Classics of the Month: Hardy and Sackville-West

This is the first post in a new monthly series intended to encourage myself to read more of the classics I own. In January I read two works of classic literature: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.

My battered Jacket Library edition.
My battered Jacket Library edition.

Between college and grad school I read Hardy’s five major novels, but it’s probably been ten years or more since I tried a new one. Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite books of all time, so I couldn’t help but compare Under the Greenwood Tree* to it – unfavorably, alas – as I was reading.

Greenwood was Hardy’s second novel, published in 1872. That’s just two years before Madding Crowd, and the two are quite similar in a few ways: the main female character is a conceited flirt who has to decide between three potential suitors; the supporting cast is made up of “rustics” who speak in country dialect; and the Dorset setting, including the landscape, weather and traditional activities, is a strong presence in its own right.

But where Bathsheba Everdene, though periodically maddening, is ultimately a sympathetic figure, Greenwood’s Fancy Day is a character I could never warm to. As the new schoolteacher and organist in Mellstock village, she puts on airs and imagines she’s too good for Dick Dewy, a salt-of-the-earth peddler. She’s also incurably vain. “Yes, I must wear the hat, dear Dicky, because I ought to wear a hat, you know,” she says, even though Dick calls the hat “Rather too coquettish.”

A bare-bones summary of the novel makes it sound more entertaining than it actually is: A set of country musicians (the “Mellstock Quire”) learns their services are no longer required at the local church; they are to be replaced by an organ. The novel opens on Christmas Eve and in the early chapters proceeds by way of caroling, cider drinking and dances. It’s rather jolly, but where is it all going? Then, once the plot takes over, Fancy’s weighing up of the wooing attentions of Dick, Mr. Shiner and Parson Maybold soon grows tedious.

The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.
The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.

Whereas the passages about the rustics are brief, welcome interludes in Madding Crowd, here they are nearly constant and start to feel overpowering. “You are charmed on condition that you accept Hardy’s condescension towards his characters,” Claire Tomalin observes in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. They are harmless folk, but their rural way of life will soon be superseded. The novel is set a generation back, in about the 1840s, so has an elegiac tone to it, and Hardy’s subtitles suggest he was trying to freeze an image of a bygone time.

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Fancy’s directives for her wedding reception make clear the divide between old and new:

The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an additional precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter [Dick’s father] to carefully avoid saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste; also that they were never to be seen drawing the back of the hand across the mouth after drinking—a local English custom of extraordinary antiquity, but stated by Fancy to be decidedly dying out among the upper classes of society.

This is a pleasant enough book, and at just 160 or so pages goes by fairly quickly, yet I found myself losing interest at many points and often could not bear to read more than one short chapter at a time. At this rate, will I ever get to decidedly minor Hardy novels like The Hand of Ethelberta, The Trumpet-Major, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and A Laodicean?

2-5-star-rating

*“Under the greenwood tree” is a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Favorite unrelated line: “Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em.”

 

No Signposts in the Sea (1961) is my second taste of Sackville-West’s fiction (after All Passion Spent). It was her last novel, published just one year before her death, and was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. She was at this point already ill with the cancer that would kill her, though it was as yet undiagnosed.

That context goes a long way towards explaining the preoccupations of No Signposts, set on board a cruise ship and narrated by fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist who has been told by his doctor that he has just a few months to live. He’s embarked on the voyage to be close to the woman he loves, forty-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. She has no idea that he’s ill, and as the weeks pass and they share tender moments – dinner on shore at an island based on Macao, a lightning storm viewed from her private balcony – he dares to hope that she might return his feelings but still doesn’t tell her about his imminent death, even as she makes tentative plans for excursions they might take once they’re back in London.

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The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his eventual death. It’s full of his solitary musings but also his conversations with Laura, who is refreshingly unconventional in her approach to relationships:

I can’t abide the Mr. and Mrs. Noah attitude towards marriage; the animals went in two by two, forever stuck together with glue. I resent it as much for other people as I should for myself. It seems to me a degradation of individual dignity.

She also tells a story about a lesbian couple she knows who are aging happily together; it feels a bit out of place, but its inclusion is striking given Sackville-West’s history of lesbian relationships.

I’d recommend this short novel to anyone who’s looking for a quick women’s classic with plenty to say about what matters in life.

3-5-star-rating

 

Next month: I’ve never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and it seems to be having something of a resurgence in popularity at the moment, so perhaps now is the time?

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18 thoughts on “Classics of the Month: Hardy and Sackville-West

  1. Under the Greenwood Tree was the first Hardy I read. It was a school set text when I was 13 and did little to encourage me to read more: a shame, as I’ve since learnt to like his work a lot. You’ve made me realsie that Sackville West is someone I haven’t read either. Not a chance I’d have been introduced to HER at school.

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    1. That’s an interesting point — if it had been my first Hardy, would I have kept going?? As it was, Far from the Madding Crowd was my first and I absolutely loved it. That kept me going back for more: six of his novels in total, now, I believe, with only the minor ones sat on the shelf still to read.

      I think Vita Sackville-West is very underrated and low-profile compared to Woolf et al.

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  2. I just finished No Signposts in the Sea on Thursday night. I really liked it, glad you did too. My favourite VSW is probably The Heir and Family History – beware of Challenge it is dire.
    I am a massive Hardy fan – and I rather love Under the Greenwood Tree, I’ve read it four times. I love the mood of it, the sense of things changing. Fancy Day is awful, but I still love the novel.

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    1. It was your Christmas reading post that encouraged me to start Under the Greenwood Tree around Christmas time. Though it’s not one of my favorite Hardys, I’m still glad to have read it. It does give a lovely sense of the seasons changing, and the times changing for the people of the countryside.

      I have VSW’s The Edwardians and Pepita on the shelf, but I’m not sure I’ll be reading them any time soon!

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  3. Under the Greenwood Tree was the first Hardy I read, and I probably only kept going because I knew the others were grim and I wanted to prove myself. (I wasn’t allowed Jude the Obscure until I was seventeen, on the grounds that it would give me nightmares, which turned out to be true.) Like you, though, I have yet to hit the absolutely minor ones…

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      1. Yup! My mum once told me it was really sad and horrible—I was quite small, like eight or nine—and I decided I wanted to read it JUST TO PROVE I COULD. She had to be low-level vigilant when we were in bookshops.

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  4. I think I’ve only read Tess, which was difficult, but it grew on me with time. Hmm, no The Mayor of Casterbridge, too, but it was a school text and I raced through blindly (not intentionally, just a heavy reading course). It makes me smile that you think the barebones description of UtGT makes it sound more interesting than it is; it’s usually the other way ’round with those situations. Heheh In any case, I’m as likely to try this one as any other, but not dramatically pulled in Hardy’s direction to start with. Although I admire your goal of reading more classics. That’s something I might aim for in 2018. It’s not too soon to consider next year’s reading goals, is it? *grins*

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  5. I really enjoyed reading all of Hardy along with Ali a few years ago, and The Trumpet-Major was one I really liked, so I do recommend that. And this VS-W is one of the few I haven’t read; it might not be the right mood for me right now but it’s on the radar.

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