The Trumpet-Major: A Happy Wessex Pastoral Romance or a Clumsy Historical Narrative?

The Trumpet-Major: A Happy Wessex Pastoral Romance or a Clumsy Historical Narrative?

Dr Faysal Mikdadi (THS Academic Director, Poet)


This image may be subject to copyright
Dr Faysal Mikdadi

When The Trumpet-Major was republished in the 1912 Macmillan edition of his works, Hardy, in the General Preface, classified it as coming under the heading of ‘Romances and Fantasies’. This is similar to the classifications used by Graham Greene to separate his serious novels from those designated as ‘entertainments’ (Our Man in Havana, Stamboul Train, The Ministry of Fear, The Third Man, The Confidential Agent and A Gun for Sale). This would appear to indicate that Hardy himself believed The Trumpet-Major to be a less ‘serious’ work than – say – Tess of the D’Urberville or Jude the Obscure. Indeed, the novel has often been seen as such.

The Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy (OUP, 2000) summarises the early reception of the novel as being favourable with ‘many reviewers’ contrasting the novel ‘with Hardy’s earlier novels’. Apparently, ‘some noted with relief the departure from the sombre tone of its most recent predecessor The Return of the Native, and welcomed what they saw as a return to Hardy’s earlier manner’. Early reviews used nouns such as ‘charm’ and ‘quaintness’.i Such positive reviewers’ language is probably the death knell of any new work. Recently, I had an encouraging response from a highly respected critic telling me that my recent piece on a literary subject was ‘most charming indeed’. I did not need to read any further to find out that the piece was also most pleasantly declined for publication.

In the 1896 edition, Hardy had already made a few changes that appeared to ‘firm up’ the novel by adding the two references telling the reader that John Loveday – and several of his soldier friends - had died. He also extended the title of the novel from the original short title The Trumpet-Major A Tale to The Trumpet-Major: John Loveday, a Soldier in the War with Buonaparte and Robert his Brother; First Mate in the Merchant Service: A Tale. These changes not only introduce a touch of solemnity to the novel, they also limit it to a very small world made up of the two brothers and the few actors around them – including those who are real historical characters.

It could be argued that Hardy himself partly colluded with the view that The Trumpet-Major is not a typical Hardy novel; and by implication, possibly, a ‘lesser’ novel intended for entertainment rather than a serious work aimed at influencing the reader.

In this talk, I aim to show that The Trumpet-Major is, in fact, a serious work with many attributes of great literature and that, by weaving fiction and historical truths, Hardy endows the novel with a unique representation of reality.

The Trumpet-Major is not only a pleasant little novel that one reads for pure entertainment – as one might any romance or fantasy. It is also not only a purely historical novel that evokes the historical times of the narrative.

It is also a novel with a clear serious intent as are Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles A Pure Woman. The ‘serious literature’ designation, I would like to show, is inherent in the structure and style of the narrative rather than in some message aimed at provoking a moral response from the reader.

On a personal level, I have always had an overwhelming passion for literature. From early childhood, I loved reading novels and poems. I was a rather sickly child with significantly limited mobility. I have strong happy memories of lying in bed in hospital or at home reading almost incessantly. When I felt tired, I closed my eyes and I made up stories linked to the novels that I was reading and populated my life with my favourite characters. Even after my health improved, reading was what I lived for. Indeed, so much so that my father, worried about my tendency to live in a world of fantasy, promptly recruited me for a Saturday job in his International Chemical Agencies in order to equip me with an understanding of the joys of the real world. My father’s secretary, who had been very kind to me after my mother died when I was seven, made it possible for me to spend most Saturdays sitting on bags of Gramoxone 50, a chemical herbicide, reading my favourite novels. This continued for several novels until my father caught me in the act and promptly sacked me for dereliction of duty. To this day, any smell remotely connected to agricultural materials evokes wonderful images from my favourite works.

What I wish to argue for today is predicated on an underlying principle which postulates that we go to literature for the sheer joy of doing so. How else could one account for the endless returns to favourite works over a lifetime? Whenever life offers a challenge seemingly beyond my control, my solace is always poetry by Wordsworth, Pope, Donne, Tennyson, Shakespeare and Chaucer (the latter in the original Middle English which I enjoy declaiming loudly wherever I am regardless of the strange looks that I get); or fiction by Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Austen, Eliot, the Brontës and Hardy. Their works never fail to remove the cause of my malaise and to make everything just tickety-boo. Indeed, there are certain works that I tend to read almost every year including David Copperfield, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Emma, Wuthering Heights and The Trumpet-Major. Putting aside the fact that these works evoke warm memories of childhood when they were first read and when life was easy, they also fill me with warmth, happiness and an entry into many beautiful worlds.

