Tag Archives: napoleonic wars

The Marquise of O: Heinrich von Kleist

Kleist’s Marquise of O was a third or fourth re-read for me, and there are some books that yield fresh results each time. This is true of Kleist’s novella–one of the few Kleist wrote (the excellent intro from translator Nicholas Jacobs mentions) that actually has a happy ending. How can you not like a happy ending? And yet for this read, I found the ending happy … yes … but a little incongruous. Back to that later.

The Marquise of O

So here’s the plot which was, apparently, based on a real, sensational event, and as we can imagine Kleist’s story caused quite a stir too.

The story begins with the Marquise of O, “a woman of impeccable reputation and mother of well-brought up children” putting advertisements in newspapers that “she had inexplicably found herself in a certain condition, that the father of the child she would bear should make himself known, and that out of the regard for her family she was resolved to marry him.” This is a bold but desperate move taken by the Marquise, and then the tale moves backwards in time.

It’s the Napoleonic Wars. In a Northern Italian town, the widowed Marquise of O and her children live with her parents. With news that war approaches bringing foreign troops, “even Russians,” the Marquise’s father, the Commandant, urges his wife and daughter to flee, but before they can escape, the citadel is surrounded, and after much fighting the foreign troops break into the castle. Some soldiers find the Marquise and drag her out into the courtyard. They are about to rape her when a Russian officer appears and “with angry thrusts scattered the dogs lusting after their booty.” The Russian, Count F., then offers his arm to the Marquise and escorts her to her rooms. Here she faints. The Commandant surrenders to Count F who then proceeds to be a Great Hero by dashing over the castle ramparts performing all manner of astonishing deeds. 

The Commander-in-Chief (the Count’s uncle) of the Russian troops learns about the “criminal assault” on the Marquise and tells Count F to round up those responsible and have them shot. Count F says he cannot identify them, but since one of the men was wounded by Count F as he rescued the Marquise, it’s not long before the general has the wounded man interrogated, the remaining perps are found and then shot. 

From this point, Count F has a special place in the Marquise’s eyes, so she and her parents are horrified to hear that he is subsequently killed on another battlefield. Yet the rumours are false, the Count still lives and he returns to the Marquise and her family. He expresses a desire to marry the Marquise and has interrupted an important mission to accomplish his goal. The Marquise’s father cannot understand the Count’s urgent wish to marry his daughter, but the more the Commandant prevaricates, the weirder the Count becomes. 

All agreed that his behaviour was utterly strange and that he appeared to be used to capturing women’s hearts, like fortresses by assault.

The Count won’t go away and the Marquise finally agrees to not marry another until he returns from Naples. The Count is torn between hopeful and disappointed as he tells the Marquise’s family he wanted to marry her immediately. What’s the rush?

Well it soon becomes clear what the rush is. The Count FINALLY leaves, and the Marquise begins to feel ill. She’s stunned to learn she’s pregnant but her father is horrified; she claims she did not have sexual intercourse with anyone, but he doesn’t believe her, and throws her from the house. It’s this that drives the Marquise to publicly advertise for the father of her child to show himself. It’s a desperate move designed to show her parents that she is innocent. 


It’s a great little story that was made into a great film by one of my favourite directors Eric Rohmer. For this reread, I was struck by the fairytale aspects of the story (rape aside). Here we have mortal enemies shooting each other one minute and sitting down for tea together the next. Of course it’s a class thing. 5 men were executed for attempted rape, and the noble is forgiven. He’s a dashing hero, a persistent suitor but if you peel away the glamour, his actions were despicable even if they are covered with a patina of courteous gallantry. 

review copy

translated by Nicholas Jacobs


Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich

Balzac nailed it.

“I have learned so much practicing my profession! I have seen a father die in a garret without a sou or a stitch of clothing, abandoned by two daughters to whom he’d given 40,000 pounds income! I have seen wills burned. I have seen mothers rob their children; husbands steal from their wives; wives use love to kill their husbands or drive them mad–in order to live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teach their legitimate children tastes that will surely be the death of them, while favouring some love child. I cannot tell you everything I have seen because I have seen crimes that justice is powerless to rectify. In the end, none of the horrors that novelists believe they’ve invented can compare to the truth. You’ll soon become acquainted with such charming things yourself; as for me, I am moving to the country with my wife. I am sick of Paris.”

