Under the Greewood Tree or The Mellstock Quire, Thomas Hardy (1872)

This story of the Mellstock Quire and its old established west-gallery musicians,…is intended to be a fairly true picture, at first hand of the personages, ways and customs which were common among such orchestral bodies in the villages of fifty or sixty years ago….One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen…by installing a single artist….Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players and singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. Thomas Hardy, Introduction

 

greenwoodUnder the Greenwood Tree concerns the fate of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, who have been informed by the vicar of their parish, Mr Maybold, that he intends to replace them with a single organist, Fancy Day, who is also the new school teacher. The vicar wants the small village to keep up with the times, which means changing the traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services with the more modern barrel organ. This is devastating to the musicians, some of whom come from families who have been church musicians for generations. In a last ditch effort to plead their case, they descend upon the vicar to negotiate, but the organ has been purchased and modernity has descended upon the little village.

Times have changed from the times they used to be…People don’t care much about us nowserpent! I’ve been thinking we must be almost the last left in the county of the old string players? Barrel-organs and the things next door to ‘em that you blow wi’ your foot, have come in terrible of late years….They should have stuck to strings as we did, and kept out of clarinets, and done away with serpents. If you’d thrive in musical religion, stick to strings…Strings be safe soul-lifters….

The story unfolds on Christmas Eve as the quire makes the many-hour trek through the night to the church. Hardy introduces us to a wonderful cast of characters including cantankerous old Reuben Dewy, frail young Thomas Leaf and Dewy’s grandson, Dick. When the group reaches the schoolyard near the church their playing rouses Fancy who comes to a window. This vision sparks the interest of Dick, who is quickly smitten. As the days turn into weeks he is in constant rumination on the details of her dress, her thoughts, aching over snippets of conversations, essentially embodying the hopes and fears of young romance.

Fancy’s interest in him grows, but her father is not impressed with the working class Dewy and forbids their marriage. Enter the iconic single woman of the town who people call a witch, whom Fancy visits for advice. She gives Fancy instructions on how to change her father’s mind and with success. The book ends with their marriage.

This is a wonderful pastoral tale of tradition versus progress, yet the fight is not so passionate, as the men of the quire understand they will lose in the end. Bargaining with the vicar to finish out the year before the organ takes over, he gives them only until Michaelmas. During this time they feel the changes coming on and know their days as musicians are numbered. And as Fancy gets to know the musicians and especially as her affection for Dick grows, she assures them she will NOT play the organ. But she can’t thwart progress either and the day comes for her debut.

The old choir, with humbled hearts, no longer took their seats in the gallery as heretofore, but were scattered about with their wives in different parts of the church. Having nothing to do with conducting the service for almost the first time in their lives, they all felt awkward, out of place, abashed, and inconvenienced by their hands.

Progress always has a human toll and while I ached for these musicians having to face a changing world, I was also impressed by their acceptance of the that reality.

Hardy’s prose in this early work is not without lengthy detailed descriptive passages that are unnecessary to the narrative. But there are other aspects of Hardy’s writing that I find quite beautiful and creative. In fact, in his opening paragraph where he describes the land surrounding the village he cleverly infuses his description of nature with musical description, being obviously a main point of the novel. This beginning paragraph will remain a favorite of mine for a long time.

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

________________

My Edition
Title: Under the Greenwood Tree or The Mellstock Quire
Author: Thomas Hardy
Publisher: Macmillan and Co., Limited
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1872
Pages: 273
Full plot summary

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19 thoughts on “Under the Greewood Tree or The Mellstock Quire, Thomas Hardy (1872)

  1. According to my list, I read this in 1978. So I think it’s time to revisit it, don’t you think Laurie? I can remember enjoying it, but then I have read most of Hardy’s books, some of them twice. It’s a nice review and I am glad you enjoyed the book. It’s certainly one of his lighter novels but just as perceptive as his other writing.

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  2. I am on a mission to read Hardy’s six more familiar novels. I’m currently on my fifth – Tess of the D’urbervilles – and I’ll read the sixth – Jude the Obscure – later this year. Under the Greenwood Tree did not make the six I wanted to read and, in a strange way, I was hoping your review wouldn’t be too favourable so that I would not feel too bad about giving it a miss! But, also in a strange way, I still don’t feel too bad. It sounds like many of the Hardy trademarks are present in Under the Greenwood Tree, but are not yet refined. Those long descriptive pieces become more poetic and pleasurable to read in later novels. If you liked this, I think you might really enjoy his others!

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    1. Hi Jason!

      This book fell into my lap, so to speak, at a used bookstore. The first pages interested me so I bought it. For one of my reading challenges I am going to read Jude the Obscure sometime this year and from what you and others have said reading this early work will make an interesting comparison..

      And by the way, if you are tempted to try and squeeze this in this year it is short 🙂

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  3. One of Hardy’s I haven’t read, but I find when it comes to the moors he is at his most lyrical. From your review this novel sounds less despondent and gloomy than most of his works. One of his other themes is the disconnect between how men and women understand one another and I wondered how this came across to you in “Under the Greenwood Tree”?

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          1. Having just finished Under the Greenwood Tree, I understand what you meant about “pastoral tale of tradition versus progress.” I too found this one to be much more light-hearted than his later works, with a sort of innocence to the characters. The end, however, had this sort of ominous foreboding which made me think of how “Tess” progresses. There is definitely also that theme of disconnect between the sexes in “Under the Greenwood Tree,” (which I wondered about) that tension Hardy loves to dwell on between what men and women actually are, how they view others, and the misunderstandings that arise from this. He doesn’t take it to the tragic limits of his maturer novels, but it remains prominent in this book as well. Thanks again for letting me discuss this with you and for getting me to finish the novel.

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  4. Being a musical child of the 60s and 70s, and an instrumentalist in an electric folk band to boot, I was much taken with crossovers between folk, rock and the early music movement which aimed at authentic recreations of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. So this novel was always one I thought I should read but had been put off by being forced to read The Trumpet Major at school (much too immature to understand the themes and appreciate the language at that age).

    You’ll be pleased to know then, Laurie, that you’ve persuaded me with such eloquence that this should be my reentry point for reacquainting myself with Hardy!

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    1. Your comment reminds me of my own participation in early music groups-flutist, recorder. But now I just listen 🙂 And isn’t it amazing the long-term effect school can have on one when it comes to ‘enforced’ reading?

      I think this book would be an excellent entry into the world of Thomas Hardy for you!

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  5. Great review! I did try this book of Hardy’s but it was an audiobook & I didn’t get very far. I have a copy of the book now so will have to try again. I do love his writing & have read a few of his others: Mayor of Casterbridge & Far From the madding Crowd are my favourites so far.

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  6. I habe read two Thomas Hardy novels, Tess of the d’Urbervilles And Far from the Madding Crowd. I loved them both. Change and looming modenity are themes that he likes to explore. The plot of this one sounds a little different. It sounds very good. I would like to, and probably will eventually, give this a try.

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