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In the same manner, Thomas Hardy's unpublished The Poor Man and the Lady served as the springboard for several of Hardy's early novels including the first published under his own name, Under the Greenwood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.

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