Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

Under the Greenwood Tree, set in the small village of Mellstock in Thomas Hardy’s fictional Wessex, is both a love story and a nostalgic study into the disappearance of old traditions and a move towards a more modern way of life. The book is divided into five sections, one for each of the four seasons of the year plus a final concluding section. The story begins in the winter, when we meet a group of villagers who play stringed instruments in the church choir. There’s a new vicar in Mellstock, the Reverend Maybold, and he has plans to replace the traditional choir with a new mechanical church organ. The organ will be played by another newcomer to the village, a pretty young schoolteacher whose name is Fancy Day.

The musicians are upset when they learn that they are going to be replaced, but one of them, Dick Dewy, finds himself falling in love with Fancy Day. However, unknown to Dick he has several rivals for Fancy’s love, including a rich local farmer and even the Reverend Maybold himself. The story of Dick and Fancy’s romance is played out over the course of a year, against a backdrop of the changing seasons and the changing landscape of Mellstock.

Hardy’s novels have a reputation for being bleak and depressing, but I can promise you that this one is neither. It’s actually quite an uplifting, optimistic story with an (almost) happy ending – very different from the other three Hardy books I’ve read (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and A Pair of Blue Eyes). It doesn’t have the depth and complexity of Tess or Jude and to be honest, I do personally prefer Hardy’s tragedies, but I enjoyed this one too and it did make a nice change from the darker books I’ve been reading recently. The strengths of Under the Greenwood Tree are its gentle humour and its portrayal of life in 19th century rural England. As usual with Hardy, his pastoral descriptions are beautifully written and I love the way he paints four different portraits of country life appropriate to each season of the year, from singing carols and making cider in the winter to gathering nuts and collecting honey from beehives in the autumn.

Where the book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the characters of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, because they just weren’t strong enough or interesting enough for me to really care about their romance. Fancy was actually quite an advanced and ‘modern’ character for the time and place, being well-educated and independent. However, she’s depicted here as being very silly and shallow and I felt that we never got to understand her properly. Dick was easier to like but his character wasn’t given a lot of depth either. I do think Hardy captured the naiveté of their relationship perfectly, but I would have preferred to have read more about the rest of the village community, with the love story pushed further into the background. Apparently Hardy had originally wanted to call the book “The Mellstock Quire” and it did seem to me that he was maybe more comfortable with that aspect of the book.

Although I’ve only read a few of Thomas Hardy’s novels he’s quickly becoming one of my favourite Victorian authors. I hope to read all of his books eventually, but I wish I’d left Under the Greenwood Tree until later as it’s turned out to be the first one I haven’t loved. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but it didn’t have the same emotional impact on me that the others had and it’s not a book I would want to read again and again.

17 thoughts on “Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

  1. Aarti says:

    I saw the movie based on this book on Netflix and had much the same opinion of the two main characters, especially Fancy. She seemed to be all modern and independent at some points, but then got so bizarrely upset over such tiny (in my opinion) occurrences. And she was totally inconsistent in her actions towards the male protagonist that I just found her really hard to sympathize with at all.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t seen the movie but it sounds like the characters must be portrayed the same as in the book. I didn’t like the way Fancy treated Dick and I also found it hard to have any sympathy for her.

  2. pauline stacey says:

    me too, the first sentence of the review got to me. thanks

    I like the way that you do not “just” review new books.

    • Helen says:

      Well, I don’t think it’s one of his better books but it was quite enjoyable and easy to read, so you could start with this one and see what you think.

  3. Erin says:

    Hardy is quickly climbing my classics TBR list toward top priority. I keep seeing really nice reviews of his various novels, and I’ve never read a single one! I won’t start here, though — I’ll take your advice and read something else first.

    • Helen says:

      I had never read any of his books until just last year, and I’m so glad I finally decided to give them a try. I’d like to read all of them eventually.

  4. BuriedInPrint says:

    Ironically, this is the one that my Hardy-loving friend recommended that I start with. Also, ironically — and not because I don’t trust said friend’s advice, but because I had a copy of Tess at hand which fit my reading schedule perfectly — it wasn’t the first of his that I read (like you, Tess, and I think Jude will be my second, because Tess didn’t scare me off, which is what I think my friend was fearful of).

    • Helen says:

      If you weren’t scared off by Tess then I’d definitely recommend reading Jude next. It’s even more devastating than Tess, but it’s one of my books of the year so far.

  5. Mel says:

    Hi Helen, I enjoyed reading your review. I have read, and loved, Tess (it will never cease to amaze me how Hardy can write so perceptively about female characters) and I have Jude the Obscure on my TBR pile. I think I would enjoy the the way Under the Greenwood Tree is broken up into the seasons. Your enthusiasm for Hardy has encouraged me to read Jude very soon. Thanks

    • Helen says:

      Yes, the structure of the book and the way it divided into the four seasons, was one of the things I enjoyed about it. And I hope you love Jude as much as I did!

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