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,

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