Singsong in Wessex

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy 1872. French title: Quatre Saisons à Mellstock

I’m still on my reading-all-Thomas-Hardy project and Under the Greenwood Tree was the next to my list. The book is set in Mellstock typical village of Hardy’s fictional Wessex. The plot is rather simple: Dick Dewy falls in love with Fancy Day and the whole book is there to answer this important question: Will Dick manage to seduce Fancy and marry her?

Said like this, the erudite reader who shies away from anything romantic is now thinking Dear, that’s not for me. Don’t stop reading this billet now, please. I suspect that the plot is simple on purpose. Actually, the main character of the book is popular music in the English countryside at the beginning of the 19thC. The French title of the book is Quatre saisons à Mellstock, and it makes sense as this novel is composed of four parts, each being a season.

When the book opens, it’s Christmas Eve and the Mellstock’s choir is preparing for their big night out, singing Christmas carols under the villagers’ windows. With obvious fondness, Thomas Hardy describes the local musicians choosing the songs, rehearsing, preparing their instruments, dressing to face the cold night. This choir is also in charge of the music in church every Sunday. Hardy explains that the choir’s world is rapidly changing, local orchestras with fiddles and string instruments are more and more often replaced by brass, organs or barrel organs.

Hardy describes the decline of the Mellstock quire and their replacement by Fancy at the organ, the new vicar and his different way of managing the parish. A new generation is taking over. It is a portrait of rural life, of its villages, its professions now disappeared. (tranter, I couldn’t find the translation of the word and when I eventually got the book in translation, I didn’t know what a roulier was)

Hardy celebrates the country life of his childhood, the popular music he probably enjoyed. Four parts, four seasons like the parts of a popular song. When I was reading, I thought about those songs passed on from one generation to the other. Songs for drinking, songs with political aim, love songs, dirty songs, satirical songs. Each country has theirs, so I’m not going to mention the French ones that went to my mind. I also remembered some bucolic songs by Brassens, like Brave Margot or La chasse aux papillons.

In one chapter Hardy pictures a dance at the tranter’s house. It’s vivid and realistic. Instead of describing graceful young women dancing with propriety, he shows joy, frantic dancing, sweat, breathlessness. Men drop their jacket because they’re too hot. Women’s hairs get undone. I bet all these bodily details were frowned upon when the book was published. People of all ages share the dance floor. I could imagine the musicians growing red from playing buoyantly, the fiddlers moving bows with passion, the sound of the music and its pace increasing to get the dancers crazy.

The plot is as simple as a story told in a popular song. That’s why I think it is simple on purpose, it is a way to celebrate common people’s music, to put forward this part of culture that makes a country as much as the “fancy” music listened to in nice salons of the upper classes.

A word about Dick and Fancy, though. The characters aren’t as deep as the ones in other books by Hardy – at least, the ones I’ve read. There were few ironic comments about life in here but I was happy to find again Hardy’s sharp tongue when it came to describing people:

This was addressed to the young man before mentioned, consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.

or

“Hee—hee—ay!” replied Leaf, letting his mouth continue to smile for some time after his mind had done smiling, so that his teeth remained in view as the most conspicuous members of his body.

Fancy sounds vapid while Dick is a good country guy, solid in his body and in his mind. He’s madly in love with her but has enough insight not to imagine her flawless. She’s intelligent, reasons herself and acts sensibly in the end but on instinct, she’s rather shallow. Dick, young and in love looks at married people through the eyes of young love:

Dick wondered how it was that when people were married they could be so blind to romance; and was quite certain that if he ever took to wife that dear impossible Fancy, he and she would never be so dreadfully practical and undemonstrative of the Passion as his father and mother were. The most extraordinary thing was, that all the fathers and mothers he knew were just as undemonstrative as his own.

Who, as a teenager, has never thought about married couples that way?

I wasn’t able to read Under the Greenwood Tree in English. I started but after a while, I thought I spent so much energy on the language that I wasn’t fully enjoying the atmosphere and the plot. So I read it in French, in a new translation published in 2011. A delight. I wish that the translator, Bernard Tourres read my billet. I thank him for translating this novel so well. He managed to give back the dialect, looking for equivalent words in French patois, like boisson for water-cider. In my French copy, the villagers don’t speak proper French, just as they don’t speak proper English in the original. It sounds like Hardy, it’s excellent.

Do I recommend this book? Not for the psychological development of the characters, not for the plot. I recommend it for Hardy’s ability to describe the country, the people, the customs and the music and for bringing to life a way of living often neglected in literature. One more quote, pour la route:

It was a morning of the latter summer-time; a morning of lingering dews, when the grass is never dry in the shade. Fuchsias and dahlias were laden till eleven o’clock with small drops and dashes of water, changing the colour of their sparkle at every movement of the air; and elsewhere hanging on twigs like small silver fruit. The threads of garden spiders appeared thick and polished. In the dry and sunny places, dozens of long-legged crane-flies whizzed off the grass at every step the passer took.

