Years ago, when I was studying English Literature, The Mayor of Casterbridge (Oxford World's Classics) was on one of our reading lists, and I remember it mainly as a rather depressing book. So maybe that's why ever since I've shirked away from Hardy? Or was it because I found his use of local language and dialect perhaps too daunting? Whichever it may be, I've resolved that this will no longer do but, to 'soften the blow' as it were, I started by reading 'Under the Greenwood Tree' because reputedly it's one of his sunniest novels.
And so it is! Sure enough, not all is well in Mellstock village and Dick Dewy has to persevere to get Fancy Day's attention, and others fancy her too, but all in all this is a happy love-story, in the unique pastoral setting of Wessex ('part real, part dream-land' as Hardy put it). Hardy uses a seasonal framework (the story develops from one summer to the next), and - true to his reputation - I found that Hardy is indeed a master at creating the sense of a country community in times past, living their lives attuned to the rhythm of nature. The characters too are very well done, from grandfather William to the young vicar Maybold: each is subtly but very nicely drawn, and they all acquire a real voice and 'presence'. The story flows along quite easily and naturally, and I was glad to find that (as a non-native speaker) the dialect turned out to be no problem at all (indeed, without it the book simply wouldn't be half as good). So it's on to The Return of the Native (Oxford World's Classics)!