The first book I finished in 2016, and my first for the 2016 Classics Challenge, is Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. To give a bit of background to my complex relationship with Mr H: I was forced to read Jude the Obscure at university, hated it, fell asleep in my seminar and swore off Hardy for life. A lot of time later, I decided it was time to rethink my attitude and read Tess of the D’Urbervilles and it blew my mind; I was so absorbed in poor, poor Tess’ story and the book now belongs firmly on my list of Crucial Books for Women to read, along with The Handmaid’s Tale and, as of last year, everything Louise O’Neill ever writes, probably including shopping lists.
Anyway, at the start of 2015, I read all of what I consider to be the Hardy canon, but my Victorian binge fizzled out after a couple of months, when I was a couple of chapters into Under the Greenwood Tree. Back then, it wasn’t grabbing me, so I put it back on the shelf to return to another day.
As any reader of Victorian novels will know, the writers of that period often showed a deep desire to represent largely incomprehensible local dialects in their writing; I live in Yorkshire, but can confirm that even people from the exact place Wuthering Heights is set do not understand anything Joseph says. Hardy sets a large number of his novels in the fictional county of Wessex, which is roughly based on Dorset, and he writes the dialogue of his rural characters using dialect; this is something that I always find awkward to read, in any novel, but you do get used to it as you start to identify the characters’ individual voices. I usually find myself just going along with it. The pattern in Hardy’s novels tends to be that simple, rural folk speak in dialect while the primary characters have more easily recognisable speaking styles, and that’s the case here.
Set in the countryside, Under the Greenwood Tree concerns itself with pastoral matters; the first section of the novel is devoted to a group of amateur musicians politely negotiating their right to continue to perform in the local church on a Sunday, having been displaced by the new girl in town, Fancy Day, and the new reverend. In his more extended works, Hardy uses rural conflicts like this to show a way of life gradually receding, or to compare with wider themes like gender roles, but Under the Greenwood Tree is, I think, too slight to be an appropriate forum for these ideas.
What is notable here is the ways in which Under the Greenwood Tree seems to act as a template for Far From the Madding Crowd, published two years later. Pretty much as soon as she moves to the village, Fancy Day attracts the attentions of three men, but, while Bathsheba is tortured by these attentions and far more comfortable just being by herself, Fancy loves the attention; she is vain and superficial, at one point refusing to lean out of her window to kiss her supposed fiancé, who has walked miles to see her in the rain, because she doesn’t want to get her hair wet. Hardy’s disdainful attitude towards his own heroine seems obvious to me; Fancy is so vapid and shallow, caring only that everyone is looking at her all the time, and Hardy’s skill in creating rounded female characters so immense, that her characterisation cannot be accidental.
Under the Greenwood Tree is funny in that way that Victorian novels are: usually through pointed barbs made by the narrator. It would provide a handy primer for anybody new to Hardy, although, if you’re seeking a taster, I would recommend Two on a Tower; it’s similarly short (Under the Greenwood Tree is just short of 200 pages, while Two on a Tower is about 220) but far more affecting. Alternatively, Far From the Madding Crowd has basically everything you could ever want in a novel (unless you’re really into dinosaurs or helicopter crashes).