By James Turner
From 8-12 October York St John University will be holding its inaugural ‘Comfort Reads Week’, hosted by ILE. This week of events seeks to celebrate and explore the power of reading for promoting and ensuring wellbeing. To get in the mood, we asked our students to tell us about their favourite comfort reads. In this post, James Turner shares his love of Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy.
When I say I enjoy reading Thomas Hardy it often provokes funny looks. And when people proceed to ask me why I like Hardy, I often find myself lost as to precisely why I do. Hence, writing this blog post has not been the easiest of tasks…
Admittedly, Hardy is not for everyone. When I chose Jude the Obscure for my English Literature A Level coursework my teacher wasn’t particularly thrilled at the prospect of reading the 408-page six part novel.
Although often side-lined as one of Hardy’s lesser works, Under the Greenwood Tree is nevertheless acknowledged as an important precursor to later novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Under the Greenwood Tree means a lot to me. I find myself returning to it time and again, not because it is the best book I have ever read, or even the most engaging, but because I believe that Hardy’s novels contain some magic in them. Every time you read them there is something new to be learnt. I managed to break down my love of Under the Greenwood Tree into three further (relatively) simple factors:
One of the main attractions (and comforts) of Hardy’s novels is the nostalgia one feels while reading them. His novels were old-fashioned at the time they were published. It has been pointed out by many modern critics that he tended to present the countryside as a utopian arcadia, largely brushing over the agricultural depression happening at the time. Yet, whilst reading Under the Greenwood Tree certainly, you are fully transported to Wessex, where the biggest problem faced by many of the characters in the novel is if the church band are going to be replaced by a modern organ. Hardy’s world is one free from the instant connection and stress of social media. It is a world where for most you are born in a village, most likely spending your life there and dying there. With none of the modern transport luxuries we have today, one would have to walk to get somewhere. It provides perspective into the way we over-complicate our lives and can be comforting in that respect. Although Hardy’s world is now distant and unreachable, I still find refuge in Hardy’s description of a by-gone era, and particularly of the landscape. The opening line perhaps captures the magic imbued in this novel best; “To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature”, Hardy knowing them all and missing out nothing.
Many would say Thomas Hardy’s novels are slow, and admittedly Under the Greenwood Tree is one of the slowest. It is a novel where the plot is quite literally no more than a basic love triangle between the new vicar Reverend Maybold, the new school teacher Fancy Day, and church musician Dick Dewey. Yet this is precisely why I find it so comforting. There is something soothing, almost hypnotic about reading this novel. It is not a tasking read. Under the Greenwood Tree is not a novel that gets the pulse going, nor is it action packed. It is constant, a book I can return to again and again with the knowledge that although the world around me may be in flux and constant change, the world I let myself fall back into will be very much the same. There is a slowness and predictability to the life describes, and this slowness is something that Hardy makes you feel, moreso in Under the Greenwood Tree than his other novels. It is perfect when you feel you want to be winding down after a stressful day. It lacks the tragedy (and controversy) that comes to characterise many of Hardy’s later novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure. Unlike the aforementioned, it doesn’t make you question life if only as far as questioning our modern lifestyle, and whether we lost something to the industrialisation that was taking place when Hardy was writing.
Although Hardy’s style may seem dated and archaic compared to the experimental contemporary literature coming out today, this is in itself comforting. Hardy has an ability to describe people, places and things in a very individual way that I have seen emulated nowhere else. The characters have human flaws, and I think it is this humanity shown in Under the Greenwood Tree that fully wins me over. Hardy captures the universality of human experience, and I can find myself relating to Dick’s emotions as he attempts to woo Fancy Day. It describes community, and the sharing of joys such as drink and fine food. Hardy’s Wessex is one of manners and courtship (one of the most intermit and outrageous scenes at the time of publishing is where Dick and Fancy wash their hands in the same sink allowing them to touch lightly – comical compared to today’s standards), but also one of dialect and class distinction.
So I suppose why bother to read this novel? I originally started reading Hardy as a way to discover the lost past of rural Britain, and found it had (as already mentioned, in fact it’s the title of the post) a comforting affect. Maybe it is because I come from an agricultural background, so feel I have a strong connection to some of themes Hardy is concerned with. But I believe it is more than that. The book has a simplicity that is itself inherently comforting. If someone were to ask me for a recommendation of a good novel, I would defiantly recommend Under the Greenwood Tree, not only because I consider Hardy to be a master of his craft and one of the most important British novelists, but also because I think there is something to be learnt from the past, and a degree of comfort to be found in it.
 Tomalin, C. (2006). Thomas Hardy Time Torn Man. London: Viking
Do you have a favourite Comfort Read you return to time and again? If so, and you’d like to share your love in a 600-800-word post, email our blog editors Adam (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Saffron (email@example.com).