This is a speech made by the lawyer Derville to his clerk Godeschal at the very end of Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert. In the first speech, taken from the book, those familiar with Balzac can identity some of the characters Derville refers to. There’s a similar speech in the film version, but it takes place much earlier in the film, and in this scene Derville (Fabrice Luchini) speaks to Chabert (Gerard Depardieu).

“Lawyers see worse things than writers can invent. I’ve seen wills burned, mothers despoil their lawful children on behalf of those bred in adultery, wives use their husbands’ love to murder them or drive them mad so as to live with their lovers. I’ve seen ugly quarrels over still-warm corpses. I have seen crimes, Sir, that human justice is powerless to punish. Our offices are sewers that no one can clean.”

The speech is altered but we get the point: Derville, in his professional capacity as a lawyer, has witnessed some horrendous acts of human behaviour.

Balzac’s novella is the story of a man who arrives in Paris claiming to be Colonel Chabert–one of Napoleon’s trusted soldiers who fell at the battle of Eylau. It’s been years since the battle, and the man who claims to be Chabert argues that due to his injuries he was unable to return earlier. Now back in Paris to claim his estate, he finds that his wife, a former prostitute, has married Count Ferraud, a Restoration society social climber. Since he can’t get his wife back, Chabert wants the return of his millions accumulated during Napoleon’s reign, but his wife is loath to give up a penny–plus to acknowledge Chabert’s claim will render the children she has with Count Ferraud bastards, the issue of a polygamous marriage. And this is where the lawyer Derville comes in…

I saw the film in 1994, and it remains one of my favourite films of all time–the acting, the scenery, the story are all incredible, but there’s something about the quote from Balzac’s novel (and the speech in the film version) that sticks with me. A day doesn’t go by without recalling these 2 scenes–one literary and the other cinematic. 1994 was some time ago–almost 20 years, and in this passage of time, I’ve seen some of the things Derville/Balzac describes.  I’ve known wills to be destroyed and the frantic post death looting of estates. I’ve seen wives longing for their diseased husbands to die, I’ve seen husbands dump their dying wives, I’ve seen husbands stealing from their wives, children stealing from their ancient parents, and I’ve seen people driven mad by their spouses. Ok, no garrets and the illegitimate thing doesn’t translate well to today’s world, but bottom line, Balzac nailed the “sewers” of human behaviour. Put money in the equation, and morality goes out the window.

And this brings me to Derville. Why does Derville decide to champion Chabert’s cause? Is this just a whimsical decision? I don’t think so. When Derville meets Chabert, he has just won “300 francs at cards,” and he tells Chabert “I can certainly use half of that to make a man happy.” He gives Chabert a daily allowance of 100 sous a day while he investigates the legitimacy of Chabert’s claim. Once Derville establishes the facts, he contacts Colonel Chabert’s wife who is now the Countess Ferraud, and the games begin….

Derville seems partly motivated by altruism and partly by curiosity. Does he want “justice“–whatever that is in this complex case to prevail? As he tells his clerk:

We see the same ill feelings repeated again and again, never corrected. Our offices are gutters that cannot be cleansed.

Himadri over at The Argumentative Old Git recently wrote a blog post about a passage from literature that he holds dear, and he suggested that others do the same. This is my contribution. Perhaps my choice isn’t so contemplative or as beautiful as Himadri’s passage from Anna Karenina, but my choice puts my life in perspective. I’m often told that I’m cynical, but then I think of Derville–one of my literary heroes and silently shrug. No wonder I admire Balzac’s work.


Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Fiction

El Verdugo by Balzac

Balzac’s El Verdugo is around 15 pages on my kindle edition. It’s a change of pace which places us in Spain during Napoleon’s campaigns, and the story opens in a moment of deceptive peace with a ball in the background. Balzac uses balls a lot in his stories, but then these were grand social events with opportunities for courtship and great intrigue. El Verdugo seems to include both scenarios in the opening scene with young French Major Victor Marchand looking at the town and the ocean while leaning on the terrace parapet of the Chateau de Menda. The château belongs to the Marquis de Leganes, a grandee of Spain who has 5 children–3 sons: 30-year-old Juanito,  20-year-old Felipe, and the youngest son is 8, and two daughters. Marchand noticed that during the evening, the eldest daughter kept casting glances “expressing extreme sadness”  his way. Perhaps she’s in love with him? Marchand may be in charge of the French troops there, but he is the son of a grocer, and while he notes Clara’s interest, he cannot credit that the Marquis would allow his daughter to marry the enemy–a commoner to boot. But romance is in the air, and, after all, it’s a romantic setting:

The beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head.

The scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the castle was built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of silver.

Marchand has received a dispatch from Marechal Ney which warns that the English may soon send men to the region, so Marchand must be vigilant and remember that the Marquis and his family are enemies. Marchand’s thoughts are conflicted as he gazes out across the parapet, and notices that something is wrong….

Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, always manages to get to the heart of the matter. Is there anyone who can describe so accurately the viciousness of family politics when it comes to the division of a family estate? In El Verdugo which means The Executioner, Balzac examines the nature of divided loyalties, punishment and human cruelty. Does an adherence to a moral code of behaviour trump family loyalty? There’s one chilling scene in which executions take place against laughter and feasting. Balzac, a writer of great compassion, seems to argue that the anguish of suffering set amidst feasting and laughter shows human behaviour at its worst. By the story’s chilling conclusion, we ask ourselves which were the noble acts of courage and who acted callously and with supreme cruelty. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Prepared by John Bickers and Dagny


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

Passion in the Desert by Balzac

Years ago I saw the film version of Passion in the Desert, so I was curious to read the source material. This is the story of a Napoleonic soldier who, after being captured and then escaping from the Maugrabins in the desert, stumbles into an oasis and becomes the companion of a wild animal. The story begins with the narrator and an acquaintance  attending an entertainment that includes trained hyenas–not something I’d care  to see and the narrator’s companion apparently feels the same way. She asks how the trainer can “have tamed these animals to such a point as to be certain of their affections?” The narrator replies:

“You think beasts are wholly without passions?” I asked her.

“Quite the reverse; we can communicate to them all the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”

Interesting answer, and then the narrator proceeds to tell the story told to him by an old, one-legged soldier. Caught up Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, the soldier, a young man of 22 was captured by Arabs but managed to escape on a horse that he rode to death. So there he is stuck in the middle of the desert facing certain death;

He was awakened by the sun, whose pitiless rays fell with all their force on the granite and produced an intolerable heat–for he had had the stupidity to place himself adversely to the shadow thrown by the verdant majestic heads of the palm trees. He looked at the solitary trees and shuddered–they reminded him of the graceful shafts crowned with foliage which characterize the Saracen columns in the cathedral of Arles.

But when, after counting the palm trees, he cast his eyes around him, the most horrible despair was infused into his soul. Before him stretched an ocean without limit. The dark sand of the desert spread further than eye could reach in every direction, and glittered like steel struck with bright light. It might have been a sea of looking-glass, or lakes melted together in a mirror. A fiery vapour carried up in surging waves made a perpetual whirlwind over the quivering land. The sky was lit with an oriental splendor of insupportable purity, leaving naught for the imagination to desire.

Heaven and earth were on fire.

A beautiful passage which describes and allows us to envision the raw beauty of this harsh environment and also and the pitiless indifference of nature.  

The soldier is young. Despair at his predicament is quickly replaced with hope when he notices dates on the palm. He has food then to sustain him and he makes a crude shelter. Falling asleep in a cave he has vague thoughts about wild animals of the desert. The next day, he wakes and discovers that he’s in the company of a “lion of Egypt.”

The rest of the story concentrates on the relationship the soldier develops with this wild animal. I’ll admit that I’m a bit confused as to the animal’s precise identity. At one point it’s described as having “the spotted skin of a panther.” I think of a panther as black and a leopard as spotted. Later, we read “the cold cruelty of a tiger was dominant.” This is not a long story, but it is a peculiar one that takes a very different look at the relationship between man and beast. Even as I type that I feel the basic ‘wrongness‘ of using the word beast–after all, who is the brutal one of the pair?

