THERE’S such a deep melancholy about so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels that it’s almost a relief to re-read Under The Greenwood Tree, one of his earliest and gentlest works.
And yet there’s still something haunting about this relatively short love story between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, traced through the course of the four seasons during one Wessex year.
One reason for revisiting the 1872 novel is to take temporary refuge from the travails of modern existence in a simpler earlier age – and who better to capture the English country scene of the early 1800s than a novelist famed for his pastoral depictions of rural life?
Actually, there’s remarkably little in-depth description of the countryside in this novel, apart from the atmospheric opening pages when we first meet the Mellstock Choir on a lonely country lane through the woods and learn how to wood dwellers, every species of tree has its own “voice”, from the sob of the fir to the whistle of the holly and hiss of the ash.
But Hardy’s second published novel, which takes its name from Shakespeare’s poem in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, is an extraordinary rural idyll which introduces some familiar themes which will recur in his later fiction – not least a fickle heroine struggling to choose between suitors of different social status.
And if it’s not stand-out descriptions of the scenery which make the novel memorable, Hardy achieves such an extraordinarily intimate depiction of the colourful characters in the choir that they all come instantly to life across the centuries, their banter and mannerisms as real and true as if we had bumped into them in the village pub at lunchtime.
Perhaps that’s not so surprising given Hardy’s familiarity with this world. Both his father and paternal grandfather were members of the local parish choir and this book was written in the cottage next to Thorncombe Woods where Hardy was born in 1840.
Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tranter’s cottage, Hardy’s home – built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather and little altered since the family left, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.
It’s just one of a number of autobiographical elements in the book, including the author’s love of old rustic musical instruments, which he inherited from his father, a keen violinist.
You can almost imagine Hardy as part of the group as the choir makes its way up the chilly country lanes with their instruments and lanterns for that Christmas tour of the village in the book’s opening pages.
Village musicians reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflecting his childhood memories of rural music and dance, and there’s already that sorrowful sense that old traditions are being lost or challenged by new ways of doing things.
It’s the same feeling you get when you visit the Chiltern Open Air Museum and start taking a journey back to a simpler age, where there’s a solidity and authenticity about the buildings and equipment that’s echoed in Hardy’s more colourful characters, like Gabriel Oak.
Already in Under The Greenwood Tree we can see a clash between the old and new order – in this novel reflected in the vicar’s attempt to replace the choir with a new mechanical church organ.
That emphasis on modernisation and the decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Not that Hardy was naive about the gruelling realities of agricultural life in the early part of the 19th century, when working hours were long and poverty was widespread.
But he was vividly aware of how industrialisation was sweeping away the old ways, as labourers moved to the cities and the railways began to transform the rural landscape.
And that was something he reflected on in his 1896 preface to Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he pays personal tribute to the merry band of church musicians of whom he has written, and in a further note from 1912 which appears to lament having treated the choir so “flippantly”.
The book has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, and in 2005 was adapted for television, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day. But if the story is a little slow for modern tastes and Fancy a little too infuriatingly fickle, the novel still provides a wonderful glimpse into a long-lost way of life – to the extent that on a lonely path through the woods on a chill winter’s eve, you might just fancy you can hear a few strains of fiddle music from the Mellstock choir on the chill night air.
Numerous different editions of the book are available online and in booksellers, with the 2005 series available from BBC Video.