Hardy's Silly Soldiers

'Hardy's Silly Soldiers'

Dr Tracy Hayes (THS Secretary, Independent Researcher)

Dr Tracy Hayes

The term 'alpha-male', used widely by zoologists since the 1960s but not applied to human sociology until the 1990s, is nevertheless of central importance to the study of gender, and masculinities in particular. The concept of the 'alpha-male' can be understood through the discourse of biology and evolution. In trying to achieve a definition of human behaviour and its origins, Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection in relation to man (as opposed to woman) proposed a biological basis for differences between the sexes, thus using the language of science to cement already existing gendered discourses of power. He posited that the instinctual notion of 'attaining' and 'keeping' a member of the female sex, along with defence of women and the young from perceived enemies, was a biological imperative, thus augmenting the hetero-normative conventions of contemporary patriarchal culture.

Darwin's theories, along with those of colleagues such as Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, were disseminated amongst the general reading public through periodicals and newspapers such as The Westminster Review and Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, where scientific issues were set side-by-side with fiction, poetry and literary criticism. Victorian social constructions of masculinity as promoted in contemporary journals, novels and magazines were such that the figure of the 'alpha-male' often comprised a particular set of requisites such as an imposing stature, physical prowess, a deep resonant voice and a proud set of whiskers. Certain physical attributes such as facial hair were perceived as indicators of virility; beards and moustaches were 'potent symbols of manliness for a modern, industrial age', by the 1890s 'over 60% of men were bearded, and by 1900 nearly 100% wore whiskers in some form'.

The beard movement began in earnest during the 1850s when the editors of Tait's Edinburgh Magazine declared themselves 'champions of the long beard'. An 'ideology of beards' began to be articulated, with a number of publications claiming beards to be an integral element of masculinity for two particular reasons: 'first by contributing to men's health and vitality, and second by serving as the outward mark of inward qualities – particularly independence, hardiness, and decisiveness – that were the foundations of masculine authority. Beards signified 'the natural superiority of men over women, and more vigorous men over their effete counterparts'. A common argument for the adoption of the beard in the mid-nineteenth century was to act as 'a filter against bad air and disease...no doubt as a result of the Victorian fixation on deleterious effects of impure air'.

Theology also played a part with a number of clerics finding it 'fitting that God had provided protection to the voices of men, who, in contrast to women, were called to be teachers and preachers'. Indeed in Far From the Madding Crowd Cainy Ball describes how 'the new style of pa'sons wear moustarchers and long beards...and look like Moses and Aaron complete, and make we fokes in the congregation feel all over like the children of Israel'. Virtually all the great Victorians expressed their manliness physically in the form of beards and moustaches, including Tennyson, Leslie Stephen, John Ruskin and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury as exemplars of the sporting of facial hair. 'Ideals of masculinity, such as big-game hunters, or explorers, or fashionable pioneers of Alpine mountaineering wore beards of necessity, but their image was undoubtedly influential in spreading the fashion'.

The tenets of Muscular Christianity propounded by Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes in conjunction with representations of the Empire hero as featured in the fiction of H. Rider Haggard also combined to valorize the hegemonic 'alpha-male'. Masculine privilege at the end of the nineteenth century was sustained by male friendships 'within institutions like the public schools, the older universities, the clubs and the professions'. John Ruskin wrote in 1865 that 'Man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender...His energy is for invention, for war, for conquest'. Thomas Hardy problematized such notions of the 'alpha-male' as a figure of patriarchal authority throughout his novels by questioning the validity of such a monolithic stereotype. This paper will demonstrate how Hardy subverts the figure of the Victorian Alpha-male through his presentations of silly soldiers. Martial masculinity is ripe for satire through Sargent Troy, a soldier who aspires to be, in the words of Blackadder's Prince George: 'a roarer, a puker, a roisterer and a rogerer', but is instead a shallow and vain character, who, when life finally siezes him by the scruff of the neck in the form of a dead lover and baby, becomes utterly emasculated by a gurgoyle before running away. Festus Derriman, a yeoman who takes himself very seriously indeed but is in fact a creation of comic genius, is transformed by Hardy from a Farnese Hercules into a eunuch. And in perhaps Hardy's most scathing presentation of the fallibility of the Alpha-male, Captain de Stancy, a highly respected member of the armed forces, is in fact the play-thing of an androgynous illigetimate son.

