Wessex Folk (subsequently renamed A Few Crusted Characters) in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (May 1891): 891. Lithograph, 12 cm high by 19.5 cm wide.by Charles Green — an illustration for Thomas Hardy's "Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir."
'Twas a very dark afternoon, and by the end of the sermon all you could see of the inside of the church were the pa’son’s two candles alongside of him in the pulpit, and his spaking face behind 'em. The sermon being ended at last, the pa’son gie'd out the Evening Hymn. But no choir set about sounding up the tune, and the people began to turn their heads to learn the reason why, and then Levi Limpet, a boy who sat in the gallery, nudged Timothy and Nicholas, and said, "Begin! begin!"
"Hey? what?" says Nicholas, starting up; and the church being so dark and his head so muddled he thought he was at the party they had played at all the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at "The Devil among the Tailors," the favourite jig of our neighbourhood at that time. The rest of the band, being in the same state of mind and nothing doubting, followed their leader with all their strength, according to custom. They poured out that there tune till the lower bass notes of "The Devil among the Tailors" made the cobwebs in the roof shiver like ghosts; then Nicholas, seeing nobody moved, shouted out as he scraped (in his usual commanding way at dances when the folk didn't know the figures), “Top couples cross hands! And when I make the fiddle squeak at the end, every man kiss his pardner under the mistletoe!" [Wessex Folk, "Absentmindness of the Parish Choir," in the Osgood, McIlvaine edition of Life's little Ironies, 272]
For this fifth plate for Thomas Hardy's nine framed tales, Green has chosen the most humorous moment in the story and, indeed, probably the most hilarious moment in the entire collection of Wessex Folk. Both the characters (local musicians) and the physical setting (the parish church) suggest an autobiographical origin for this extended anecdote about the drunken church musicians' awakening suddenly. Operating under the delusion that they are still playing dance rather than ecclesiastical music, they horrify the village's worthies, the vicar and the squire, on Christmas Eve. Hardy's father had been a member of the Stinsford ("Mellstock" in Under the Greenwood Tree) choir, which clergyman replaced with an organ. The late Professor Martin Ray points out that the illustrator has corrected an oversight by Hardy in depicting six musicians, although Hardy had not included the oboist, Mr. Nicks, in the catalogue of those who creep sheepishly out of the church at the conclusion of the story.
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Brady, Kristin. The Short Stories of Thomas Hardy: Tales of Past and Present. London & Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1984.
Hardy, Thomas. "Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir." [May 1891] Life's Little Ironies: A Set of Tales with Some Colloquial Sketches Entitled "A Few Crusted Characters." London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1894. 270-74.
Hardy Thomas. Wessex Folk (subsequently renamed A Few Crusted Characters) in Harper's New Monthly Magazine 81 (March-May 1891): 594, 701, 703, 891, 894; 82 (June 1891): 123.
Ray, Martin. Chapter 25, "A Few Crusted Characters." Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997. 228-58.
Created 2 June 2008
Last modified 18 April 2020