Jun 022014


Today is the birthday (1840) of Thomas Hardy, English author and poet remembered chiefly for his major novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Hardy thought of himself principally as a poet and wrote novels primarily to make money. His classic novels are noted for their criticism of Victorian society, fatalism, irony, and melancholy. But outside the Hardy that most people know from the major works there is a deeply complex vein.

Hardy was born in 1840 in Higher Bockhampton (Upper Bockhampton in his day), a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in Dorset, where his father Thomas worked as a stonemason and local builder. His mother Jemima was well read, and she educated Thomas until he went to his first school at Bockhampton at age eight. For several years he attended Mr Last’s Academy for Young Gentlemen in Dorchester. Here he learned Latin and demonstrated academic potential. Because Hardy’s family lacked the means for a university education, his formal education ended at the age of sixteen, when he became apprenticed to James Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862 where he enrolled as a student at King’s College London. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association. Hardy was in charge of the excavation of the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church prior to its destruction when the Midland Railway was extended to a new terminus at St Pancras.

Hardy never felt at home in London, however, because he was acutely conscious of class divisions and his social inferiority by standards of the time. However, during this time he became interested in social reform and the works of John Stuart Mill. He was also introduced by his Dorset friend, Horace Moule, to the works of Charles Fourier and Auguste Comte. Five years later, concerned about his health, he returned to Dorset and decided to dedicate himself to writing.


In 1870, while on an architectural mission to restore the parish church of St Juliot in Cornwall, Hardy met and fell in love with Emma Lavinia Gifford, whom he married in 1874. Although they later became estranged, her death in 1912 had a traumatic effect on him and after her death, Hardy made a trip to Cornwall to revisit places linked with their courtship, and his Poems 1912–13 reflect upon her death. In 1914, Hardy married his secretary Florence Emily Dugdale, who was 39 years his junior. However, he remained preoccupied with his first wife’s death and tried to overcome his remorse by writing poetry.

Hardy became ill with pleurisy in December 1927 and died at Max Gate just after 9 pm on 11 January 1928, having dictated his final poem to his wife on his deathbed. The cause of death was cited, on his death certificate, as “cardiac syncope” with “old age” given as a contributory factor. His funeral was on 16 January at Westminster Abbey, and it proved a controversial occasion because Hardy and his family and friends had wished for his body to be interred at Stinsford in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. However, his executor, Sir Sydney Carlyle Cockerell, insisted that he be placed in the abbey’s famous Poets’ Corner. A compromise was reached whereby his heart was buried at Stinsford with Emma, and his ashes in Poets’ Corner.


I could dribble on for a while about themes in Hardy’s writing, but I’m not going to. Instead I am going to focus on my favorite work of his, Under the Greenwood Tree. It tends to get classified as a minor novel by the critics but I rarely pay attention to critics. It was Hardy’s second novel, published anonymously in 1872. It was the first of his so-called Wessex novels – set in what is actually Dorset and surrounds, but most of the names of towns and villages have been changed.


The narrative centers on the changes that take place in the village of Mellstock – actually Hardy’s home town of Stinsford – when a new vicar takes office and a new school teacher arrives. The vicar wants to modernize the church in many ways, but the centerpiece of the novel is that he wants to get rid of the old West Gallery choir and replace them with an organ.

West Gallery music, also known as “Georgian psalmody” refers to the sacred music (metrical psalms, with a few hymns and anthems) sung and played in English parish churches, as well as nonconformist chapels, from 1700 to around 1850. The term derives from the wooden galleries which were constructed at the west end of churches during the 18th century upon which the choir would perform. Victorians disapproved of these Georgian galleries, and most were removed during restorations in the 19th century.

The music sung by gallery choirs often consisted of metrical psalm settings by composers with little formal training, often themselves local teachers or choir members. The tunes are usually two to four voice parts. “Tunes in reports” or fuguing tunes featured imitative entries of the parts, while anthems (settings of prose texts from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer) often had changes of texture and musical meter.


Most early West Gallery groups sang unaccompanied, but later they were augmented by instruments such as the violin, bass viol (cello), clarinet, flute, and bassoon. As the primary purpose of the accompanying instruments was to maintain the pitch of the singers, they tended to double the vocal parts, with depictions of such groups (such as in Thomas Webster’s painting “The Village Choir” pictured here) showing each instrument leading a group of singers gathered around it. Here’s a modern recreation of the style.

The plot of Under the Greenwood Tree concerns the activities of a group of church musicians, the Mellstock parish choir, one of whom, Dick Dewy, becomes romantically entangled with an attractive new school mistress, Fancy Day. The novel opens with the players and singers of the choir—including Dick, his father Reuben Dewy, and grandfather William Dewy—making the rounds in Mellstock village on Christmas Eve. When the little band plays at the schoolhouse, young Dick falls for Fancy at first sight. Dick, smitten, seeks to insinuate himself into her life and affections, but Fancy’s beauty has gained her other suitors, including a rich farmer and the new vicar at the parish church.