The Silly Sargent

Far From the Madding Crowd is widely considered to be Hardy's first 'great' novel, it is also his first to treat mourning and memory through the lens of gender, as demonstrated by Sargent Troy's method of mourning Fanny Robin. Grief and trauma can transcend perceptions of both masculinity and femininity. For the majority of Victorians, perceptions of masculinity which relied on the repression rather than the articulation of emotions, strategies for coping with loss remained oblique. Conversely, femininity, by the social constructions of its very nature, provided a forum for the outpouring of condolence and sympathy. However, 'assumptions that men all grieve in the same manner have been superseded by the belief that an individual's response to death is unique regardless of gender'. Intuitive grieving is traditionally a female coping style whereby feelings are managed by focusing upon the 'emotional dimensions of the loss through social support. The Instrumental griever is usually solitary, private, grieving 'through activity and problem-solving', a style more usually associated with men'. The notion of the 'gentleman' was a social construct closely associated during the nineteenth century with the class system. In his essay 'Gentleman' (1862) James Fitzjames Stephens ascribes to men of this distinction particular physical, moral and intellectual qualities that set them apart from those of the lower classes. He observes that: 'a gentleman's accent differs from a labourer's; he holds himself differently, and his features express altogether a different class of emotions and recollections...[his] two great cognate virtues [are] truth and courage'. Stephen writes that it is 'ungentlemanlike to swear', and that no man deserves the appellation of gentleman 'who would be guilty of the selfishness and treachery of seduction'. A gentleman lived according to a chivalric code which emphasized honour and respect, not only in his dealings with his fellow men, but in his treatment of women. A lover's intentions must be seen to be entirely honourable lest he be relegated to the status of serial seducer, or cad. The diminutive Fanny Robin, and Sergant Troy's seduction of her, is the catalyst for the tragic events of this pastoral tale.

Troy abandons Fanny, unaware that she is carrying his child, to pursue and marry Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful and bold landowner. Francis Troy is an alpha-male, a misogynistic rake who lives for aesthetic pleasure. But Hardy's virile anti-hero cannot be read so simplistically, for his reaction to Fanny's death and the discovery that she had given birth to his still-born child is not stoically and silently masculine, but fervidly feminine in its lack of self-restraint. Troy is not only not a gentleman, he is not a typically male instrumental griever, but a feminine intuitive one. Having previously forgotten her existence, Fanny's pitiable demise in Casterbridge Union Poorhouse triggers a torrent of emotions in Troy. When he is confronted with the sight of his previous conquest lying silently in a coffin with her arm placed protectively over the fruit of her suffering Troy 'sinks forward', the 'lines of his features soften', and his initial dismay is 'modulated to illimitable sadness'. Troy exhibits 'an indefinable union of remorse and reverence', and gently kisses Fanny's forehead. Death reawakens Troy's former love without what Tony Fincham describes as 'the inconvenient presence of the beloved – the bereaved' can now 'love on in isolation, selfish and unhindered'. Troy then turns on Bathsheba -

“This woman is more to me, dead as she is, than ever you were, or are, or can be. If Satan had not tempted me with that face of yours and those cursed coquetries, I should have married her. I never had another thought till you came in my way. Would to God that I had – but it is all too late! I deserve to live in torment for this” he turned to Fanny then. “But never mind darling,” he said; “in the sight of heaven you are my very very wife”.

Troy is undoubtedly projecting his guilt onto his previously prized but now much maligned wife Bathsheba, though the outpouring of his grief takes a decidedly feminine form, one more akin to the reaction of the spurned wife.

Another scene in which Hardy is seen to use Troy as a vehicle for the subversion of Victorian

conventions of masculine grief is Troy's naïve display of remembrance. The reader does not expect this 'cad' to erect a tomb to the 'fallen' woman, much less to plant it with the flower-roots of blooms he has chosen especially for the occasion -

'There were bundles of snowdrop, hyacinth and crocus bulbs, violets and double-daisies, which were to bloom in early spring, and of carnations, pinks, picotees, lilies of the valley, forget-me-not, summer's farewell, meadow-saffron, and others, for the later seasons of the year'.

The utterly contrived nomenclature of the chosen flowers makes such a gesture seem absurd when performed by a sergant of the army, and indeed smacks of the romanticism of a girl in her teens. In typically Hardyan fashion Troy is punished accordingly for his act of contrition. That night sees a torrential downpour – the most violent for several years – wreak havoc upon the guttering of the church near which Fanny is buried, and a gargoyle, erected to aid drainage, spurts a continuous heavy stream directly into Fanny's grave. The flowers 'move and writhe', 'turn slowly upside down', 'dance about' and then simply 'float off; all that is left at the site of penance is a 'bubbling mass of mud'. Thus we are left with the impression that the narrator is scoffing at what he feels to be traditionally accepted constructions of Victorian masculinity, which would normally have seen the rogering rakish Troy simply acknowledge his guilt before moving on to his next conquest, rather than building a monument to it.