The soldier anthropomorphizes the leopard (I’m going to stick with that identity due to the spots), and that’s the identity given in the film. He calls her a queen, a “sultana of the desert,” and a “regular petite maitresse.” The leopard accepts the soldier’s company and becomes exacting about his attentions:

But he looked at her caressingly, staring into her eyes in order to magnetize her, and let her come quite close to him; then with a movement both gentle and amorous, as though he was caressing the most beautiful of women, he passed his hand over her whole body, from the head to the tail, scratching the inflexible vertebrae which divided the panther’s yellow back. The animal waved her tail voluptuously, and her eyes grew gentle; and when for the third time the Frenchman accomplished this interesting flattery, she gave forth one of those purrings by which cats express their pleasure; but this murmur issued from a throat so powerful and so deep that it responded through the cave like the last vibrations of an organ in a church. The man, understanding the importance of his caresses, redoubled them in such a way as to surprise and stupefy his imperious courtesan.  

So the soldier sees the panther (as he calls her) as a jealous mistress–a demanding female who requires his entire and constant attention. How long can this state of affairs continue?

I’ll admit that I didn’t like how the story ended–back to the narrator’s earlier comment that “we can communicate to [animals] all the vices arising in our own state of civilization.”

The story of the soldier and the leopard does not end well, and I found myself thinking about people and the bizarre desire to own and keep wild animals. This is no doubt influenced by the news today that 2 chimps escaped from an outdoor pen in Vegas and embarked on a rampage that ended with one of them shot dead from three shotgun blasts.

Translated by Ernest Dowson and produced by the hard work of  Dagny and John Bickers. This edition is available FREE for the kindle.


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

The Duel by Joseph Conrad

“To the surprise and admiration of their fellows, two officers, like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage.”

5 novellas all called The Duel? What a brilliant idea from Melville House Publishing to reprint these classic titles with special features. The five novellas are:

Casanova’s The Duel

Chekhov’s The Duel

Conrad’s The Duel

Kleist’s The Duel

Kuprin’s The Duel

Melville House offered a free e-copy of Conrad’s novella, so I grabbed the chance to read it. Conrad’s The Duel was made into a marvellous film directed by Ridley Scott, called The Duellists. Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the film-book connection, and I am also fascinated by duelling, so this novella appealed for dual reasons….

The novella begins during the Napoleonic wars and concludes with the restoration of the Bourbons in a post-Napoleonic France. Tumultuous years indeed for men who fought for the emperor, but also some rather dodgy times when Napoleon was exiled, returned to fight again, and then was finally defeated at Waterloo. A disaster, of course, to bet on the wrong pony, but then again some people go with the flow, and that brings me back to The Duel.

The Duel charts the relationship between two officers in Napoleon’s army. These men are cavalry officers and complete opposites in temperament, appearance and background. The two officers are Feraud and D’Hubert–both lieutenants in the Hussars when the story begins in Strasbourg. D’Hubert, a dashing, tall, lithe young man from a wealthy prominent family has already been selected from the herd for special attention. He’s “attached” to the general in command and serves as an officier d’ordonnance.  Even at this early stage of his career, it’s easy to see that D’Hubert will be successful–if he survives–his selection denotes the recognition of his talents with the Hussars. He’s a trusted aristocrat and he’s given duties that require a touch of diplomacy.

The trouble begins when Lieut. D’Hubert is sent to talk to Feraud regarding a rumour afoot that Feraud dueled with a civilian and “ran that civilian through this morning. Clean through, as you spit a hare.” The civilian is from a prominent family, and Feraud, whose conduct is considered “positively indecent” has angered the general. D’Hubert has been sent to place Feraud under house arrest–partly for his own safety and partly to let the situation cool down, but he finds Feraud already gone from his lodgings. He’s off flirting at the home of a home of a notorious young matron. Astonished at Feraud’s cheek, D’Hubert hustles off to the home of Madame de Lionne to place Feraud under house arrest.

