Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy, 1872
When his first published novel was harshly criticized by the Spectator, Thomas Hardy was deeply stung and wished he “was dead.” Hoping for commercial and critical success, Hardy focused on the one aspect of his writing that won universal praise: his charmingly rendered rustic dialogue.
I have written about my dislike of the Victorian penchant for condescending rural literature before. I wish I could stop writing about it. I’m weary of this trend. But, when those absurd Victorians take their love of feeling superior to quaint country people so far that they nearly ruin my favorite author, I must protest.
Hardy dutifully churned out exactly what his audience desired: a trite depiction of country folk doing, thinking, and discussing nothing of consequence. Under the Greenwood Tree is awful. The Victorians liked it, though. I just can’t fathom why.
The novel concerns itself with two questions. Will the church choir be canceled in favor of the more modern organ? Yes, it will. But, tradition! Will Dick Dewey get Fancy Day to marry him? Yes, he will. But, he hasn’t got much money! That’s it. Nothing else happens in this novel.
I do feel a bit sad for the men who really enjoy being in the choir together. As for the romance, yuck. I’m insulted that Hardy thought fit to waste my time with the details of this courtship. Imagine that a young person who you’re only kind of friends with comes over and starts boring you with every trifling thought they have ever had about their significant other. I’m quite brusque enough to tell said young person that they and their lover are clearly both too immature and jealous to get married. Also, I’m too old to listen to this piffle. Alas, I can’t say that to Dick Dewey and Fancy Day, because they don’t exist.
I’m so dedicated to Thomas Hardy, that instead of chucking the book out the window, I read it twice. Yes, twice. It did not improve with a second read. Dick gets angry if Fancy cares about her appearance when he’s not there to see her. She doesn’t exist only for you to look at, Dick! Fancy gets jealous when he dances with another girl. That is the substance of this book. Long conversations centered on two adults behaving obnoxiously childish.
The dramatic climax of the book occurs when the local Reverend, unaware of her engagement to Dick, asks Fancy to marry him. He describes all the lovely material goods he can provide her with. Little Fancy’s head is swayed and she agrees. She later backs out, because she just couldn’t hurt Dick so horribly. Well, I think she should have. She’s a frivolous girl who cares greatly for comfort. Dick wins her by appealing to her vanity. I suppose I’m meant to feel anxious for Dick’s possible broken heart, but I don’t care. He only loves Fancy for her beauty. He’ll get over it. I think Fancy would have been happier with the Reverend. Even though the point of the novel was the romance, I was not at all invested in it. My head was swayed by the idea of that carriage too, and, you know, generally not living in poverty just because some man tells you you’re pretty. The significant crisis of the book seems insignificant and my emotions run contrary to what Hardy would like. He’s still my favorite author, but I’m not his perfect reader for this book.
Anyway, I’m glad the book was a success during its time, because Thomas Hardy continued to write. In this novel, he succumbed to the Victorian need to laugh at quaint rustics. However, he was indeed from a rural area and he managed to write about such places without looking down on the inhabitants in his later novels. In fact, the next novel he wrote is possibly my favorite novel. His audience tried to squash his talent, but they couldn’t manage it. Take that, literary critics of yesteryear! You might have liked this tripe, but Thomas Hardy was just waiting to scandalize you with his advanced views of sex and marriage. He who confronts moral hypocrisy through literature laughs last.
You might like Under the Greenwood Tree if:
- I don’t know, but if you do like it, I’m sorry for the strength of my dislike for it. I still respect you. To each her own.
You might not like Under the Greenwood Tree if:
- It takes more than quaint words like “mumbudgeting” to impress you as a reader.
Final Thoughts: This ain’t a good book, friends! Here’s the only sentence I truly enjoyed “Dick said nothing; and the stillness was disturbed only by some small bird that was being killed by an owl in the adjoining copse, whose cry passed into the silence without mingling with it.” This is while Dick is about to ask Fancy’s father for her hand.