The Silly Yeoman

Only one of Hardy's novels focuses exclusively on the ideology of martial masculinities – The Trumpet-Major. Invariably dismissed by critics both contemporary and modern as his weakest novel, Richard Nemesvari goes so far as to liken The Trumpet-Major to 'a Jane Austen novel run slightly out of control'. However, Hardy's research into the nmilitary during the reign of George III in preparation for this novel was extensive. He compiled a notebook of more than one hundred and twenty pages containing detailed descriptions of the movements of the Royal Family when they visited Weymouth between 1783 and 1807 – the years comprising the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the concomitant threat of invasion. The notebook records army exercises and deployments during this period, regulations regarding dress code, hair styles and conduct, and duties performed by officers of varying ranks, including that of the role played by a Trumpet-Major. The title of Trumpet-Major may sound rather innocuous, but he in fact performed a pivotal function in battle; as well as citing the need for extremely neat appearance and perfect obedience, Hardy also registers that

It is absolutely necessary they should be very sober people, for if they are the least in liquor it is discovered in a moment by their sounding, & they never know when they may be called upon to sound the alarm. [Trumpeters and Trumpet-Majors] must be very clever horsemen & ride active light horses; for in the field it is a matter of indispensable necessity that they should sound their signals quite clearly at any pace.

John Loveday is an understated character, he is responsible, dependable and morally sound, chivalrous, obedient and quietly spoken. Hardy's friend and contemporary J.M. Barrie thought Loveday a 'brave and gallant' soldier, 'part of England's greatness'. His presence does not leave a marked impression upon the rest of the narrative cast, and the importance of his duties as a Trumpet-Major are in fact not dwelt upon at any length. This honest and diligent man is not rewarded for his courage and steadfastness with the hand of the novel's heroine; he is passed over in favour of his fickle brother, and is ultimately 'silenced forever upon one of the bloody battlefields of Spain'. By having the eponymous character dwell on the periphery of events, the contrast between him and the braggadocio Yeoman Festus Derriman becomes more pronounced, making Hardy's caricature of martial masculinity more apparent to the reader. Nemesvari describes Festus as a miles gloriosus because he is a vain bore who boasts 'fierce appliances' about his person such as 'great boots' with 'formidable spurs', and he refers to himself as 'a warrior'. Festus drinks heavily and swears loudly, and when he is compared with his fellow protagonist John Loveday we witness a direct inversion of Major-General F.C. Fuller's 1850 description of the Victorian army as being 'almost feudal, in which the leaders were the sons of gentleman, and the men were a rough lot, simple, tough, illiterate, largely recruited from the down-and-outs'.

Unlike the soldier class of which Loveday is a member, the Yeomanry were originally descended from medieval cavalry. They were 'formed by tradition from the aristocracy and the landed classes...venerated by virtue of long-standing tradition and individual status'. It was tacitly acknowledged by nineteenth-century society that the elite status of the Yeomanry set them apart as 'models of chivalric manliness'. As already described, the chivalric code comprised courage, honour, courtesy and justice, especially in the conduct of a man towards a woman. Festus Derriman, a member of the Yeoman Cavalry, is the antithesis of such behaviour; while having pretensions toward the status of alpha-male simply by virtue of his colossal stature and moneyed connections, Festus is in fact portrayed by Hardy as a figure of hilarity. He is 'about the size and weight of the Farnese Hercules', his 'deep stentorian voice' speaks in 'tones that shook window-panes' and he is full of the conviction that by simply entering a premises he bestows pleasure upon the assembled company. Yet Derriman is prone to 'sulking like a cross baby', and his favourite refrain is 'Dash my wig!', a phrase which Hardy relates in his notebook as being a particular favourite of society in 1805, symbolizing Festus's shallowness.

The Tommy (a generic term for an enlisted soldier) was a 'subject of humour and deprecation', especially in the Victorian music hall where his selfish exploits, expert ability at avoiding the heat of battle, and efforts with the local ladies were lampooned. These traits seem more indicative of Festus than of John Loveday the Trumpet-Major, as the song lyrics of the time demonstrate:

I don't want the Sergant's shilling,

I don't want to be shot down;

I'm really much more willing

To make myself a killing

Living off the pickings of the Ladies of the Town...

And this,

While my comrades fought,

(As comrades ought)

I was nowhere to be seen.

I was covered with the Flag,

Listening to the din and strife

When the fight was o'er, out once more,

And that's how I saved my life.

