Sunday, July 10, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 1 - Going Dutch

A tree at the junction of the North & South Warren Hills
outside of Beaminster, Dorset. Photo by Graham Horn (2008)
Thomas Hardy's second published novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, bears the curious subtitle of "The Mellstock Quire: A Rural Painting of the Dutch School." It's easy to overlook this as an authorial eccentricity but, as it turns out, heeding it is of vital importance in the task of enjoying this novel for what it is, rather than what it half-heartedly pretends to be.

During Hardy's extended stay in London (beginning in 1860), he tried on a number of creative hats above and beyond his work as an architect's assistant, including that of an art critic, though he probably would have thought of it more as art journalism. He spent many hours in the museums of London studying the work of the great master painters, developing an eye to perceive what techniques could be used to achieve what ends as well as a language to articulate what he saw. Indeed, many of Hardy's novels rely a kind of painterly language to describe landscapes and scenery in particular and imbue those descriptions with a poetic register more often reserved for feelings or people in other novelists' work.

So when Thomas Hardy says that he's writing something as "A Rural Painting of the Dutch School," it behooves us to take that seriously as he, no doubt, did in proclaiming it. I am not an art expert so I'm drawing from ideas that can be gleaned from a Wikipedia article and a couple of YouTube tutorials. I have no doubt that Hardy may have found more levels on which to weld his rural idyll to the conceptual framework of Dutch painting but here are the ones that pertain most obviously to Under the Greenwood Tree.

The first is precision in detail. If Desperate Remedies offered a hint at Hardy's future gift for describing people, places and things, it is Greenwood Tree where this impulse sees it first full expression. We'll be looking in particular at how Hardy uses his descriptions to compose a kind of emotional soundtrack to lay beneath his rather simple plot that gives it more heft.

Second, painters in the Dutch school are remembered for their choice of subject matter, elevating the lower above the greater. They liked to paint landscapes with no people in them. They selected more mundane items to foreground in their compositions. The working class became the subject of their portraits in lieu of dignitaries.

I believe that this applies to Greenwood in two different ways. First, this is a story about simple Dorset folks of limited social importance in the grand scheme . The most elevated characters in the book (Geoffrey Day, Fred Shiner and Parson Maybold) are a land steward (like Manston in Desperate Remedies), a farmer and a clergyman respectively. The novel's primary energies are tasked with recreating the complex social web that exists among Dorset folk, which brings me to my third and final point.

The love story which drives Under the Greenwood Tree's plot serves only as a frame to dictate the span of Hardy's panoramic sketch of the rural life in which he'd grown up. This is a secondary inversion of the "lower above the higher" variety as the setting and supporting characters are the genuine subjects of this portrait. As a result, the main characters are only broadly sketched and offer little in the way of depth to examine except for the dimensions in which they relate to the explication of the social systems of which they are a part. I do think there is one macabre implication in the plot worthy of mention as it is so classically Hardy so we'll explore that a little as well.

Photo Credit - By Graham Horn, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Monday, July 4, 2016

Writing Under the Greenwood Tree

The original two-volume edition
of Under the Greenwood Tree from
the Tinsley Brothers publishing house.
There is an apocryphal story about filmmaker Quentin Tarantino suggesting that he arrived in Los Angeles with one movie in his mind to make, but it was so sprawling that he couldn't convince anyone that it was filmable. In time, that one movie morphed into a string of films that formed the bedrock of his legacy: Natural Born Killers, True Romance, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

In the same manner, Thomas Hardy's unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady served as the springboard for several of Hardy's early novels including the first published under his own name, Under the Greenwood Tree. It is a testament to what a beast of novel Poor Man must have been that both Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree are supposed to contain large swaths of material from it but could not be more distant from one another in tone, focus and execution. Indeed, Hardy claimed to have begun Greenwood before abandoning it for what must have seemed like a more commercially viable approach to the plot-driven Remedies.

Desperate Remedies had been neither the resounding hit nor unmitigated failure that might have given Hardy a clear sign of what to do next. He had earned only about two-thirds of his initial investment in the book back, despite some positive reviews in conspicuous places. He began the process of placing his second novel in August of 1871 with the same publisher where he began, with Macmillan, offering Under the Greenwood Tree as a novel which built upon the positive feedback he'd gotten from readers about his ability to portray rural life in a convincing manner. Hardy steers its plot (such as it is) studiously away from any questions of moral impropriety that might have alienated Macmillan from publishing Poor Man.  

Under the Greenwood Tree's length (or lack thereof) proved to be an impediment in selling Macmillan on it as a publishable property. As the novel publishing business in England at the time was built on a model of books of a particular length (the three-volume model), moving something other than that may have been a privilege afforded to those who had proven their ability to attract an audience, which Hardy had not. It also lacks a certain narrative heft in the pages it does fill that may have made it seem even more slight than it was by page count.

Though Hardy was encouraged by their willingness to correspond with him on the possibility of publishing it, he was sufficiently convinced of their lack of interest in publishing it by October of that same year to begin seeking out other options. He crafted a letter to William Tinsley. who had published Desperate Remedies, alerting them to a favorable late review (penned by his friend Horace Moule) and dangling the possibility of two other novels, Under the Greenwood Tree and the not-yet written A Pair of Blue Eyes. Tinsley showed alternate moods of interest and disinterest in taking on Hardy's next novel until April of 1872, when Tinsley offered Hardy £30 for the copyright of the novel.

It behooves us to remark on the slow transition taking place in the publishing industry at that time, one that reflected the growing power of individual authors in relation to the publishing companies that brought their works to market. Hardy had availed himself of the less attractive of the two choices of the old paradigm, paying Tinsley a £75 guarantee against the publication of Desperate Remedies. This offer represented the other, guaranteeing Hardy £30 profit on the sale of his second novel but at the expense of his control over the work unto perpetuity. Before long, the industry would move towards the payment of royalties in exchange for temporary control of the copyright. This benefitted publisher and author alike as it lowered the non-manufacturing costs associated with publishing a book from a popular author (ie the advance) while guaranteeing a longer-term source of income (if the book were successful) to its author. These are the terms by which Hardy eventually would be able to make a living as a writer of novels but those days were yet some years in the future.

And so, desperate to build on whatever momentum he had accrued through the publication of Desperate Remedies, Thomas Hardy signed away the rights to his second novel to Tinsley in April of 1872 and the two-volume edition was published in June of that same year. It was the only novel for which he was never able to buy back the rights to regain control of the copyright.