Category Archives: Hardy, Thomas

2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Chekhov, De Feo Ronald, Dean Louise, Dostoevsky, du Maurier Daphne, Fiction, Hardy, Thomas, Hensher Philip, Homes Geoffrey, Lambert Charles, Olafsson Bragi, Sallis James, Simenon, Sutton Henry, Thompson Jim, Williams Charles, Williams Tennessee

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.

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The Well-Beloved by Thomas Hardy

I was long overdue for a Hardy Novel, but I couldn’t decide which one to select. Finally I choose The Well-Beloved. This is not my favourite Hardy–although it’s close, but it is one I think about quite often. It’s an unusual novel, and it’s certainly not perfect. I suspect that the novel that was an attempt  by the author to expurgate some issue or ghost in his life, and in the Introduction, it’s explained that the novel was influenced by Shelley and his pursuit of the Platonic Idea.

The novel’s two dominant themes are the search for the “perfection of womanhood” and aging– “the effects of the passage of time.” Originally published in serial form under the title The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved in 1892, this work followed just one year after Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Well-Beloved includes some excellent descriptions of the landscape, but ultimately, I am fond of this novel for its depiction of the unchanging aspects of human nature.

The human nature under scrutiny in the novel is that of Jocelyn Pierston. When the novel begins he’s a young man of 20 with dreams of becoming a famous sculptor. The novel doesn’t follow Jocelyn for every moment in his life, but instead focuses on three critical periods. These episodes occur at twenty year intervals and involve romantic relationships with three generations of women from the same family.

In the first episode, “budding sculptor” Jocelyn has been away from home for over three years. He returns to the “isle” which is really a peninsula, the “Gibraltar of Wessex” to visit his father. My battered old Oxford Classics version contains several useful maps of Hardy’s Wessex, and these maps help to illustrate the isolation of Jocelyn’s native region. This is important as the issue of  intermarriage  between “island” families rears its head later in the novel.

When Jocelyn returns, he meets Avice Caro, a sweet-natured young woman who lives in a nearby cottage. She was a child for their last meeting years before.  Jocelyn is immediately taken with Avice, or should I say immediately intoxicated and obsessed. Jocelyn’s problem, and I’m going to call it that since it does plague Jocelyn throughout his life, is that he suffers from a “migratory, elusive idealization he called his Love.” For as long as Jocelyn can remember this emotion, this feeling “had flitted from human shell to human shell an indefinite number of times.” We know there are going to be problems when we read the list of women Jocelyn considered The One–only to discover that feeling rapidly vaporise. And that’s exactly what happens with poor Avice Caro. She falls in love and commits herself to Jocelyn, but she’s disappointed in love when his transitory idealization moves on all too swiftly to another woman.

Each of the three critical periods in Jocelyn’s life is a period of crisis as he thinks that he’s finally found the ideal woman. That’s not to say, however, that these are the sole occasions that he imagines he’s finally found his ideal as this obsession is an on-going non-stop problem. But at these twenty year intervals we as readers see how Jocelyn is faring in his “pursuit of the Well-Beloved.”

To his Well-Beloved he had always been faithful; but she had had many embodiments. Each individuality known as Lucy, Jane, Flora, Evangeline or whatnot, had been merely a transient condition of her. He did not recognize this as an excuse or a defence, but as a fact simply. Essentially she was perhaps no tangible substance; a spirit, a dream, a frenzy, a conception, an aroma, an epitomized sex, a light of the eye, a parting of the lips. God only knew what she really was; Pierston did not. She was indescribable.

Jocelyn is not initially a particularly sympathetic character. He sees the damage he causes, the human debris he leaves behind as his attention flits like a butterfly from one woman to another, and in spite of the fact he recognizes that he has a problem, he makes no effort to curb this flaw. He fails to grasp the lasting consequences of his actions although he breaks hearts and alters lives while he moves on unscathed.  In later years, however, when he ages and the tide turns, Jocelyn becomes much more sympathetic for his shifting obsessions which deny him true involvement with life, companionship, passion and at least a shot at happiness.

One of the considerations here must be Jocelyn the Artist. Is part of his desire to seek eternal perfection in Woman connected to his sculpting? Does he seek the physical embodiment of the artist’s muse? He objectifies the women he attracts even as he minimises the results of his actions.

As I mentioned earlier, The Well-Beloved is not a perfect novel. There are times when the author discusses Jocelyn’s search for the perfect woman in very awkward terms. For foreign readers, the dialect that makes Hardy at times rather difficult, is at a minimum here.  

In some ways this is a novel about contrasting attitudes to love and this is seen best contrasted through the friendship of Jocelyn and the painter, Somers–a man who states:

“You will be caught some day, my friend,” Somers would occasionally observe to him. “I don’t mean to say entangled in anything discreditable, for I admit that you are in practice as ideal as in theory. I mean the process will be reversed. Some woman, whose Well-Beloved flits about as yours does now, will catch your eye, and you’ll stick to her like a limpet, while she follows her Phantom and leaves you to ache as you will.”

“You may be right; but I think you are wrong,’ said Pierston. “As flesh she dies daily like the Apostle’s corporeal self; because when I grapple with the reality she’s no longer in it, so that I cannot stick to one incarnation if I would.”

“Wait till you are older,” said Somers.

Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of this tale is that Jocelyn ages, but the image of his “Well-Beloved“stays the same. Thus she becomes more and more elusive as Jocelyn leaves youth behind and refuses to compromise in his quest.

Although I have a paperback copy, this novel is also available FREE on the Kindle.

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