Part One: Winter
Summary: Chapter One ‘Mellstock-lane’, Chapter Two ‘The Tranter’s and Chapter Three ‘The Assembled Choir’
The novel begins with the following sentence: ‘To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature’. This reference to individuality is continued as the narrative focuses on a man passing a plantation on a Christmas Eve ‘less than a generation ago’. He sings as he walks and someone answers his song and the voice then asks if that is Dick Dewy. Dick replies, “‘Ay, sure, Michael Mail!’”
Michael asks Dick to stop and wait as they are all going to the home of Dick’s father. Irregular footsteps can be heard and five men of different ages emerge from the grove. They are all villagers of the parish of Mellstock and represented ‘the chief portion of Mellstock parish choir’. Michael Mail is the first and eldest of them and he carries a fiddle. The next is Robert Penny, a boot and shoemaker, and then Elias Spinks. The fourth is Joseph Bowman and the fifth is Thomas Leaf. Dick asks where the boys are and Michael tells him they have been told to stay at home for a while. They head off for the hamlet Lewgate and the ‘faint sound of church bells ringing a Christmas peal’ can be heard. They enter a garden and go up the path to Dick’s house.
In Chapter Two, the cottage is described as small, low and thatched. The men enter and Dick’s father, Reuben, is there and he is referred to as a ‘tranter, an irregular carrier’ (as a mover of goods and people) and is aged around 40.
The main room is decked with holly and other evergreens, and mistletoe is hung from the middle of a huge beam. Ann Dewy, Dick’s mother, and the four other children (who are Susan, Jim, Bessy and Charley) are here and they are aged from 16 to 4.
The men are welcomed in by the Dewys and Ann tells Tommy to come and sit down and asks Mr Penny about his daughter, Mrs Brownjohn. He says “‘pretty fair’” and adds that “‘she’ll be worse before she’s better’”. He also says how she has had five children and buried three.
Reuben is ‘tapping’ his barrel of cider and Ann warns him to not make a mess indoors. When he makes a hole and cider spurts out, he asks Michael to put his thumb in while he gets a bigger tap. Reuben then calls for his father and tells him the barrel is ready (tapped).
Chapter Three introduces William Dewy, the father of Reuben, and he is described as being about 70. He throws down an armful of logs and calls in Grandfather James (who is a grandfather on the maternal side and lives alone).
The choir talk about the carols they will sing. Mr Penny interrupts and remembers he should have gone to the schoolhouse as he has a boot to take there. He takes a last from his pocket and then a boot which he says belongs to Fancy Day, the daughter of Geoffrey. He places the boot on the table and they converge around it like ‘wheel-spokes’. Mr Penny says how he can see a resemblance between the last, which is Geoffrey’s, and his daughter’s boot.
Analysis – Chapter One ‘Mellstock-lane’, Chapter Two ‘The Tranter’s and Chapter Three ‘The Assembled Choir’
These first few chapters set the scene and lay out the landscape of the novel. The rural backdrop is seen to be inhabited by these men who form a choir and they are introduced to the readers as they prepare to sing carols to those who live nearby.
The tone of these and later chapters is amiable and purposely light. Furthermore, by beginning at Christmas time there is a sense of anticipation of pleasure as well as a gesture to Christianity.
Many of the characters are revealed here as they chat together about the forthcoming night’s events. The readers are also made aware of Fancy, although this is done via her shoe than by her presence in the text. The way the men gather around the table hints to the future as men are later seen to be attracted to her in this manner in the flesh.
Summary – Chapter Four ‘Going the Rounds’, Chapter Five ‘The Listeners’, and Chapter Six ‘Christmas Morning’
The singing boys arrive at the tranter’s house just after 10 o’clock. The older men and musicians are described as wearing thick coats and colored handkerchiefs round their necks. The others are mainly dressed in white ‘smock-frocks’ that are embroidered with patterns. The boys light the lanterns and because there has been a thin fall of snow those without leggings put hay round their ankles to keep the flakes from the interior of their boots.