D’Hubert finds Feraud, and he explains that Feraud must lay low for a while. Feraud finds such a command ridiculous and protests while defending the duel:

Was I to let that sauerkraut-eating civilian wipe his boots on the uniform of the 7th Hussars?

This first meeting sets the tone for the relationship between the two men and also outlines their basic personalities. D’Hubert obeys the orders handed down from the general without question, and Feraud, who’s impulsive and hot-tempered, inherently listens to other ‘codes’–other rules that are deeply ingrained in his nature. Feraud’s loyalties run deep and political expediency is an anathema as he operates on passion rather than logic. It’s fairly easy to predict that D’Hubert, the recipient of gilded patronage will go far while Feraud, a Gascon commoner will ultimately sacrifice career to his notions of loyalty and honour.

When Feraud is told he’s under house arrest, things between D’Hubert and Feraud go from bad to worse.  Emotions explode and Feraud goes berserk:

“I am reasonable! I am perfectly reasonable!” retorted the other with ominous restraint. “I can’t call the general at account for his behaviour, but you are going to answer me for yours.”

D’Hubert finds himself fighting Feraud in the garden of Feraud’s lodgings where the ‘seconds’ are a deaf gardener and a horrified old lady who watches from an upstairs window. These absurd circumstances strip the duel of its ceremony and its notions of honour. For D’Hubert, the duel is reduced to little more than a brawl. It’s an ignoble position but one D’Hubert can’t avoid:

This was most unsuitable ground, he thought, keeping a watchful, narrowed gaze, shaded by long eyelashes, upon the fiery stare of his thickset adversary. This absurd affair would ruin his reputation of a sensible, well-behaved, promising young officer. It would damage, at any rate, his immediate prospects, and lose him the goodwill of his general. These worldly preoccupations were no doubt misplaced in view of the solemnity of the moment. A duel, whether regarded as a ceremony in the cult of honour, or even when reduced to its moral essence to a form of manly sport, demands a perfect singleness of intention, a homicidal austerity of mood.

 And so begins the long-drawn out conflict between D’Hubert and Feraud. The two officers fight in Napoleon’s campaigns, and in between campaigns they meet and conduct a series of duels. Distance, war and even rank intervenes–duels are only to be held between those of equal rank, so when D’Hubert is promoted, he cannot be challenged by Feraud.

While this is essentially a story of two men who battle out their differences using a variety of weapons, this is also a story of two men cast together by circumstance. Feraud appears to take umbrage at D’Hubert’s existence, and part of this must certainly lie in the fact that D’Hubert, one of “these generals’ pets” leads a life of privilege. This is noted by Fearud immediately through the general’s preference for D’Hubert, and this privilege continues to emerge as France’s rulers shift. D’Hubert’s armour of privilege, sensed by Feraud, comes to full bloom with the defeat of Napoleon.

Underneath the quarrels, the bravado, the duels, and the misplaced sense of honour, Conrad seems to broach the question: who is the better man? D’Hubert whose cool head and privileged position allows him to remain in favour even as the tide turns? Or is Feraud, the hot head, the better man for his placement of insane loyalty over his own hide?

This edition at 112 pages comes loaded with extras–a cornucopia of articles (including an extract from Napoleon’s memoirs), illustrations, the entire French Code Duello (French code of conduct concerning duels and duellists) and various background materials. Of particular note is The History of Conrad’s Duel: Dupont vs. Fournier. This details the true story of a series of duels that were held between 1794-1813 between Dupont and Fournier, two officers in Napoleon’s army. This short piece ends with a dig at the French:

And thus ended this long-protracted affair. Surely none but Frenchman would have carried on such a tragicomedy for so long a time.  

On a final note, the coterie of disappointed, bitter Napoleonic soldiers surrounding Feraud reminded of Philippe  Bridau in  Balzac’s The Black Sheep. Although the latter really is a much nastier piece of work.

(Kuprin’s The Duel, Chekhov’s The Duel, and Casanova’s The Duel are all reviewed on this blog)


Filed under Conrad, Joseph, Fiction

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