Let me try to explain why I include Hardy’s so-called ‘lesser’ novel The Trumpet-Major in this list of readings and re-readings.

To do so, I wish to show that this novel is a serious work of literature because of the amazing historical accuracy of a past world depicted by Hardy. In order to firm up the narrative, Hardy includes an amazing wealth of detail – especially of physical appearances. He also includes a great diversity of characters each standing alone within the circumscribed little world created by the novelist. Furthermore he infuses the narrative with much typical Victorian melodrama and, occasionally, some farce – all in a light-hearted tone befriending – indeed engulfing - the reader. Consequently, this is a novel that is different to the more sombre and largely pessimistic and fatalistic view of the world – indeed, The Trumpet-Major feels like a narrative where the sun shines all the time – even when it is cloudy and it rains heavily on its characters.

Wealth of Detail of Physical Appearances

The novel opens with: ‘In the days of high-waisted and muslin-gowned women…’ thus setting the historical scene at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Anne Garland is described as follows: ‘She wore a white handkerchief to cover her white neck, and a cap on her head with a pink ribbon round it, tied in a bow at the front.’ This eye for detail gives the narrative a feeling of incontrovertible veracity. Indeed, a cursory examination of the text shows quite intricate detail with colours being used some 260 times, items of clothing some 254 times and items of food about 125 times. The detail is further strengthened when a great deal of what is observed in the novel is seen through a framed image, e.g. a window, a door, a chink, gateway…etc.... This use of framing an event or character happens a total of about 305 times in the novel. These are but a few examples of how the impressions made are incrementally built up from seemingly very small bits – rather like pieces of a jigsaw which, individually, appear meaningless but which, once joined together, produce a wonderful series of images. This kind of repetition is used frequently by Dickens to create his variegated world, for example, in David Copperfield, Dickens uses some 2500 objects, 600 drinks, meals and articles of food, 230 animals (71 kinds of animals), 442 articles of clothing, over 131 mentions of 33 kinds of vehicles. More than half of all of these appear in the first third of the novel when David is still a child as if to enhance the misty memories being recalled by David the adult writing the story of his life. These statistics show the veracity of Michael Irwin’s argument that ‘It is obviously likely to appear grotesque to the modern reader because walking-sticks and canes are in such short supply. A wide range of Victorian gestures involved accoutrements that have now disappeared or become very scarce: hats, gloves, fans, monocles, parasols, snuff-boxes, pocket watches, beards.’ii

The detail does give the narrative a memorability on which Hardy builds further by ensuring historical accuracy.

Historical Accuracy

The events in the novel take place in the early Nineteenth Century. Indeed, this has caused some to refer to it as Hardy’s only historical novel. Be that as it may, this is more than just a historical narrative. Hardy did a huge amount of research on the period in order to ensure both accuracy and veracity of representation. The ‘Trumpet-Major Notebook’ of some eighty pages includes facts, descriptive passages, illustrations, extracts, military regulations and observations.iii

Hardy is keen on convincing the reader that the story that he is relating has real events. In his Preface to the 1895 volume republication of the novel, he writes: ‘The present tale is founded more largely on testimony – oral and written – than any other in this series. The external incidents which direct its course are mostly an unexaggerated reproduction of the recollections of old persons well known to the author in childhood, but now long dead, who were eye-witnesses of those scenes. If wholly transcribed their recollections would have filled a volume thrice the length of The Trumpet-Major.’ He adds, as if as an afterthought, ‘Other proofs of the veracity of this chronicle have escaped my recollection’. Hardy need not have worried about the credibility of placing his narrative in a particular period in the past because he had done a huge amount of research in order to ensure accuracy. Two examples would suffice to show how the desire for historical accuracy also determined some characterisation and drove the narrative.

There is a section, probably in Emma Hardy’s handwriting, about the ‘Trumpeters’. Reading it expanding on the manner of appearance and behaviour demanded of Trumpeters goes a long way toward delineating the orderly, well-mannered, considerate and eye-catching trumpet-major.iv Hardy’s description of the Royals returning to Budmouth from a yacht trip is described on page 176 of The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy which includes The Trumpet-Major Notebook. It is clear, when comparing this passage with the novel (chapter 30), that Hardy has carried out a thorough research of the period and that he has weaved historical facts with his fiction in a way that makes both seem real.