They sing in the parish of Mellstock, which is spread over a large area, and several hours are taken in singing within the hearing of each family. This includes East and West Mellstock and Lewgate. William Dewy plays the ‘violincello’ and his grandson, Dick, the treble violin. Reuben and Michael Mail play the tenor and second violin respectively. They set out at midnight and by 2 o’clock they pass the Home Plantation toward the main village.
Michael Mail talks about how times have changed and how he thinks “‘we must be almost the last left in the country of the old string players’”. He also says barrel organs and harmoniums are replacing them.
They cross toward the school and form a semi-circle and sing hymn number 78, which refers to Adam’s fall. No movement comes from the schoolhouse and they sing another and again no notice is shown to have been taken of their performance. The tranter wonders if she ‘sneers’ at their ‘doings’ as she has come from the city, and Mr Penny says “‘od rabbit her!’” They sing one more song and still no sign is given that they have been heard.
A light appears in an upper floor window in Chapter Five. A young woman opens the window and thanks them and goes back inside. The men note her prettiness and agree “‘that such a sight was worth singing for’”.
They go to Farmer Shinar’s after this and he shouts at them for making a noise when he has a headache. They continue and William says they cannot be insulted in this way. The farmer opens a window and they play louder to drown out what he says.
When they retire, William says how Shinar has been “‘unseemly’” especially as the farmer is a churchwarden. The tranter says he has had a drink and is in “‘his worldly frame’” now. He adds that they will invite him to their party and bear no ill will against him.
They proceed to the lower village and have food and drink. William notices Dick’s absence then and the tranter shouts for him. They retrace their steps and find him at the schoolhouse. The ‘lost man’ is leant against a wall and is looking up at the window. His father asks him what he is doing and he says nothing. They go to the vicarage after this and perform there. Mr Maybold, the vicar, does not stir at first, but cries “‘thanks villagers’” from his bedclothes. The tranter predicts that “‘that young vision’” (Fancy Day) will wind the “‘tinner-voiced parson’” round her finger.
In Chapter Six, Dick’s sleep is disturbed with the thought of Fancy and in the morning he keeps thinking of her, ‘the Vision’, and wonders if she will be in church. They prepare to attend the service and grandfather, father and son take their instruments with them.
The difference between the people in the gallery and the nave at church is referred to. The choir is at the back of the gallery and Dick sees Fancy enter the porch door. ‘Ever afterwards’ he remembers everything of the service of that Christmas morning, including the tunes, the text, the dust on the piers and the holly in the chancel archway. Mr Maybold also notices Fancy and he ‘sedulously endeavoured to reduce himself to his normal state of mind’.
When the singing is ‘in progress’, a ‘strong and shrill reinforcement’ comes from the schoolgirls. This has never happened before ‘within the memory of man’. The girls like the others had previously been ‘humble’ and followed the lead of the gallery. ‘A good deal of desperation’ is evident among the choir. Mr Bowman calls them “‘brazen-faced hussies’” and Mr Spinks asks “‘Shall anything bolder be found that united woman?’” The tranter says he wants to know what business people have telling them to sing like that when they are not sat in the gallery and have never been in one. Mr Spinks says “‘we useless ones’” should march out with their fiddles and all and laughs. Only the ‘initiated body of men’ understood the ‘horrible bitterness of irony’ of these words.
The chapter ends with the information that Ann tells the family at breakfast that she intends to invite Fancy – the ‘youthful leader of the culprits’ – to their party that night and this brightens Dick.
Analysis – Chapter Four ‘Going the Rounds’, Chapter Five ‘The Listeners’, and Chapter Six ‘Christmas Morning’
The spirit of change is strongly suggested as the music made by the men in the choir is diminished in church by the united voices of the schoolgirls. These are referred to variously as ‘united women’ and ‘brazen-faced hussies’ and their behavior signals a challenge to the past and possibly patriarchy in the way they no longer perform in the usual ‘humble’ fashion.
Change is also alluded to earlier in Chapter Four when Michael Mail points out they must be among the last of their kind now, of ‘old string players’, and considers how the harmonium and barrel organ are replacing them. Progress, it is suggested, is tied up with improvements in technology and with the redundancy of men.