Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
Under the Greenwood Tree was published anonymously in 1872. Subtitled, A Rural Painting of the Dutch School, it was the first of Hardy's Wessex Novels. I chose to read it as it opens on Christmas Eve, which seemed appropiate given the time of year. The Mellstock Church Choir are in the midst of their Christmas celebrations and we are introduced to a group of musicians and singers who are all drawn from west country folk. As they make their way around the villages, carol singing, they meet the new school mistress, Fancy Day. Of course one of the choir, Dick Dewey is enamoured and the story of their courtship begins. As the story unfolds, other would be suitors compete for her affections. All the rivals are drawn from different strata of society and Fancy is tempted by each one.
Alongside the romantic story line, we also glimpse the march of progress which is changing life in the rural villages in the nineteenth century. The Mellstock Male Choir with its fiddlers are to be replaced as the new vicar has obtained a new church organ. He is keen to modernise the local customs and also wishes to impress Fancy Day who is persuaded to play. It is agreed that the choir will bow out on a special day in the year and they try to accept the change with dignity.
There are several allusions in the novel to the changing times. Older models of courtship are remembered. The pattern of the book is set by the seasons as is the life of the villagers. I enjoyed the comic aspects of the novel which ended on a bittersweet note. An early novel being Hardy's second published novel, you can glimpse some of the themes which he dealt with in much more detail in subsequent stories: a pastoral way of life which is changing,fate and chance, progress, the passing of time and the consequences of human frailty.