The whole business of remembering times past in the novel is mimicked by Hardy early in the narrative when Simon Burden, an old soldier, explains to Anne who, standing at the casement, has observed the soldiers arriving. Simon explains who these soldiers are. He does so intermittently because his ageing memory fails him occasionally. This reinforces the fact that the narrative itself is ‘founded more largely on testimony – oral and written […] recollections of old persons now long dead’ (Preface).

Even the style of the narrative tries to fit in with the historical time of the events. For example, each chapter has a descriptive summary of its contents (variously called ‘titling’ and, at times inaccurately, ‘rubricating’). These titles are aimed at setting the stage for the reader and it was widely used in the novels of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries by Frances Burney, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire…etc…

In order to firmly place the narrative in its historical time, Hardy introduces real historical facts as well as real historical characters in the way that Tolstoy does in War and Peace and Victor Hugo does in Les Misèrables. This is done by all three novelists in more or less the same way. They juxtapose an ordinary anonymous mortal against a famous historical character or event. For example, when Sergeant Stanner sings his satirical song about ‘Bo’-ney ‘pounc’-ing down / And march’ his men’ on Lon’-don town!’, Hardy interjects, ‘Poor Stanner! In spite of his satire, he fell at the bloody battle of Albuera a few years after this pleasantly spent summer at the Georgian watering-place, being mortally wounded and trampled down by a French hussar when the brigade was deploying into line under Beresford’ (chapter 5). Another example of this kind of historical contextualising is when Robert Loveday meets the famous Captain Hardy, Commander of HMS Victory and who is Admiral Lord Nelson’s captain (chapter 33). Hardy the novelist also juxtaposes Napoleon and his army ready to cross the Channel with the ordinary ‘minor Englishmen’: Corporal Tullidge (with his crushed arm) and old Simon Burden keeping watch on the hill ready to light the ricks to warn of an impending invasion. Finally, Anne Garland views the Victory from the distance as it passes off Budmouth. She gives way to her tears unaware that two men are near her. One of them approaches her and asks her what the matter is. She recognises the King. She explains and, in response to his query, gives him Robert Loveday’s name. Walking home afterwards, she indulges in creating a new narrative wherein the King issues a special command making Robert an admiral which will mean his staying ‘at home and go[ing] to sea no more’ (chapter 34). Rather cheekily, given that he is writing a ‘Romance and Fantasy’, Hardy concludes the chapter with, ‘But she was not a girl who indulged in extravagant fancies long, and before she reached home she thought that the King had probably forgotten her by that time, and her troubles, and her lover’s name’ (chapter 34).

When Tolstoy uses a real historical figure, he does so in a way that indicates that we are in the presence of a ‘great’ person, e.g. Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, General Kutuzov, General Bagration and others. For example, when Prince Andrei lies wounded on the battlefield, he sees Napoleon. He is lying on the battlefield ground whilst Napoleon is riding high on his horse looking down on him. Similarly, when Hugo uses real historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo and the street revolutionary scenes, he uses detail to authenticate the event. Hardy does one thing significantly better than the two great novelists. Whenever he presents us with a historical character, he delineates remarkably normal people in the same way as he does his other fictional characters. When the King appears and talks to Anne, he comes across as a perfectly ordinary chap passing the time of day. When Captain Hardy talks to Robert Loveday, it is one neighbour talking to another with barely a slight accent on Captain Hardy’s elevated position. Hardy succeeds in humanising these characters in a way that, for example, we do not see in Tolstoy’s Napoleon. This is a story about ordinary people living ordinary lives as most people do. Each has an impact on the others no matter how indirectly, for example, when Captain Hardy is wounded on the Victory, it is Robert Loveday who helps carry him to the cockpit before jumping on to the French ship and doing his heroic deeds. We are specifically told that both the Admiral and the Captain were pleased with the way that Bob barricaded the hawse-holes where the anchor cables go in the ship’s bow (chapter 35).

This normalisation of humanity regardless of the character being fictional or real (and famous) is emblematised in Anne’s feelings: ‘Anne now felt herself close to and looking into the stream of recorded history, within whose banks the littlest things are great, and outside which she and the general bulk of the human race were content to live on as an unreckoned, unheeded superfluity’ (chapter 13).

