The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Trumpet-Major, published in 1880, is a great favourite. It’s certainly not one of his masterpiece tragedies (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure), but neither is the book as light as his rural humorous romance Under The Greenwood Tree. The Trumpet-Major is a curious novel for the manner in which Hardy slips the lives of his characters into historic events–he includes the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson, and the ship the Victory in this story. This puts a date on the action, but for the rest of the novel, we are on fairly familiar ground as Hardy explores that ever fertile yet oddly complicated territory surrounding the choices and motivations of women. Hardy sets the romance and courtship of a young Wessex woman against the upheaval and uncertainty of impending war.

The woman under scrutiny here is Anne Garland, the only daughter of an impoverished widow. Anne’s father was a respected, local artist, but his death led to a downturn in circumstances, and mother and daughter now occupy one half of Overcombe Millhouse with the miller occupying the other side. While there’s a partition constructed to separate the two dwellings, there are also invisible class divisions between the two households. This creates some awkwardness. After all, materially the miller is better off than the widowed Mrs Garland, but she is, socially speaking, considered more “genteel” than the man she pays rent to. The Miller Loveday handles the awkward situation delicately. He brings his tenants a few items now and again and his employee does the gardening for both households.

Miller Loveday has designs on the Widow Garland. Everyone seems to know this–although it’s not openly discussed, but while romance is in the air, the heroine of the tale is young Anne Garland. Anne is not one of Hardy’s magnificent heroines (Tess, Bathsheba, or even Eustacia). In The Trumpet-Major, Anne, like Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba must choose between three suitors. Unlike Bathsheba,  Anne is not a particularly flawed woman, and she’s not the sort who will drive men to madness. In many ways, Anne is reminiscent of an Austen heroine.

Anne’s three suitors are: Festus Derriman–a bombastic, sexually aggressive man, “red-haired and of florid complexion,” who is expected to inherit his uncle’s estate, and the two sons of Miller Loveday, sailor Bob, and trumpet-major John. For material and social reasons, Festus is Anne’s mother’s choice, and for most of the novel, and sometimes with great comic results, Festus pursues Anne at every opportunity, and repeatedly tries to corner her when she’s alone in a no-holds barred fashion that even raises the threat of rape:

Some of the guests then spoke of Fess Derriman as not such a bad young man if you took him right and humoured him; others said that he was nobody’s enemy but his own; and the elder ladies mentioned in a tone of interest that he was likely to come into a deal of money at his uncle’s death. The person who did not praise was the one who knew him the best, who had known him as a boy years ago, when he lived nearer to Overcombe than he did at present. This unappreciative person was the trumpet-major.

The main dilemma, then, occurs between Bob and John Loveday, and concerns exactly who Anne will choose. Anne has had a long-standing affection for Bob, but Bob is thoughtless, fickle and shallow. John Loveday, however, the trumpet-major of the title, is the opposite of his brother. He’s reliable, quiet, thoughtful, and deeply in love with Anne.

The novel begins with the sudden arrival in the countryside of a great army. The villagers expect an imminent French invasion (Hardy’s grandmother told tales of the “invasion scare“), and the bivouacking of soldiers close to the miller’s home only endorses these rumours. As the soldiers make camp, an air of excitement reigns:

Though nobody seemed to be looking on but the few at the window and in the village street, there were, as a matter of fact, many eyes converging on that military arrival in its high and conspicuous position, not to mention the glances of birds and other wild creatures. Men in distant gardens, women in orchards and at cottage-doors, shepherds on remote hills, turnip-hoers in blue-green enclosures miles away, captains with spy-glasses out at sea, were regarding the picture keenly. Those three or four thousand men of one machine-like movement, some of them swashbucklers by nature; others, doubtless, of a quiet shop-keeping position who had inadvertently got into uniform–all of them had arrived from nobody knew where, and hence were a matter of great curiosity. They seemed to the mere eye to belong to a different order of beings from those who inhabited the valleys below.

