On a cold and starry Christmas Eve in 1850s Wessex, or a thinly disguised rural Dorset, the Mellstock Church “Quire” of fiddlers and singers keep up the time-honoured tradition of carolling their way round the scattered hamlets of the parish, to a mixed reception. Farmer Shiner bawls at them to shut up, which only incites them to play even louder, the young vicar murmurs his thanks without getting out of bed, and pretty new schoolmistress Fancy Day poses in her window with a candle, captivating the tranter’s (carrier’s) son Dick Dewey. The course of their love affair forms the main theme, but the secondary one of the vicar’s desire to replace the quire with a modern cabinet organ to be played by none other than Fancy Day, is no less important since it reflects the changes in society which are gathering pace as old habits wither away, and strong communities are ruptured as people begin to drift to the towns for work.
There is in fact relatively little about this trend in the novel, despite Hardy’s interest in social and political matters. Having had his first novel rejected as likely to alienate readers with its radical ideas, Hardy played safe with “Under the Greenwood Tree”, intended as a “study of rural life”, the motley local characters, with their pithy, quirky observations in the local dialect, forming a humorous background to the romance. So, it forms a sharp contrast to Hardy’s subsequent gripping but progressively more bleakly tragic novels:“The Mayor of Casterbridge”; “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure.”
Years later, Hardy seemed to regret having written “so lightly, so farcically and flippantly at times” rather than develop a deeper study of the group of musicians, who are portrayed as somewhat two-dimensional comical characters, as indicated by the description of their silhouettes against the sky as they gather to sing at Christmas Eve. The novel is strongest in its vivid description of rural life: the closeknit community with the tranter throwing his cottage open for an uproarious Christmas party with dancing; the tolerant inclusion of the “simple-minded” Thomas Leaf, although he serves a useful purpose in being the only one able to sing a “top G”, the smoking out of the bees to gather their honey, at which Head Keeper’s daughter Fanny is still adept despite having been educated “to be a lady”. With echoes of Hardy’s poems, there are many striking images of the countryside such as the distinctive sounds made by different trees in the opening paragraph: the fir trees rock, the holly whistles and the “ash hisses amid its quiverings”.
The possibility of tragedy in the book’s climax and the final sentence with its twist of ambiguity give hints of Hardy’s darker later masterpieces.