ardy's second published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire (A Rural Painting Of the Dutch School), was published in 1872 by Tinsley Brothers in two volumes bound in green cloth. Like Desperate Remedies, it was published anonymously, but this time Tinsley recognised the value of the novel and offered Hardy 30 pounds for the copyright. “It was an outrageously low offer, but Hardy accepted it” (Tomalin 119). In 1873, the novel was published in the United States by Holt & Williams with Hardy's name.

The novel, which Ruth A. Firor has described as “an idyll in prose” (158), differs significantly from the murky atmosphere of Desperate Remedies. The title, derived from William Shakespeare’s poem “Under the Greenwood Tree” in his pastoral comedy, As You Like It, anticipates a pastoral depiction of rural life in the Victorian era. It was in this novel that Hardy resumed the long English pastoral tradition inherited from Shakespeare and Fielding and revealed his mastery at creating rural scenes. As Valerie Barnish points out, the novel’s setting “is the most vital aspect of the book. . . [and] the whole work might almost be described as a lyric poem on Dorsetshire country life” (36)

Hardy constructed the novel, which he set in Mellstock (a fictional town modelled on Hardy's native Higher Bockhampton and Stinsford), upon two parallel plots: the story of the Mellstock church choir, whose members consist of such colourful characters as the tranter, the shoemaker and the simpleton, and a romantic love story between young Dick Dewy, an honest yeoman and a member of the Mellstock church choir, and the pretty and flirtatious Fancy Day, a village schoolmistress and daughter of Geoffrey Day, a gamekeeper. Following what is almost a rule in Hardy’s fiction, Fancy has two other suitors: Frederic Shiner, a rich farmer, who is also a churchwarden, and the young local vicar Maybold. Eventually, Fancy rejects the offers of marriage from the vicar and marries Dick, although her father disapproves. The wedding party is held under a greenwood tree. The romance between Dick and Fancy is interwoven with the concerns of the choir and the fortunes and misfortunes of a group of villagers.

The novel, which resembled a pastoral idyll, immediately attracted the attention of the reading public and reviewers. Later critics also recognised the value of Hardy's early novel. Norman Page noted that “this is a complete success and already contains themes and situations that were to recur in his later fiction — for example, the fickle heroine who has to choose between suitors of varying social status” (165). Michael Millgate described it as “nearly flawless” (50). Hardy cherished love for music and old rustic musical instruments all his life, and as Evelyn Hardy points out, “Under the Greenwood Tree reveals another important thing for the first time, Hardy's extreme responsiveness to music, only hinted at previously in An Indiscretion and in Desperate Remedies” (127). References to folk songs and tunes appear not only in Under the Greenwood Tree but in many of his writings. Hardy's father, who was a keen violinist, passed a love of music to young Thomas. Both his father and paternal grandfather were important members of the Stinsford Parish Church choir.

The opening of the novel reveals one of Hardy's masterly descriptions of nature, rural settings and society.

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 [3].

The novel contains a few significant autobiographical elements. Fancy Day resembles Hardy's cousin Tryphena Sparks, who became headmistress of a Plymouth school in 1871 (Halliday in Butler 128). However, their romance is less interesting than the vivid descriptions of the Dewy family and the Mellstock Quire. Primarily, Under the Greenwood Tree revives the rural environment of Hardy's childhood, and in Mellstock, the tranter's cottage resembles the Hardy family's home:

It was a long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch, having dormer windows breaking up into the eaves, a chimney standing in the middle of the ridge and another at each end. The window-shutters were not yet closed, and the fire-and candle-light within radiated forth upon the thick bushes of box and laurestinus growing in clumps outside, and upon the bare boughs of several codlin-trees hanging about in various distorted shapes, the result of early training as espaliers combined with careless climbing into their boughs in later years. The walls of the dwelling were for the most part covered with creepers, though these were rather beaten back from the doorway – a feature which was worn and scratched by much passing in and out, giving it by day the appearance of an old keyhole. Light streamed through the cracks and joints of outbuildings a little way from the cottage, a sight which nourished a fancy that the purpose of the erection must be rather to veil bright attractions than to shelter unsightly necessaries. The noise of a beetle and wedges and the splintering of wood was periodically heard from this direction; and at some little distance further a steady regular munching and the occasional scurr of a rope betokened a stable, and horses feeding within it [5-6].

Under the Greenwood Tree also contains excellent descriptions of a band of village musicians who play music and sing Christmas carols in the parish.

Old William Dewy, with the violoncello, played the bass; his grandson Dick the treble violin; and Reuben and Michael Mail the tenor and second violins respectively. The singers consisted of four men and seven boys, upon whom devolved the task of carrying and attending to the lanterns, and holding the books open for the players [16].

Although Under the Greenwood Tree is often classified as part of Hardy's minor novels, it anticipates the fabric of his major novels and, thanks to its freshness and charm, is certainly his early masterpiece. The motif of village musicians, which will reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflects his childhood memories of rural music and dance. Although rustic life is shown in terms of “continuity and harmony” (Harvey 59), the novel combines elements of romance with a realistic account of the slow and painful displacement of old traditions with modern conventions. This confrontation between the old and new order is rendered metaphorically by the vicar's attempt to replace the Mellstock choir with a new mechanical church organ. Under the Greenwood Tree’s emphasis upon the modernisation and decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Related material

References and Further Reading

Barnish, Valerie L. Notes on Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree. London: Methuen, 1971.

Butler, St. John Butler, ed. Thomas Hardy After Fifty Years. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Firor, Ruth A. Folkways in Thomas Hardy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931.

Hardy, Evelyn. Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1954.

Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1994.

Harvey, Geoffrey. The Complete Critical Guide to Thomas Hardy. London: Routledge, 2003.

Hunter, Shelagh. Victorian Idyllic Fiction: Pastoral Strategies. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, and London: Macmillan, 1984.

Kramer, Dale, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy. His Career As a Novelist. New York Random House, 1971.

Page, Norman, Thomas Hardy: The Novels. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001.

Tomalin, Claire. Thomas Hardy. London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Weber, Carl J. Hardy of Wessex, His Life and Literary Career. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940.

Created 4 February 2015