 Bonaparte and the French army are expected to invade any day, so the locals are in a continuous fever pitch which is occasionally ignited by rumors that the French, ready to pillage, have actually landed. Hardy uses this with comic results that are reminiscent of the thrills anticipated by the spinsters of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

Hardy moves his lovers around like chess pieces as various situations take place just before and after The Battle of Trafalgar Square. Many of the complications which arise are due to both Bob and John stepping out-of-the-way for his sibling, and other complications arise from misunderstandings. Hardy seems entranced with Anne’s choice–a choice which really defies any logic, and instead must be chalked up to the mysteries of the heart. While it’s easy to dismiss this as one of Hardy’s lesser novels, The Trumpet-Major is more complex than it first appears. This bittersweet story may seem lighthearted in comparison to other Hardy masterpieces, but the story is laced with the tragedies that will occur off the page and after the book’s conclusion. While the characters live and mingle in fairly happy even amusing circumstances, Hardy peppers the tale with hints of the fate that awaits some of the military men. This future darkness runs throughout the story:

It was just the time of year when cherries are ripe, and hang in clusters under their dark leaves. While the troopers loitered on their horses, and chatted to the miller across the stream, he gathered bunches of the fruit, and held them up over the garden hedge for the acceptance of anybody who would have them; whereupon the soldiers rode into the water to where it had washed holes in the garden bank, and, reining their horses there, caught the cherries in their forage caps, or received bunches of them on the ends of their switches, with the dignified laugh that became martial men when stooping to slightly boyish amusement. It was a cheerful, careless, unpremeditated half-hour, which returned like the scent of a flower to the memories of some of those who enjoyed it, even at a distance of many years after, when they lay wounded and weak in foreign lands.

The comic scenes of the drunken flirtatious, egotistical Festus Derriman are set in wonderful juxtaposition to the seriousness of the events beyond Wessex. The ugliness of the Press Gang is one clear incidence of the outside world’s invasion into the Wessex countryside, and yet not every man has to be press-ganged into servitude. Many enlist of their own free will, drawn by the perceived thrill of battle, promise of ‘adventure,’  and the ignominy of staying at home while war is waged by others on foreign shores. There’s the sense that while the Napoleonic Wars unsettle the green, rich fields of Wessex, things may never quite return to the innocence of the summer of that pre-war period.



Filed under Fiction, Hardy, Thomas

39 responses to “The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy

  1. I did not know about this Hardy and you have certainly sparked my interest. What strikes me as different about this novel, from your review, is that his “masterpieces” tend to be internally focused — this one seems to have a broader view as well.

  2. It’s a very gentle sobering tale and the dialect found in many of his novels is absent.

  3. I want to read this, you know that already. I think I’m going to read all Hardy, probably in chronological order. I hope I can find them in translation.
    It’s good to know this one doesn’t have too much dialect in it.

    Funny, as I was reading, I was thinking about Jane Austen, and then you mentioned it. There are many elements : the time, the impoverish widow with a daughter to marry, the soldiers coming to the country, the choice of a husband, the difference in social classes.
    I’m intrigued to read about Napoleonic wars from the other side.

    • To read all of Hardy’s work is an admirable goal. I was thinking about the Austen connection, and The Trumpet-Major is set more around Austen’s time (she died in 1817) and the events of the Trumpet-Major take place around 1805.

      Austen’s characters are a step above socially speaking, and you’d never catch an Austen heroine running around with the sons of a miller, but in terms of Anne’s temperament, there are a lot of similarities. I know you’d like this one.

      • If I’m correct, Hardy only wrote 17 books, less than Zola or Balzac!
        In fact the comparison between the miller’s social status and Anne’s reminded me of Emma and how she makes her friend Harriet refuse a farmer.

        • I haven’t done a count. I think I’ve read them all at some time or another. The mill house situation made me think of Sense and Sensibility and how that family “came down” in the world.

  4. As you may imagine I’m particularly interested in the Napoleonic wars element but also other things make this sound like a great read and I was wondering whether it wouldn’t be a good starting point. I have Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Major of Casterbridge on my pile. Which would be the best to start with?

    • Tess and The Mayor are both wonderful, but the Trumpet-Major is very different. You could read The Trumpet Major and have one view of Hardy and then read Tess or the Mayor and come away with another opinion. I think The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good starting point, but it also depends on the mood you are in. I originally meant to reread one of the greats but found myself more in the mood for the gentleness of The Trumpet-Major.

  5. Sweet Fanny Adams

    A very good review Guy.
    I read all of Hardy’s works when I was young and still have them – orange and musty on my shelves from the 70s. Although I love the novels, I’ve always had a problem with Hardy’s women; unlike Zola, who had a real affinity with his female characters, I have always felt that Hardy was stunted when it came to females – sorry if I’ve upset his fans.

    Even in the excellent Mayor of Casterbridge Lucetta and Elizabeth are pale shadows and never fully rounded – compare Tess or Arabella and Sue from Jude the Obscure (my favourite by the way) with any of the female characters portrayed by Zola, Balzac or even Dickens and for me, Hardy doesn’t hit the mark.

