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.