The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A Dorset Christmas

Christmas morning in Mellstock

Stinsford Church, the real home of the fictional Mellstock Quire

Thomas Hardy loved the Christmas season, despite not being a churchgoer, and Christmas crops up often in his novels, short stories and poems. Under the Greenwood Tree, often hailed as his gentlest and most good-humoured novel, begins on Christmas Eve and primarily tells the story of beautiful Fancy Day, who arrives in Mellstock (based on Stinsford, Hardy’s home parish) and kindles fire in the heart of villager Dick Dewy, the son of Reuben Dewy, the ‘tranter’ (carter). But there is a sub-plot: a new vicar, Parson Maybold, has also arrived in the village and the ‘quire’ of the church is at odds with him. At the time just before Hardy’s birth, many churches in Dorset still retained the quire, a group of musicians who led the music in services from the west gallery, behind the congregation. In fact, Hardy’s father, grandfather and uncle all played in the Stinsford church quire. The quire at Stinsford was replaced with an organ just about the time of Hardy’s birth and his subsequent resentment of this explains the portrayal of Maybold as an arrogant and rather unappealing personality, by contrast with the exuberant and lovable characters in the quire. The following is a slightly abridged version of chapter 6 of the novel’s first part.

It being Christmas-day, the tranter prepared himself with Sunday particularity. Loud sousing and snorting noises were heard to proceed from a tub in the back quarters of the dwelling, proclaiming that he was there performing his great Sunday wash, lasting half-an-hour, to which his washings on working-day mornings were mere flashes in the pan. Vanishing into the outhouse with a large brown towel, and the above-named bubblings and snortings being carried on for about twenty minutes, the tranter would appear round the edge of the door, smelling like a summer fog, and looking as if he had just narrowly escaped a watery grave with the loss of much of his clothes, having since been weeping bitterly till his eyes were red; a crystal drop of water hanging ornamentally at the bottom of each ear, one at the tip of his nose, and others in the form of spangles about his hair.

After a great deal of crunching upon the sanded stone floor by the feet of father, son, and grandson as they moved to and fro in these preparations, the bass-viol and fiddles were taken from their nook, and the strings examined and screwed a little above concert-pitch, that they might keep their tone when the service began, to obviate the awkward contingency of having to retune them at the back of the gallery during a cough, sneeze, or amen – an inconvenience which had been known to arise in damp wintry weather.

The three left the door and paced down Mellstock-lane and across the ewe-lease, bearing under their arms the instruments in faded green-baize bags, and old brown music-books in their hands; Dick continually finding himself in advance of the other two, and the tranter moving on with toes turned outwards to an enormous angle.

At the foot of an incline the church became visible through the north gate, or ‘church hatch,’ as it was called here. Seven agile figures in a clump were observable beyond, which proved to be the choristers waiting; sitting on an altar-tomb to pass the time, and letting their heels dangle against it. The musicians being now in sight, the youthful party scampered off and rattled up the old wooden stairs of the gallery like a regiment of cavalry; the other boys of the parish waiting outside and observing birds, cats, and other creatures till the vicar entered, when they suddenly subsided into sober church-goers, and passed down the aisle with echoing heels.

Old William sat in the centre of the front row, his violoncello between his knees and two singers on each hand. Behind him, on the left, came the treble singers and Dick; and on the right the tranter and the tenors. Farther back was old Mail with the altos and supernumeraries.

The music on Christmas mornings was frequently below the standard of church-performances at other times. The boys were sleepy from the heavy exertions of the night; the men were slightly wearied; and now, in addition to these constant reasons, there was a dampness in the atmosphere that still further aggravated the evil. Their strings, from the recent long exposure to the night air, rose whole semitones, and snapped with a loud twang at the most silent moment; which necessitated more retiring than ever to the back of the gallery, and made the gallery throats quite husky with the quantity of coughing and hemming required for tuning in. Mr Maybold, the young vicar, looked cross.

When the singing was in progress there was suddenly discovered to be a strong and shrill reinforcement from some point, ultimately found to be the school-girls’ aisle. At every attempt it grew bolder and more distinct. At the third time of singing, these intrusive feminine voices were as mighty as those of the regular singers; in fact, the flood of sound from this quarter assumed such an individuality, that it had a time, a key, almost a tune of its own, surging upwards when the gallery plunged downwards, and the reverse.

Now this had never happened before within the memory of man. The girls, like the rest of the congregation, had always been humble and respectful followers of the gallery; singing at sixes and sevens if without gallery leaders; never interfering with the ordinances of these practised artists – having no will, union, power, or proclivity except it was given them from the established choir enthroned above them.

A good deal of desperation became noticeable in the gallery throats and strings, which continued throughout the musical portion of the service. Directly the fiddles were laid down, Mr Penny’s spectacles put in their sheath, and the text had been given out, an indignant whispering began.

‘Did ye hear that, souls?’ Mr Penny said, in a groaning breath.
‘Brazen-faced hussies!’ said Bowman.
‘True; why, they were every note as loud as we, fiddles and all, if not louder!’
‘Fiddles and all!’ echoed Bowman bitterly.
‘Shall anything saucier be found than united ’ooman?’ Mr Spinks murmured.
‘What I want to know is,’ said the tranter (as if he knew already, but that civilization required the form of words), ‘what business people have to tell maidens to sing like that when they don’t sit in a gallery, and never have entered one in their lives? That’s the question, my sonnies.’
‘’Tis the gallery have got to sing, all the world knows,’ said Mr Penny. ‘Why, souls, what’s the use o’ the ancients spending scores of pounds to build galleries if people down in the lowest depths of the church sing like that at a moment’s notice?’
‘Really, I think we useless ones had better march out of church, fiddles and all!’ said Mr Spinks, with a laugh which, to a stranger, would have sounded mild and real. Only the initiated body of men he addressed could understand the horrible bitterness of irony that lurked under the quiet words ‘useless ones,’ and the ghastliness of the laughter apparently so natural.
‘Never mind! Let ’em sing too – ’twill make it all the louder – hee, hee!’ said Leaf.
‘Thomas Leaf, Thomas Leaf! Where have you lived all your life?’ said grandfather William sternly.

The quailing Leaf tried to look as if he had lived nowhere at all.
‘When all’s said and done, my sonnies,’ Reuben said, ‘there’d have been no real harm in their singing if they had let nobody hear ’em, and only jined in now and then.’
‘None at all,’ said Mr Penny. ‘But though I don’t wish to accuse people wrongfully, I’d say before my lord judge that I could hear every note o’ that last psalm come from ’em as much as from us – every note as if ’twas their own.’
‘Know it! ah, I should think I did know it!’ Mr Spinks was heard to observe at this moment, without reference to his fellow players – shaking his head at some idea he seemed to see floating before him, and smiling as if he were attending a funeral at the time. ‘Ah, do I or don’t I know it!’

No one said ‘Know what?’ because all were aware from experience that what he knew would declare itself in process of time.
‘I could fancy last night that we should have some trouble wi’ that young man,’ said the tranter, pending the continuance of Spinks’s speech, and looking towards the unconscious Mr Maybold in the pulpit.
‘I fancy,’ said old William, rather severely, ‘I fancy there’s too much whispering going on to be of any spiritual use to gentle or simple.’ Then folding his lips and concentrating his glance on the vicar, he implied that none but the ignorant would speak again; and accordingly there was silence in the gallery, Mr Spinks’s telling speech remaining for ever unspoken.

The Mellstock Quire performs for Fancy Day on Christmas Eve: a scene from the 1928 film version of the novel, which was the UK’s second ‘talkie’

1. Martin Ayres
2. Collection of Dennis Smale

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