I’m an ardent lover of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but up to now I was most familiar with his well-known, tragic works. This, his second published novel, is a comic romance, with only a slight suggestion of potential misfortune to come.
The novel opens with the men of the Mellstock choir preparing to make their rounds through the village on Christmas Eve. They’re presented as genial rustics, with perhaps more enthusiasm than talent, and you can tell they enjoy their time together. The men of the choir and their families provide much of the novel’s humor. Hardy can be very funny, and this novel, with its lack of melodrama, makes his humor and fun easy to see. Here, for instance, are the choir members’ musing on a particularly challenging carol:
“Number seventy-eight was always a teaser—always. I can mind him ever since I was growing up a hard boy-chap.”
“But he’s a good tune, and worth a mint 0f practice,” said Michael.
“He is; though I’ve been mad enough wi’ that tune at times to seize en and tear en all to linnit. Ay, he’s a splendid carrel—there’s no denying that.”
“The first line is well enough,” said Mr Spinks; “but when you come to ‘O, thou man,’ you make a mess o’t.”
“We’ll have another go into en, and see what we can make of the martel. Half-an-hour’s hammering at en will conquer the toughness of en; I’ll warn it.”
As the singers make their way through the village, they stop at the schoolhouse to play and sing for Miss Fancy Day, the village’s new schoolteacher. Young Dick Dewy is immediately taken with Fancy’s beauty and begins to shyly court her, little by little claiming a place in her affections even when richer and more intellectual beaus appear.
Fancy is beautiful and intelligent and has a mind of her own, even if she doesn’t always know her own mind. One of the things I love about Thomas Hardy’s writing is that he doesn’t stint in characterization of his women. Sue Bridehead of Jude is one of the most complex and fascinating women I’ve ever encountered in a book. Fancy is no Sue Bridehead, and I actually didn’t like her much, but I liked the way Hardy wrote her. She is smart and lovely, but confused and needy and sometimes maddeningly superficial and selfish. She’s been both spoiled and neglected, and she can’t quite figure out who she is, much less what she wants. Hardy doesn’t tell us all of this about Fancy—he just lets us intuit it as we watch her obsess over her clothing, to the resentment of Dick.
But I think Fancy is more than just a woman confused about love in the world of this novel. I think she somehow represents the changes coming to rural communities like Hardy’s fictional Wessex. On the one hand, she is the harbinger of change. Her skill in playing music eventually leads to the end of the Mellstock choir, and even though she does nothing to bring about the choir’s demise besides accept the invitation to play, she is obviously pleased and proud when the day finally comes to show off her talent. But in another way, she’s making the choice. Does she choose to give her love to the man who represents old-fashioned country life—a third-generation member of the Mellstock choir? Or does she choose the man who can offer more money and has her father’s blessing? Or the one who can take her away and show her new worlds? Does she opt for the old ways, for financial security, or new horizons? The new ways are beguiling, but where does her heart lie?
In the end, she makes her choice, and all seems well as the villagers gather under a greenwood tree. But the book’s final line reminds us that Fancy is her own woman with secrets. The happy ending feels tenuous, and the nightingale that sings feels like a warning. The old ways have just barely survived so far, and the vows that are holding the community together may not be such a firm foundation.