Lovely, isn’t it?

Incidentally, Max from Pechorin’s Journal read it at the same time as me. You can read his thoughtful review here.

  1. Brian Joseph
    June 16, 2012 at 1:39 am

    While I have not yet read Hardy have been meaning to get around to him. You make a good point about not shying away from a book because it sounds romantic. Admittedly the idea of reading a ‘romantic” book does not prompt me into immediate action However I think that works that are well written and that are interesting in some way are well worth it no matter what the subject matter.

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    • June 16, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      Hardy is worth discovering. I started with short-stories, Life’s Little Ironies and I thought it was a good introduction to his world, his style and his mind.

      I enjoy romantic books once in a while as long as they’re well written.

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  2. June 16, 2012 at 3:11 am

    You know that I don’t like romantic books, so it means something for me to say that I love this novel. It’s Hardy, of course, which might explain it, but it’s also a completely different side of Hardy–upbeat and optimistic.

    Which Hardy is next?

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    • June 16, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      “upbeat and optimistic” is exactly how to define it. It’s joyful, like a song.

      The next Hardy is A Pair of Blue Eyes, since I read him chronologically.

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  3. June 16, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Lovely quote. It reminds me of the beginning of The Trumpet-Major. It is certainly not the one with which I will start to explore Hardy but it sounds like an enjoyable book.
    I wonder if parents still pass on so many songs to their children. I mean traditional songs. I learned such a lot of old French songs from my father and I’m grateful for that.
    Something I like a lot is when a book captures the seasons and since form what little I know of Hardy he descibes nature so very well, this could be a great appeal in this novel.

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    • June 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      We passed on songs to our children when they were younger. They know A La Claire Fontaine, for example. What will probably disappear are the more dirty ones like Jeanneton prend sa faucille, not ones I decided to sing to my children.
      People used to sing at family meetings, we don’t do that anymore.

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  4. June 17, 2012 at 4:20 am

    It’s a beautiful book, a little slice of times gone by (which is exactly what Hardy intended…).

    My brief review (from the first year of my blog!) can be found here:

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2009/08/56-under-greenwood-tree-by-thomas-hardy.html

    Like

    • June 17, 2012 at 11:28 am

      It is a beautiful book indeed. I’ll have a look at your review

      Like

  5. June 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    I didn’t know what tranter meant either, I had to work it out from context.

    Well done Bernard Tourres. I think this would be a difficult book without translation, there’s so much country language and dialect.

    I love how you brought out the musical structure of the book, and while we have some quotes in common your one regarding marriage is indeed one that every teenager must have thought and that last quote is just beautiful. I wish I’d used it. Great review generally in fact.

    Like Guy I have no interest in romantic fiction, but when a novel’s as well crafted as this one is the label one puts on it really doesn’t matter.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      It’s not that often that I’m so happy with a translation. It’s a new translation and I believe that today’s translators might more thorough. It’s so good that it wasn’t too difficult to switch from the original to the French.

      I had songs in mind when I was reading, so the comparison with songs came naturally. I couldn’t help hearing songs by Brassens (guitar) and folk songs. Did you feel it too while you were reading?

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  6. June 18, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Less so, but then I know relatively few folk songs and have no links to that tradition. I listened to some abstract stuff, very modern, which fitted it well but wasn’t at all the sort of thing he was evoking.

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  7. July 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    I haven’t read this particular novel, but your post does make me want to read it. My view of Hardy is very ambilvalent: I have no doubt about his greatness as a novelist, but I do think he was a poor plotter, and, worse, he gave so much prominence to the mere mechanics of the plot that it becomes difficult to ignore: because the plot is so contrived, I am frequently left with the feeling that his protagonists are not tragic as such, but merely that they had bad luck. Of course, this is a very unfair view of Hardy, but it is one I can’t help.

    If Hardy does go for a simple plot here, and displays his various strengths (i.e. that of depicting a specific society, conveying a sense of place, etc.) then I think I will enjoy this.

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    • July 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      The feeling I had when I read Life’s Little Ironies is not that the characters have bad luck. They might think they have bad luck when actually they just didn’t register that a particular decision made at a particular moment brought misery on them. They don’t have enough hindsight and insight.

      This one is the written pendant of folks songs (that’s my thought) and of Dutch paintings (that’s what Hardy wrote) It’s worth reading.

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  1. June 18, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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