Under the Greenwood Tree
First edition title page
Under the Greenwood Tree: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School is a novel by Thomas Hardy, published anonymously in 1872. It was Hardy's second published novel, the last to be printed without his name, and the first of his great series of Wessex novels. Whilst Hardy originally thought of simply calling it The Mellstock Quire, he settled on a title taken from a song in Shakespeare's As You Like It (Act II, Scene V).
The plot concerns the activities of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, one of whom, Dick Dewy, becomes romantically entangled with a comely new school mistress, Fancy Day. The novel opens with the fiddlers and singers of the choir—including Dick, his father Reuben Dewy, and grandfather William Dewy—making the rounds in Mellstock village on Christmas Eve. When the little band plays at the schoolhouse, young Dick falls for Fancy at first sight. Dick, smitten, seeks to insinuate himself into her life and affections, but Fancy's beauty has gained her other suitors, including a rich farmer and the new vicar at the parish church.
The vicar, Mr. Maybold, informs the choir that he intends Fancy, an accomplished organ player, to replace their traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services. The tranter and the rest of the band visit the vicar's home to negotiate, but reluctantly give way to the more modern organ. Meanwhile, Dick seems to win Fancy's heart, and she discovers an effective strategem to overcome her father's objection to the potential marriage. After the two are engaged secretly, however, vicar Maybold impetuously asks Fancy to marry him and lead a life of relative affluence; racked by guilt and temptation, she accepts. The next day, however, at a chance meeting with the as-yet-unaware Dick, surprised Maybold learns from him of his engagement to Fancy. The vicar follows by prompting her by letter, while expressing being taken aback by such news, to be honest to Dewy and withdraw her commitment to him if she indeed intended to become married to Maybold. Fancy responds by withdrawing her consent to marry Maybold and asking him to keep her initial acceptance of his proposal forever a secret. Maybold replies by urging her again to be honest with Dick and admit she accepted the vicar despite having already committed herself to the young tranter, assuring her she would be forgiven. However, as she marries Dewy who is so in love he readily dismisses what he previously (rightly) considered exhibits of her fickleness and rejoices at what he perceives at the prospect of a happy union based on honesty, given Fancy's effusive and seemingly frank admission to some (minor) infidelities, while he assumes they would never keep any secrets from each other, she resolves never to disclose the truly incontrovertible and damning evidence against her character in her having so readily accepted Maybold despite her engagement to Dewy.
The novel ends with a humorous portrait of Reuben, William, Mr. Day, and the rest of the Mellstock rustics as they celebrate the couple's wedding day. The mood is joyful, but at the end of the final chapter, the reader is reminded that Fancy has married with "a secret she would never tell" (her final flirtation and brief engagement to the vicar). While Under the Greenwood Tree is often seen as Hardy's gentlest and most pastoral novel, this final touch introduces a faint note of melancholy to the conclusion.
Dick Dewy, a young member of the Mellstock Choir, in love with Fancy Day.
Fancy Day, the new teacher at the parish schoolhouse.
Reuben Dewy, Dick's father, a "tranter" or carrier, and the de facto leader of and spokesman for the Mellstock Choir. A heavy-set, bluff, and talkative man, Reuben is at the heart of much of the rustic comedy in the novel.
William Dewy, Dick's grandfather, a quiet, religious and deeply musical man who is a sort of spiritual anchor for the Choir. William Dewy also makes a brief appearance in Hardy's later novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles: he is featured in a brief anecdote about 'old Wessex' that Dairyman Crick shares with Tess, Angel Clare and the rest of the dairymen and milkmaids.
Geoffrey Day, Fancy's father, the gamekeeper and steward at one of the Earl of Wessex's outlying estates. A man reputed for his eloquent silences, Geoffrey initially opposes Fancy's marriage to Dick, but eventually relents when he thinks his daughter's health is in question.
Frederic Shinar, a rich farmer in Mellstock, and Dick's rival in the courtship of Fancy.
Vicar Maybold, the new vicar at Mellstock. Maybold brings a gently modernising spirit to the church life of Mellstock, replacing the choir with Fancy's organ playing, and generally paying much more attention to the moral and religious affairs of the community than his benignly neglectful predecessor. At the end of the novel, he impetuously proposes to Fancy, and is gratified by her acceptance; but a chance encounter with Dick Dewy convinces him to rescind his proposal. He ends his correspondence with Fancy by urging her to tell Dick everything, and that he will forgive her; but Hardy implies that Fancy does not follow this advice.
Criticism and analysis
Sometimes grouped with Hardy's lesser novels, Under the Greenwood Tree is also occasionally recognised by critics as an important precursor to his major works. In his 1872 review of the novel for the Saturday Review, the critic Horace Moule, one of Hardy's mentors and friends, called it a "prose idyll"; that judgement has stuck. Hardy's amiable, mildly ironic portrait of rural town life in the middle of the nineteenth century is perhaps the strongest aspect of the work. The Wessex rustics who play critical but generally secondary roles in Hardy's later novels, like The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge, claim the centre stage in Under the Greenwood Tree.
While the novel closes on an ambiguous and even sceptical note, it is nevertheless distinguished among Hardy's fiction—particularly his Wessex novels—for its relative happiness and amiability. For the critic Irving Howe, Under the Greenwood Tree served as a kind of necessary prequel and establishing myth for the world of Wessex that Hardy depicted in subsequent tragic works: the novel, he argued, "is a fragile evocation of a self-contained country world that in Hardy's later fiction will come to seem distant and unavailable, a social memory by which to judge the troubled present."
The story has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, in both the silent and sound eras, and in 2005 was adapted for television (ITV) by British writer and producer Ashley Pharoah, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day and James Murray as Dick Dewy. The film was shot entirely on location in Jersey, much of it at Hamptonne.
The story was adapted for the stage by Patrick Garland for a 1970 production. Patrick Garland also directed his adaption of Under the Greenwood Tree at Salisbury Playhouse in 1978.This transferred to the West End Vaudeville theatre in 1979, with Frank Shelley as Geoffrey Day, Charmian May as Mrs Dewy, Geoffrey Kirkness as Dick Dewy, David Bacon as Reuben Dewy, Suzan Crowley as Fancy Day, Gilbert Wynne as Parson Maybold, and George Gabriel as Leaf. John Gale was impresario at the Vaudeville.
- John Sutherland (1990) . "Under the Greenwood Tree". The Stanford Companion to Victorian Literature. p. 646.
- Horace Moule, Saturday Review, 28 September 1872, in R.G. Cox, ed. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1996), 17.
- Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (New York: Macmillan, 1985) .
- DVD credits.
- Under the Greenwood Tree (TV 2005) – IMDb
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- Under the Greenwood Tree at Project Gutenberg
- Under the Greenwood Tree public domain audiobook at LibriVox