Festus spends the bulk of the narrative chasing the heroine Anne Garland (in some instances literally), searching for his uncle's secret cache of money, or avoiding any duties involving physical exertion; and Hardy signals the full extent of Festus's impotence during a scene where Anne secrets herself inside an abandoned house waiting for aid and news of the Napoleonic invasion. Festus espies her and immediately attempts to gain entry, when Anne refuses him he becomes indignant and enraged, '“Dash my wig, then”, he cried, his face flaming up, “I'll find a way to get in! Now, don't you provoke me! You don't know what I am capable of!”'. When she still disallows him ingress Hardy has Festus petulantly threaten Anne, '“Now, damn my wig, I will get at you! You've tried me beyond endurance. One kiss would have been enough that day in the mead; now I'll have forty, whether you will or no!”'. He flings himself at the door fruitlessly, and then tries to 'drive his sword between the joints of the window shutters, in an attempt to rip them open', the result being that the sword snaps off in his hand. To add insult to injury the terrified Anne manages to escape on Derriman's own horse when he goes in search of a ladder to aid him in entering a higher window in order to reach her. A character described by the narrator as the 'florid son of Mars' is in effect brought to the level of a eunuch.

The figure of Festus Derriman completely undermines the idea of the Yeoman cavalryman adhering to the tenets of chivalry. Rather than act courteously toward a member of the opposite sex, Festus continuously attempts to assault Anne Garland. Evolutionary discourse posits the alpha-male of any given sphere as being the dominant male, but while Festus aims to appear domineering, he achieves only a level of bombast. If the qualities of a soldier, particularly of the Officer class, include unquestioning obedience to a hierarchical scheme of authority, a chivalrous code of conduct and a Muscular Christian mentality with a view to conquering and colonizing in the Haggard-ian tradition of the Empire hero, then Hardy's 'real' military hero John Loveday taking what is effectually secondary status to the ridiculous figure of Festus Derriman's miles gloriosus is indicative of Hardy's presentation of the more farcical expectations of Victorian martial masculinities.

The Silly Captain

If the alpha-male occupies one extreme of the masculinity spectrum it can be said that the androgyne occupies the other. Androgyny became synonymous with effeminacy at the advent of the aesthetic movement during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the major proponents of which were Walter Pater, Algernon Swinburne, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. Male beauty was idolized and linked with the highest forms of art, including Michelangelo's statuary and Raphael's religious depictions. The androgyne was marginalized for displaying characteristics of both sexes while possessing ambiguous physical features. The androgynous masculine ideal signified for many aesthetes authority, beauty and power. For Walter Pater androgyny stood for 'divine beauty', and was located specifically in the male body, as opposed to the female body; he is quoted as saying 'supreme beauty is rather male than female'. We know from Hardy's letters that he read both Swinburne and Pater; in fact Swinburne became a regular correspondent after the publication in novel form of The Well-Beloved in 1897, a story which Swinburne approved of in a letter to Hardy in March of that year, to which Hardy replied that he had taken his inspiration for that particular tale from Swinburne's own poetry.

The androgynous villain of A Laodicean, William Dare, is not an alpha-male by the stereotypical Victorian standards of masculinity. While he is domineering and displays a certain amount of vitality, he is not the most successful or powerful male protagonist in the novel. One critic describes Dare as 'a baby-faced villain...entirely without sexuality'. In contrast Captain De Stancy does appear to conform to the authoritarian role expected of a Captain of the armed forces. Figures such as the celebrated Duke of Wellington ensured that the soldier became embedded within the Victorian consciousness as symbolizing authority, valour and great physical strength. Captain De Stancy displays the manly requisites of imposing stature, physical prowess, a deep and resonant voice, and a proud set of whiskers. His son William Dare, who possesses many androgynous qualities, is illegitimate, yet it is this character whom Hardy has chosen to act as the centre of control within the narrative, usurping the role of paterfamilias and reducing his upstanding military father to the status of a 'Pavlovian clown'.

Will Dare is presented by the narrator as 'a person quite out of the common', his age is impossible to ascertain: 'There was not a hair upon his face which could serve to hang a guess upon. In repose he appeared a boy; but his actions were so completely those of a man'. Dare wears his hair parted in the middle, 'hung as a fringe or valance above, in the fashion sometimes affected by the other sex', yet there is 'a swagger in his body and limbs...a latent power'. Charlotte De Stancy 'can't think whether he is a boy or a man', and the architect Havill refers to Dare as 'a complete negative'. He is 'not a woman, but whether man or boy' people cannot tell; and Hardy's narrator refers to Dare variously as 'the boy-man', 'an unpedestalled Dionysus', and the 'Etruscan youth Tages'. The Dionysian comparison 'serves both to aestheticize and eroticize Dare's body, a fate more usually reserved for the female form'.

