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Singsong in Wessex

June 15, 2012 14 comments

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.

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