  6. Well I’m a Hardy fan, but you didn’t upset me. It would be very difficult for me to rate a first choice between Zola, Balzac and Hardy (say I’m sent to a desert island and can only take the works of one author). The choice would be torture. I’d hazard a guess that I am fondest of Balzac, but then some of those Rougon-Macquart are simply magnificent novels.

    Sue (Jude the Obscure) always makes me a little uncomfortable.

  7. Seventeen books. I need more years.

    I suspect it’ll be Under the Greenwood Tree for my next Hardy, with this still a way off. It does sound good though. Very Austenian (not that I’ve actually read a whole Austen, something I really must correct).

    Gentleness is a tricky quality to capture. Doing so well is a real achievement.

  8. There’s a good film version of Under the Greenwood Tree in case you’re interested.

  9. I am, but not before I’ve read it…

  10. Ann Norman

    I didn’t know there was a Battle of Trafalgar Square! I thought the London place called Trafalgar Square was to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar.

  11. RT

    Not the best book I have read and I have read quite a few Hardy’s books but brilliantly written and some comical moments unlike other Hardy’s novels. Was not really keen on Anne as one of the main characters but normal people are not always as exciting in real life. I was expecting twists and turns ( although things were happening at sea and on grounds with soldiers) but was quite disappointed at the end, the strongest and the most faithful character blows the last sounds of his trumpet in Spain. I do recommend ‘The Woodlanders’ by Thomas Hardy, not as widely read as ‘Jude the obscure’ but worthwhile.

  12. Thanks RT. The Woodlanders is a gem, overlooked I think when we start talking about Hardy’s masterpieces. Have you seen the adaptation?

  13. RT

    No I have not but if you don’t mind giving me the details and it is worth watching, I will definitely do that. I have ordered ‘Return to the Native’ so I am looking forward to reading the novel. I am reading Philippa Gregory’s historical books this minute as I adore the Tudor period but I am getting addicted to Thomas hardy’s novels. I have read 9 so far and each time it is a joy to read even if I am not always keen on the characters. He has got such a way of retelling his own truth and is so modern thinking for his time, it is quite impressive. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

  14. RT

    Many thanks for that. Your question is a tough one. I have to say (sorry to disappoint) but my least favourite one is ‘The Trumpet Major’ but some of Hardy’s books leaves you at the end quite perplexed, I enjoyed ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ a lot. Whatever the pain, Henchard bears it, it is this resilience, in my eyes, that elevates him to the level of a hero. He tried to make amends but he is unable to let go of his past mistakes. The past haunts him and will destroy him at the end. What a symbolic gesture at the end of the novel when he leaves ‘his daughter’ a little bird in a cage as a wedding present.

    • I find it tough to pick a favourite Hardy as the quality of his novels is so good, but then again, certain ones grab you in a way that others don’t. If I had to pick one, it would probably be The Return of the Native. Also as I’ve reread the lesser novels, I find them even more appealing–A Pair of Blue Eyes is a good example. The first time I read it, I liked it, but then with subsequent readings, it seemed better and better.

      I first read The Mayor of Casterbridge in school, and that can so often be a good way to kill an interest in an author. It was many years before I picked up Hardy again, and then I knew that he was destined to become a great favourite. Good point about Henchard who seems almost shockingly irredeemable when the novel opens.

  15. RT

    The first book I read was ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’- before that I had never read Thomas Hardy. At school we did all the classics D.H Lawrence, Dickens, Austen etc… but sadly no Hardy!! I remember sorting out some boxes one day and coming across a second hand book-‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’. I must have bought it in a charity shop but I can’t remember. One my friends who spotted the book on the table explained to me that she couldn’t read Hardy again. She was after a happy ending and not too much pessimism in a novel and clearly Hardy depressed her. I was a little bit disappointed but I was also intrigued. As soon as I finished the novel, I printed a list of Hardy’s novels- I knew I was going to embark on an exciting and memorable journey. Will write again when I finish ‘The Return of the Native’. Thanks for all your messages.

  16. Yes a lot of people complain about the pessimism. Jude the Obscure is fantastic, but so very sad… have you read that one yet? There are times when I have to return to Hardy–and perhaps the pessimism is part of it.

  17. RT

    I have indeed read Jude The Obscure and in spite of all the warning signs, I still find the scene of Jude and Sue’s discovery of the three children dead absolutely shocking. I have to say it is a terribly dark work of art-even at a such an early age, the child realises how sad and empty the world is. What can I say? controversial at the time yes, tragic characters yes but it is still a masterpiece- I was just not prepared for the tragic scenes. It is one of those novels that sticks in the back of your brain.