Havelock Ellis opined that Dare was 'a very choice villain', for though he was 'objectionable', he was 'cleverly contrived'. William Dare is cast in the role of villain by narrative circumstance, the illegitimate progeny of a respected Army captain who himself had stood to inherit Stancy Castle until it was lost to a Mr Wilkins, partly through 'racing speculations...partly in other ways'. Though publicly acknowledged by the surname of Dare – symbolically denoting his challenge to societal conventions in order to reclaim what he feels to be his legacy – privately Will's true patrilineage is tattooed above his heart, 'De Stancy'. If Captain De Stancy were to marry the novel's heroine Paula Power, the current owner of Stancy Castle, Dare's birthright would be restored. To achieve this end the 'boy-man' adopts the role of the father, his father by contrast seems to take on that of the son; for though Captain De Stancy is 'admirably made, and his every move exhibited a fine combination of strength and flexibility of limb', he admits to his son 'Willy' that 'it seems to me...of us two, it is you who exercises paternal authority'. Dare knows 'what a marvellous match' it would make if his father and Paula were to unite (interestingly Dare displays no sexual attraction for Paula himself, though she is much closer in age to him than she is to the Captain), and Dare urges the Captain along this route with the reproof that 'it would make a man of you...and I have set my mind upon your putting no objection in the way of its accomplishment'. The Captain acquiesces to his son's demands, 'I am too big a fool about you to keep you down as I ought', and Dare 'half-pitifully' views his father as a 'good, weak easy fellow', thus exploiting his role as villain-protagonist to usurp the position of patriarch within this particular relationship.

At the time in which Hardy was writing this novel a son was expected to be dutiful and respectful to his father, accepting his guidance on education, religion and career choices. Alongside marriage, fatherhood was a pivotal experience in the life of any man, because children were regarded as a visible embodiment of their father's values and capabilities'. Procreation, provision, authority and nurture comprise the main elements of fatherhood'. No such relationship exists between Dare and his father, the Captain has been absent from much of his son's life, and rather than guidance, he simply provides money which he hopes will keep Dare at arm's length. De Stancy perceives Dare as a 'graceless lad' who leaves him 'enervated and melancholy', a man-boy who is 'the obtrusive memento of a shadowy period in De Stancy's youth, who threatened to be the curse of his old age'. Dare never addresses De Stancy as 'father', but rather as 'Captain', and continually admonishes the older man to 'trust to his [Dare's] good sense'. He looks upon his father as a 'Frankenstein' whom he has 'vamped up', and when for a moment Will's 'ambitious experiments seemed likely to be rewarded by his discomfiture at the hands of his own creature', he expostulates to the Captain that it is he, the son, who has been 'working so hard to get you on in life, and make a rising man of you!'. De Stancy acquiesces, 'it is as if you were the parent and I the son'.

Moral authority was a patriarchal lodestar that raised complex questions about Victorian masculinity. If a father was to measure his achievements as a man by the extent to which the ethical strictures which he had inculcated were then visible in the behaviour of the son, the reader, both contemporary and modern, may judge the representation of Captain De Stancy as one of failed manhood. As the rights of the father were not solely contingent upon biological paternity, the Captain has no right of autonomy over Dare.

The most startling, and therefore best, demonstration of inverted familial exchange occurs at the novel's dénouement, Dare's indictment of his military hero father's paternal fitness,

'See what I have done for you. You have been my constant care and anxiety for I can't tell how long. I have stayed awake at night thinking how I might best give you a good start in the world by arranging this judicious marriage, when you have been sleeping as sound as a top with no cares upon your mind at all'.

This is not an example of a disappointed father reprimanding a recalcitrant son: what the reader is shocked into realising is that this is Hardy delineating an illegitimate andyrogyne addressing a highly respected senior member of the armed forces. The Captain is ultimately jilted by the heroine Paula Power, and Will Dare is not only denied his legacy but his very birthright.

By articulating a subordinate and stigmatized masculinity as usurping that which was traditionally granted to the alpha-male figure of a father and military man, reducing a roaring and roistering sargent to a tantrum-throwing child, and a braggadocio Yeoman to a eunuch, Hardy is able to impugn the autonomy of Victorian patriarchy, complicating and subverting nineteenth-century constructions of martial masculinity.



Society calendar
Upcoming events
Latest news
The Thomas Hardy Society 2024
HomeJoin usMenuContact us

This website uses cookies

We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners who may combine it with other information that you've provided to them or that they've collected from your use of their services. You consent to our cookies if you continue to use our website.

OK Accept Cookies