Under the Greenwood Tree is the novel that confirmed Thomas Hardy in his profession as a writer. His first novel, an unpublished work called “The Poor Man and the Lady (wr. 1867), had been suppressed at his own request, while Desperate Remedies (1871), a novel of sensation, was, he felt, poor stuff by comparison, although it was successful.
Under the Greenwood Tree is the creation of person who had served his apprenticeship as a writer, during which time he found his voice and, most important, his subject. Although gentler in tone than many of his later novels, a pastoral idyll rather than a full-blown tragedy, Under the Greenwood Tree nonetheless establishes the distinctive characters of the Wessex countryside and people that will permeate Hardy’s later novels. To create his particular version of Wessex, Hardy draws heavily on memories of his own childhood and the characters, customs, and music that he recalls from that time. This is further underlined by the book’s structure, which sets the courtship and marriage within the space of one year that is punctuated with country festivals. Consequently, the portrait of Reuben Dewy and his family and friends is heavily tinged with nostalgia for a time now past; one might argue that Hardy is alert already to the need to record these customs before they are irrevocably lost.
At the same time, however, while critics have argued that Hardy is lamenting the loss of the old ways, a close reading of Under the Greenwood Tree would suggest that Hardy also knows that times change; while he would not necessarily support change for change’s sake, he nonetheless recognizes that without change, a culture will ossify. Thus, in Under the Greenwood Tree, Fancy Day personifies the spirit of modernity. Quite apart from being a spirited and independent young woman, who also is well educated and now taking up the role of schoolteacher in Mellstock, she also brings with her such newfangled notions as the idea that the women within the congregation should also participate in the singing, rather than simply leaving it to the men of the Mellstock Quire (choir). This, in turn, prompts the new and progressive vicar, Maybold, to consider replacing the choir...
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