Tuesday, September 05, 2006

In which I apologize to Thomas Hardy

In high school, I read and scorned The Mayor of Casterbridge and by extension its author. I don't really remember why-- maybe I wasn't in the mood for its grimness, maybe it's what the kids were doing those days. I never picked up Hardy again, even when my friend Mike of excellent and discerning taste praised him to the heavens.

Until I read Under the Greenwood Tree (admittedly a lesser Hardy) this weekend. I would like now to offer a formal retraction of my high school scorn.

Under the Greenwood Tree is lovely-- a light tale of a village church choir who are asked to cease performing in the church and make way for the new fashion of organ music, and also of a young carrier's son in love with the village schoolmistress who toys with him a bit before the inevitable happy ending. As one of Hardy's earlier works, it presages many of the themes he develops more deeply and darkly elsewhere: the profound, irreversible shifts in village life that break down old ways of relating, the way secrets corrode one from the inside, and more. Only by reading back from his famous works can we really apprehend this, though. As Simon Gattrell says in his introduction, this novel represents "the relative innocence which in his later fiction becomes blighted with knowledge" but in which we can still believe in a future "in which Tess Durbeyfield will not be violated, deserted, and hanged, and Jude Fawley will not be seduced, frustrated, and abandoned to die."

The novel runs from winter through a year to another spring, and Hardy's descriptions of nature and the natural cycles of village life confirm that, while this is a pastoral narrated for a wider and more sophisticated readership, the narrator's sympathies are fully engaged with the village and its characters. And he is keen to make clear just how good life in the country can be. Take this passage:

The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears by the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves; when the night-jar comes and strikes up for the summer his tune of one note: when the apple-trees have bloomed and the roads and orchard grass become spotted with fallen petals; when the faces of the delicate flowers are darkened and their heads weighed down by the throng of honey-bees, which increase their humming till humming is too mild a term for the all-pervading sound; and when cuckoos, blackbirds, and sparrows that have hitherto been merry and respectful neighbors become noisy and persistent intimates.

Just reading this, I feel refreshed. And motivated to read more Hardy, despite the guarantee that whatever I read next will be far more bleak. What fun it is to change one's mind on an author, and for the better.


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