Under the Greenwood Tree
Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, his second novel to be published, in the summer of 1871, and sent it to Macmillan’s. He took their response to be a rejection – though he later learned that he had misinterpreted it – and accordingly put the story aside. Having previously lost money on his first novel, Desperate Remedies, he was by now sufficiently discouraged to think that he should concentrate on his career as an architect and give up the writing of fiction altogether. However, a chance meeting with his previous publisher, William Tinsley, in the spring of 1872, led him to dig out the discarded manuscript. Tinsley published the story in the May of that year.
It is the shortest of all the Wessex novels, the plot consisting of two slender strands. One concerns the ousting of the Mellstock quire, or church band, in favour of an organist; the other involves the ups and downs of the courtship between Dick Dewy, the son of a ‘tranter’ (or carrier) - both father and son being members of that quire - and Fancy Day, the new village school-teacher, who is the organist in question. The lack of action is implicit in Hardy’s sub-title : ‘A Rural Painting of the Dutch School’: his book is rather rustic idyll than vigorous narrative. The adjective ‘Dutch’ implies the affectionate and knowledgeable realism of Ruysdael or Hobbema, as opposed to pastoral idealisation on the one hand or bucolic grotesquerie on the other. Such ‘story’ as there is serves as an armature for a sketch of village life as it had been in the eighteen-thirties, when Hardy’s father, himself a fiddle-player in the kind of quire described, was a young man. The narrative is divided into five sections, of which the last is a postscript, the first four being named for the seasons, running from winter through to autumn. There is scope for vivid descriptions of scenery, weather and village life, as also for leisurely, humorous dialect conversations with a Shakespearean flavour. This is the most cheerful and unproblematic of all Hardy’s novels.
On publication Under the Greenwood Tree received, in Hardy’s own words, ‘a very kindly and gentle reception’. The subsequent response to the work has in general been similarly appreciative. No doubt because of its calculated simplicity, however, the work has attracted comparatively little critical attention, even though it displays an agreeable humour and contains some striking passages of description. For readers new to Hardy it provides the ideal introduction.