June 28, 2010

Review: "Under the Greenwood Tree" By Thomas Hardy

If you're looking for an enjoyable and relatively quick summer read, I highly recommend Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School.  This delightful little novel is one of the more bucolic and pastoral novels I've read in some time, and depicts the disappearing rural life of Hardy's southwestern England.  This novel was first published in 1872, and was the last of his work published anonymously.  This novel is considered the first of Hardy's great 'Wessex' novels, and was followed by: Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and the monumental Jude the Obscure (1895), that ended up being Hardy's last work of fiction (he devoted himself to his poetry from this point until his death in 1928).

Without giving anything away, let me say that the plot of Under the Greenwood Tree revolves around two stories.  The first is the lovely story of the small group of men who comprise the Mellstock Quire (choir) and the music that they provide to the small parish church and for dances, weddings, and other community gatherings and celebrations during the course of the year.  The novel is arranged in five parts, and the first four represent the seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, and Hardy describes the role of music in each.  I especially loved the first part--Winter--with the quire walking through the forests and fields on a snowy Christmas Eve, and stopping to carol at each house in the county.  Of course, time marches on, and changes are suggested, and these changes will affect the men of the quire and their relationship with the community.

The second plot that proceeds breezily through the novel is the romantic entanglements that arise with the arrival of the new school-mistress, the young Miss Fancy Day.  Almost immediately there are three eligible suitors vying for her hand in marriage, and Hardy does a delightful job of leading the reader through the seasons of the year as we follow the progress of the lovers that finally culminates with a wedding "where music, dancing, and the singing of songs went forward with great spirit throughout the evening."

I loved Hardy's use of the local Dorsetshire dialect in his characters' dialog, and mixed with his almost poetic descriptions of the rural environment and the seasons, the novel imparts the comfortable nostalgia of a daydream on a warm summer afternoon whilst reclining against the bole of an old oak tree on the side of hill.  If you love Thomas Hardy, or just want a simple and effective plot, with some very good writing; this gentle and idyllic short novel is tailor-made for you.  When you are done, pass it on to a friend, they'll appreciate it and you.  I loved this novel, and will certainly read it again; and maybe read the first section aloud at a Christmas gathering some time.

My review was based upon the Wordsworth Classics soft-cover edition, published in 1994, 146 pages.

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