Thomas Hardy: Under the Greenwood Tree

After poetry and property taxes and the dentist and, oh, yes, William Shakespeare himself, Thomas Hardy is perhaps the hardest sell of all. So how, oh how, did I ever get ensnared Under the Greenwood Tree?

The answer is simple, really: the cover. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Did I mention that since finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude in early August, I hadn’t read one page of fiction, instead being up to my proverbials in a two month long poetry blitz in preparation for a couple of library programs?

No? Well, let me begin in the middle then, like many a fine blogger before me.

On lunch one day while in the midst of said fiction drought, I wandered down to the little used book alcove in the Library Shop next to Crazy Mocha Coffee here at the main library. I immediately noticed an odd little pale green paperback, with a distinctive wood block style illustration on the cover. Taking it off the shelf, it was readily apparent from the style, feel, and ambiance that this was not a product of the good ol’ USA. Pliable enough to actually roll up yet tough enough to be virtually indestructible, this little edition was published and printed in London.

Opening to the first page I thought, no harm to just take a peek, and so it begins:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

And like some bemused Shakespearean protagonist who’d sworn eternal chastity only to be confronted by a dream walking, my fictional stays were undone.

In truth, Under the Greenwood Tree is a simple little book, Hardy’s second novel, published anonymously in 1872. It is pure unadulterated romance, cast as it is within the formidable thrall of another “hard sell,” Jane Austen. Since technology is ramped up in this glorious age of chick lit, the erased cellphone message is every bit as effective as the misplaced letter as a plot device of the twisty, turny variety. There is one such plot device and a number of passages, including the one above, however, that I’ll never forget in this 19th century story. The introduction of the heroine of this light romance, Miss Fancy Day (and, once the guffaws die down, consider the names of some modern protagonists such as Billy Pilgrim and Seymour Glass, Humbert Humbert and Emma Bovary, Major Major Major Major and Willy Loman, and even beloved Dumbledore, whose name comes up in its original meaning in this very book …), has to be unique in the history of literature. At a meeting of the local all-male church choir, the village shoe smith, Mr. Penny, removes from his pockets and

places on the table a boot – small, light, and prettily shaped – upon the heel of which he’d been operating.

‘The new schoolmistress’s!’

‘Never Geoffrey’s daughter Fancy?’ said Bowman, as all glances present converged like wheel-spokes upon the boot in the centre of them.

‘Yes, sure,’ resumed Mr. Penny, regarding the boot as if that alone were his auditor; ‘ ’tis she that’s come here schoolmistress.’ …

‘And that’s the boot, then,’ continued its mender imaginatively, ‘that she’ll walk to church in tomorrow morning.’ …

There, between the cider-mug and the candle, stood this interesting receptacle of the little unknown’s foot; and a very pretty boot it was. A character, in fact – the flexible bend at the instep, the rounded localities of the small nestling toes, scratches from careless scampers, now forgotten – all, as repeated in the tell-tale leather, evidencing a nature and a bias. Dick surveyed it with a delicate feeling that he had no right to do so without having first asked the owner of the foot’s permission.

And, so, it’s love at first, er, apprehension for our hero, Dick. And the rest of the choir, too, leans in around the cobbler’s table and is duly entranced by “a character” who doesn’t make her first appearance for another 10 pages. Pre-dating Holmes and Watson by 20 years and certainly no CSI, still it’s a neat example of extrapolation and induction (as opposed to deduction) that might be admired in any modern fiction writing workshop today.

The usual Austen-like plot twists may be found; a faux beau or two here, a stubborn father there, along with some decided misdirection, keeping things moving at a light, fast pace, all heading to a decidedly un-Hardy-like (happy!) ending. Along the way, village life is chronicled, both in its then present condition and also in its passing. The choir is to be replaced by the singular keyboard talents of the charming Miss Day, with nary a ruffled collar nor constricted brow, as happened in villages and hamlets throughout England at that time.

Never mind the fact from whom he nicked his title, the reason I show up and stay for Hardy is the occasional paragraph thrown off almost casually, as the descriptive opening with the trees, quoted above. Breaking my poetry blitz was most appropriate with Hardy, as might be gleaned in the following:

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The threads of garden-spiders appeared thick and polished. In the dry and sunny places dozens of long-legged crane-flies whizzed off the grass at every step the passer took.

In one short paragraph, there is enough material for at least a half-dozen haiku and suddenly I realized: in both this and the opening graph above, I hadn’t broken my no-fiction vow.

I hadn’t escaped my poetry blitz at all.



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2 responses to “Thomas Hardy: Under the Greenwood Tree

  1. Thank you for blogging about Thomas Hardy. I have the biggest literary crush on him, and am now going to have to re-read Under the Greenwood Tree.

    A favorite quote of mine is at the end of Far from the Maddening Crowd: “Theirs was a substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.”

    Okay, now that my secret sappiness has been revealed…

  2. Holly:

    “Far From the Madding Crowd” was the 1st Hardy I read. I was in my 20’s and my father tried to get me to read it – I laughed at him, at that time I wouldn’t do anything he suggested! I picked up the book, though, for some reason, probably so I could tell how bad I thought it was, and was like, Thomas Hardy, ho-hum, and then maybe 15 or 20 pages in I hit a passage in which one of the characters was laying on the top of a hill and feeling the earth moving and the description was just so, well, cosmic, I was sucked right in.

    30 years ago and remembering a passage in a book – I can’t remember what I read last week! But not with Hardy, certain passages in each books just seem to stay with you forever.

    Funny, how sappiness brings us back to the trees as described in the first paragraph quoted above.


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