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Vanished Lives
Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree

In the context of acknowledged classics like Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree is a relatively small, quiet achievement. It was his second novel, published in 1872 between Desperate Remedies and A Pair of Blue Eyes, and his greatest accomplishments as a novelist were still years away.

Under the Greenwood Tree did win him considerable attention when it first appeared, though, and its critical popularity helped secure his future as a novelist.

It’s not hard to see what the critics liked about the novel. For much of its short length, it’s an entertaining ensemble piece focusing on the Mellstock village choir, which we meet as they are preparing to perform carols for their neighbors on Christmas Eve. They’re wonderfully funny, rustic figures whose vernacular dialogue keeps the novel buoyant and fluid, but Hardy pointedly never lets us laugh harder at them than they’re willing to laugh at themselves.

The rest of the novel is primarily occupied with getting one of the choir’s younger members—Dick Dewey—close enough to the village’s new schoolteacher to make her fall in love with him and accept his marriage proposal. (Dick fell in love with her when she came to the window to thank the carolers on Christmas Eve.) There’s nothing particularly new here, but Hardy nicely captures the pleasures and woes of first love and wooing.

A smaller but related sub-plot concerns the new vicar’s efforts to replace the admittedly rustic village choir with a higher-class organist—Dick’s schoolteacher, as it happens. The vicar, it seems, is a potential suitor himself, as is a gruff but relatively prosperous local farmer.

Under the Greenwood Tree is set thirty years before its publication, and for all its comedy, it exudes an elegiac sadness for a rural world which had disappeared by the time Hardy sat down to write its story in an era of trains and rampant urbanization. His purpose, Hardy wrote, was “to preserve for my own satisfaction a fairly true record of a vanishing life.”

The novel thus takes a few unexpected thematic turns, and Hardy’s ability to accomplish his diverse goals in a short, early novel is impressive, indeed.

—Article by Charlie Onion

Posted July 19, 2004



About the Author

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was born in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset. He served an apprenticeship with an architect and worked in a London architecture firm from 1862 to 1867. In the meantime, he wrote poetry (which found no publishers) and started (and abandoned) a novel. Desperate Remedies, his first published novel, appeared in 1871. He went on to write several classic novels (including Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'Urbervilles) along with several volumes of poetry.



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