Sunday, November 6, 2016

Under the Greenwood Tree Part 6 - Marriage and Jemima Hardy's Curious Philosophy

It's wot bwings us togevva today. 
I like a story with a bad moral. My sonnies, all true stories have a course touch or a bad moral, depend upon't. If the storytellers could ha' got decency and good morals from true stories, who'd ha troubled to invent parables? [Reuben Dewy]

I have reserved the love story that provides Under the Greenwood Tree with the bulk of its plot for the end of the discussion because its role in the novel is both slight and strange. Judged through the lens of great literature about the joys and hazards of young love, the story of Dick Dewy and Fancy Day's journey from strangers to spouses lacks on many levels. Both characters are written so flatly that they can hardly be said to have a personality at all. They have no interests drawing them together other than the fact that they are both described as being of above average attractiveness. The obstacles that arise along the way are either flimsy or ultimately brushed aside by something nonsensical. As a courting narrative, it is strangely uninspired by these deficiencies.

Where it fails in satisfying common expectation, though, Under the Greenwood Tree is rich in tantalizing opportunities to examine Thomas Hardy's anxieties about the rituals of love and marriage at a particularly momentous junction in his life. The novel was placed into its final form just after Hardy had met his own future wife, Emma, though it is suggested that some amount of it had been written prior to that meeting. Given the novel's intimate connection to Hardy's birthplace and his penchant for blending the biographical and fictional in his writings, I find the idea that it offers some of the clearest glimpses at Hardy's own inherited ideas (and distrust) of the institution of marriage to be too compelling to ignore. 

This is valuable information because Thomas Hardy's mother, Jemima, was known to hold some fairly curious notions about it herself and, miraculously, enforced them upon three of her four children. Only Tom escaped her expectations that the brothers and sisters should remain unmarried throughout their lives in the interest of maintaining some kind of clannish integrity and neither of his marriages yielded offspring. If that sounds weird, that's because it is. It's one of the enigmatic aspects of Hardy's life that baffles understanding, which is ironic because it positively haunts his work. One could say that it is what makes his art distinctive.

Throughout Under the Greenwood Tree, there is a recurring theme about love suggesting that is a kind of mania that robs both future husband and wife of their sanity and, once it's begun, there is no recovery for which one might hope. It is pronounced within the novel because it is not only demonstrated by the courting narrative but echoed by the members of the community who witness it.

After the Quire has serenaded Fancy Day on Christmas Eve, giving Dick his first glimpse of her, they retire to the church nearby to eat, drink and warm up before continuing their tour of the county. Suddenly, they realize that Dick has gone missing. After rattling through a list of possible tragedies that may have befallen him, Reuben declares:

'A strapping lad like Dick d'know better than let anything happen onawares,' Reuben remarked. 'There's sure to be some poor little scram reason for't staring us in the face all the while.' He lowered his voice to a mysterious tone: 'Neighbours, have ye noticed any sign of a scornful woman in his head, or suchlike?'

'Not a glimmer of such a body. He's as clear as water yet.'

'And Dicky said he should never marry,' cried Jimmy, 'but live at home always along wi' mother and we!'

'Ay, ay, my sonny; every lad has said that in his time.'

The answer was staring them "in the face all the while" as Dick has lingered at Fancy's window, where they later find him before moving on to play for the parson. There, Reuben makes a prophecy that Miss Day and the parson will become romantically involved, no doubt to his son's chagrin.

Prior to a party at the Dewy's later the next night, we are given this glimpse into Dick's parents' marriage. His mother remarks that, "Not one of my family were sich vulgar sweaters, not one of 'em. But Lord-a-mercy, the Dewys! I don't know how ever I cam' into such a family!" with his father reminding her that it was due to her "woman's weakness when I asked ye to jine us."

The subject of Reuben and Ann Dewy's courtship arises again when, much later in the book, Dick queries his father about how they came to be married.

"'Ann,' said I, as I was saying...'Ann,' I said to her when I was oiling my working-day boots wi' my head hanging down, 'Woot hae me?'...what came next I can't quite call up at this distance o' time. Perhaps your mother would know, --she's got a better memory for her little triumphs than I. However, the long and short o' the story is that we were married somehow, as I found out afterwards."

This notion of courtship amnesia is echoed by another community member, Mrs. Penny as she recalls how she broke with her first courting partner for her present husband, saying that "Penny asked me if I'd go snacks with him, and afore I knew what I was about a'most, the thing was done."

This metaphor of disassociation reaches into the plot itself at the book's climax, the wedding of Dick and Fancy. One would think that the wedding to which the book's action had been pointed for a few hundred pages would receive that classic Hardy description. Instead, we get this:

Now among dark perpendicular firs, like the shafted columns of a cathedral; now through a hazel copse, matted with primroses and wild hyacinths; now under broad beeches in bright young leaves they threaded their way into the high road over Yalbury Hill, which dipped at that point directly into the village of Geoffrey Day's parish; and in the space of a quarter of an hour Fancy found herself to be Mrs. Richard Dewy, though, much to her surprise, feeling no other than Fancy Day still.

This final note, about Fancy's surprise at her lack of transformation at this critical junction in her life, is the terminal ring of a warning bell that Hardy has been ringing throughout the book. In the final (and forthcoming) installment of our exploration of Under the Greenwood Tree, I'll be contrasting the novel with the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the novel from 2006 to show that while the book is a story of love, it is not one with a happy ending.

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