassure herself with the thought, "'tis to be, and here goes!" She adds that "'Twill carry a body through it all from wedding to churching if you only let it out with spirit enough." When Dick's father says to his wife, "You be a well-enough woman, Ann," then, "Mrs. Dewy put her mouth in the form of a smile and put it back again without smiling." An impressive subtext underlies these couples' anecdotes, exchanges, and expressions, with the narrator's—and reader's—knowledge that they were once in the same position as Dick and Fancy.

In his introduction, Simon Gatrell writes that "the heart of the novel is the right way to do things." Eliminating the tradition of the choir to impress a woman may not be the right way, but the members concede the vicar's right to do so. Their attempt, not altogether unsuccessful, to negotiate the timing of the change both affirms his right and preserves their dignity. It also allows the vicar to "win" without forcing the choir to “lose.” As Reuben Dewy says, “Everybody must be managed”—including both vicar and choir, and both Dick and Fancy.

Under the Greenwood Tree is organized by seasons (“Part the First—Winter,” “Part the Second—Spring,” and so on), which reflects the cycle of life that Hardy portrays. Dick is not the first man to fall in love with a pretty face. (“A very good pink face, as far as that do go. Still, only a face, when all is said and done,” according to the choir’s erudite Mr. Spinks.) Fanny is not the first woman to be tempted by appeals to her vanity and her social and cultural refinement. The elder Dewys, the Pennys, and the other mature couples seem to regard Dick and Fancy with a wryness born of their own distant courting experience and their ensuing lives together. Even Fancy, who wants to be stylish and modern, gives in and honors the old cycle when, after some resistance, she agrees to follow the traditions, saying, “Respectable people don’t nowadays. . . . Still, since poor mother did, I will.” No one knows what their future will be, but Mrs. Penny observes, “Well, ‘tis humps and hollers with the best of us, but still and for all that Dick and Fancy stand as fair a chance of having a bit of sunsheen as any married people in the land.” Had Hardy written Under the Greenwood Tree in the same spirit as Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, perhaps Mrs. Penny’s prediction would have proven tragically wrong.

Under the Greenwood Tree was written by a Thomas Hardy who had not reached maturity as a writer, but he reveals the insights and the verbal beauty that would mark his place among the great Victorian writers. Phrases such as, “. . . if Fancy’s lips had been real cherries, probably Dick’s would have appeared deeply stained,” “. . . your mother’s charms was more in the manner than the material,” and "I've walked the path once in my life and know the country, neighbors; and Dick's a lost man!" remind the reader that Hardy's true love as a writer would be poetry, not prose. Like his other novels, Under the Greenwood Tree reveals the poetry, comic, ironic, or tragic, in everyday life.

Thursday, 29 March 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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