The vicar, Mr. Maybold, informs the choir that he intends Fancy, an accomplished organ player, to replace their traditional musical accompaniment to Sunday services. The choir leader and the rest of the band visit the vicar’s home to negotiate, but reluctantly give way to the more modern organ. Meanwhile, Dick seems to win Fancy’s heart, and she discovers an effective strategem to overcome her father’s objection to the potential marriage. After the two are engaged secretly, however, vicar Maybold impetuously asks Fancy to marry him and lead a life of relative affluence. Racked by guilt and temptation, she accepts. The next day, however, at a chance meeting with the as-yet-unaware Dick, Maybold withdraws his proposal; and Fancy, simultaneously, has withdrawn her acceptance.

The novel ends with a humorous portrait of Reuben, William, Mr. Day, and the rest of the Mellstock rustics as they celebrate the couple’s wedding day. The mood is joyful, but at the end of the final chapter, the reader is reminded that Fancy has married with “a secret she would never tell” (her final flirtation and brief engagement to the vicar). While Under the Greenwood Tree is often seen as Hardy’s gentlest and most pastoral novel, this final touch introduces a faint note of melancholy to the conclusion.

The plot itself is rather thin, but two aspects of the novel stand out for me. First there is the portrayal of the rustics themselves which is quite loving. There is a degree of gentle humor in the way he treats a few of them, but it is never condescending. In later Wessex novels these characters play minor roles, but here they are front and center, and the essence of the novel lies in their characterization and interplay. Hardy’s language is at its most fluid and romantic in this novel, I believe. Here are the opening lines:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

Second, the whole work is a lament about modernization and the havoc it wrought on local farming communities. Here’s an excerpt from Hardy’s introduction:

One is inclined to regret the displacement of these ecclesiastical bandsmen by an isolated organist (often at first a barrel-organist) or harmonium player; and despite certain advantages in point of control and accomplishment which were, no doubt, secured by installing the single artist, the change has tended to stultify the professed aims of the clergy, its direct result being to curtail and extinguish the interest of parishioners in church doings. Under the old plan, from half a dozen to ten full-grown players, in addition to the numerous more or less grown-up singers, were officially occupied with the Sunday routine, and concerned in trying their best to make it an artistic outcome of the combined musical taste of the congregation. With a musical executive limited, as it mostly is limited now, to the parson’s wife or daughter and the school-children, or to the school-teacher and the children, an important union of interests has disappeared.

The zest of these bygone instrumentalists must have been keen and staying to take them, as it did, on foot every Sunday after a toilsome week, through all weathers, to the church, which often lay at a distance from their homes. They usually received so little in payment for their performances that their efforts were really a labour of love. In the parish I had in my mind when writing the present tale, the gratuities received yearly by the musicians at Christmas were somewhat as follows: From the manor-house ten shillings and a supper; from the vicar ten shillings; from the farmers five shillings each; from each cottage-household one shilling; amounting altogether to not more than ten shillings a head annually—just enough, as an old executant told me, to pay for their fiddle-strings, repairs, rosin, and music-paper (which they mostly ruled themselves). Their music in those days was all in their own manuscript, copied in the evenings after work, and their music-books were home-bound.

There it is in a nutshell: the catastrophe of modernization. The life and spirit of the community dies under the onslaught of “progress.” Under the Greenwood Tree does not have within it all the pathos and human tragedy of Hardy’s later novels. But to me the scenario is infinitely more tragic. Here Hardy is not describing the downfall of individuals, but the collapse of an entire way of life.

Dorset farm cooking is legendary and a great example of English regional cooking at its finest. There is Dorset sausage (which is actually a meat loaf), Dorset Lamb Crumble, Long Puddle Lamb, and Piddle Bacon cake. The latter is named for the River Piddle around which many villages had “piddle” in their names. But the Victorians cleaned up many of them, substituting “puddle” for “piddle.” For the sweet tooth there’s Dorset Apple Cake and Blandford Pudding made with gooseberries. There’s Dorset Blue Vinney a delightful blue veined cheese which goes well on Dorset Knobs, a hard biscuit. Dorset clotted cream makes a perfect cream tea, and Dorset ice cream almost makes me weep with joy.

Here I give you Dorset jugged beef. It is traditionally a festive dish – rich and flavorful. It is essentially a beef stew in a gravy flavored with port and redcurrant, but made special with the addition of forcemeat balls.


Dorset Jugged Beef


1 ½ lb stewing steak, cut into cubes
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
4 cloves
salt and pepper
¼ pint port
beef stock
8 oz sausage meat
2 oz fresh breadcrumbs
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp redcurrant jelly


Preheat the oven to 325°F

Place the meat in a sealable bag with some flour. Close the top and shake until it is thoroughly coated. Then remove the meat and put it into a dutch oven.

Add the onion and cloves. Pour in the port and just enough stock to cover the meat. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Close the dutch oven and bake for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender.

In a bowl, mix together the sausage meat, breadcrumbs and parsley. Use your hands to do this part so that the ingredients are evenly and thoroughly mixed. Then form the mix into 8 balls.

40 minutes before the end of cooking place the meatballs in the dutch oven and add the redcurrant jelly. Bake uncovered for the remaining 40 minutes to help reduce the sauce.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread or Dorset knobs.

Serves 4