  18. yes, even though you know it’s coming, it’s still a very shocking scene. Another one for me is the pig slaughter scene, and then finally Jude’s deathbed. I wonder what your average person/reader made of this novel when they read it. There’s so much sexuality in the novel: the ‘animal’ urges vs the ‘duty’ one must endure.

  19. RT

    Indeed who needs Greek tragedy! You are quite right about the death theme which is present in all of the Hardy’s novels I have read so far particularly the Trumpet Major. It is always too late for the characters to achieve happiness…with Tess, Jude etc.. there are always obstacles in the way, maybe Hardy never found happiness himself??? And around the corner, death is awaiting. I will definitely add L’assomoir to the list of books I intend to read. Reading Roal Dahl and Michael Morpurgo to my primary class does not always stimulate my brain!! Thanks for that.

    • Hello,
      I’ve read your conversation with Guy and I’ll add that Life’s Little Ironies is what made me decide to read all of Hardy’s books.
      I should read the next one on my list soon.

    • Zola gives a very Hardy like heroine, I think. I hope you like the book, and yes a change. But isn’t Dahl rather dark too–at least my memory tell so.

      It seems significant that Hardy was capable of creating such incredible heroines. I think he must have loved women. In Jude the O is Sue the heroine, do you think? I wouldn’t say that Arabella is the heroine, but they seem to be opposites–each lacking something essential–neither one of them quite whole.

  20. RT

    You are right, Dahl was also dark for different reasons- he lost his father young and then his mum sent him to a boarding school where he was viciously beaten. Those sadistic parents in his fiction are a re-framing of his own experience. Dahl succeeded because he understood the child’s dark side I suppose. To go back to Jude The Obscure, I am not quite sure who the heroine really is. Arabella and Sue are a bit like black and white horses to me. Sue and Arabella are not just contrasting in their appearance but they have different and sometimes opposite ideas, beliefs and attitudes towards life. For Jude and Sue, we can clearly say that their punishment is complete. Who did Jude really love? I wonder at times-I suppose it depends on what we mean by love…

  21. I didn’t know the biographical info about Dahl (which makes a lot of sense), but I remember his Tales of the Unexpected. Did you ever see those? I remember one in particular about a husband and wife about to leave on holiday. They live in a huge house which is accessible with a lift. Anyway, a dark mind indeed dreamed that one up.

    As for Jude, Hardy seems to be saying that Jude’s spotty education led him to a life of unhappiness. I suppose there’s a connection there to Flaubert’s saying that Madame Bovary was ruined by reading all those trashy books. Sexuality plays a large role in Jude’s relationships with women, and there’s an ease to all that with Arabella’s animal approach to life whereas Sue is all guilt and tortured. Did you ever see the Robert Powell film version of the book? It’s my favourite adaptation.

  22. RT

    Good morning Guy! I remember those tales vividly and some of them really had an unexpected ending, that’s for sure. I remember enjoying them but at times thought things did not make too much sense. I will watch Robert Powell film version, thanks for that. The only version I watched was with Kate Winslet but I thought it was average-mind you playing the part of Sue can’t have been an easy job. Sue seems to want to be loved more than she wants to love- unlike Arabella who has a ‘full’ physical relationship with Jude, Sue frustrates Jude-she can’t really satisfy him. Let’s not forget that he fell in love with her photo before he met her in real flesh. I do like watching the film after I have read the book, it all comes to life even if you can’t capture the same feelings.

  23. Hardy novels are best suited for the miniseries anyway, as you can’t possibly get into character in 90 minutes or less. Sometimes I think that if Sue and Arabella could have been blended into one woman, perhaps she would have been perfect.

    I hope you enjoy the film.

  24. Terry

    I was about 10 when I found a copy of Under the Greenwood Tree and bought it (for 6d) thinking it was about nature. I loved it. I then read Jude and didn’t touch Hardy for about 40 years after that. Now I have them all on my Kindle and am enjoying them in chronological order

    • The kindle is a great development for lovers of classics. Some books are out of print and you can’t get a copy easily anymore. That’s why I bought my kindle initially–for Balzac

  25. RT

    Hi Guy- I have been so busy with my job, I am missing all the fun (Reading Hardy). I am back on track and started reading ‘the Greenwood Tree’. I was having withdrawal symptoms, I am embarrassed to say.

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