When Hardy describes the King’s arrival in Budmouth and his reviewing of the troops on the down, he mixes the fictional narrative with historical facts quite naturally. Most of the military participants in the review are mentioned as ‘lying scattered around the world as military or other dust at Talavera, Albuera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo; some in home churchyards; and a few small handfuls in royal vaults’ (chapter 12). In Hardy’s novel, all actors, real or ficticious are ordinary human beings.


The diversity of characterisation is introduced very early on in the novel. When Miller Loveday calls on Widow Garland and her daughter, Anne Garland, he is followed by John Loveday who responds in a typically adolescent tongue-tied and self-conscious way when he sees the change of Anne from Mrs Garland’s ‘little girl’ to a rather beautiful ‘Muslin apparition’. John in turn is followed by Trumpeters Buck and Saddler and by Sergeant Jones. These last two are in turn followed by Sergeant-master-tailor Brett and Farrier extraordinary-Johnson. Miller Loveday has come to fetch Martha and Anne Garland. Trumpet-major John Loveday has come to fetch Miller Loveday. It was then ‘discovered that Sergeant-master-tailor Brett and Farrier-extraordinary Johnson were outside, having come to fetch Messrs. Buck and Jones, as Buck and Jones had come to fetch the trumpet-major’ (chapter 3). Somehow, we are able to see them all partly because of the repetitive language and partly because of the gently farcical presentation; they are all squeezed into a very small passage – so much so that, when the trumpet-major offers his arm to lead Anne out, his comrades ‘glued themselves perpendicularly to the wall to let her pass’. This is quickly followed by Anthony Cripplestraw discomfiting Anne by encouraging Corporal Tullidge to twist his injured arm so that she can hear the bones crunching and by suggesting that she might be interested in seeing the silver plate in his (Tullidge’s) injured head (chapter 4).

Whereas the main action of the plot has a handful of characters in it; and whereas the world that these few characters live in is circumscribed into a very small area; anything that happens beyond is reported back. These few characters are surrounded by a large cast of diverse minor characters each with his or her specific quirky characteristics. By creating a self-contained little world with much of the action taking place off stage, Hardy successfully creates an aura of credibility and exerts tight control over his narrative.

Hardy’s narrative eschews strict social controls as evidenced by Mrs Garland easily changing plans, for example, she suddenly drops her plan of marrying Anne off to Festus because of his wealth (chapter 10). Indeed Anne herself knows of her mother’s flexibility, ‘Anne knew that her mother’s sentiments were naturally so versatile that they could not be depended on for two days together’ (chapter 10). Mrs Garland, in a wonderfully typical example of self-deception, explains her reason for changing her mind about Festus by telling Anne, ‘My feelings and my reason, which I am thankful for!’ (chapter 10).

There are many examples of the diversity of characters in the novel. Anne is seemingly petulant, wavering, easily waylaid in conversation, impulsive and, at times, seemingly rude or abrupt. Robert is brash, apparently insensitive and with a strong sense of entitlement, e.g. the cringe factor we experience when he distributes gifts on his arrival home coupled with his repugnant attitude towards women. ‘“I didn’t remember that she was a quick-tempered sort of girl at all. Tell her, Mrs. Garland, that I ask her pardon. But of course I didn’t know she was too proud to accept a little present – how should I? Upon my life if it wasn’t for Matilda I’d – Well, that can’t be, of course”’ (chapter 15). Later on, when Robert kisses Anne’s hand without her consent, she objects given that he was betrothed to Matilda Johnson, to which he replies, ‘“I don’t love you at all! I am not so fickle as that! I merely just for the moment admired you as a sweet little craft, and that’s how I came to do it…”’ (chapter 19). Added to this is Bob’s description of his wife to be, Matilda Johnson, as ‘“excellent body…a real charmer… nice comely young woman, a miracle of genteel breeding… she can throw her hair into the nicest curls, and she’s got splendid gowns and head-clothes… a land mermaid…”’ (chapter 15). When his father suggests that marrying a woman barely a fortnight after meeting her is ‘“Not very long.”’ Robert replies that ‘“’twas really longer – ‘twas fifteen days and a quarter”’ (chapter 15). These are but some examples of Hardy’s rather quirky and, essentially, melodramatic characters.

Victorian Melodrama

Michael Irwin is right when he says that the Victorian novel reflects the popularity of melodrama in the Nineteenth Centuryv. The Trumpet-Major is full of what Irwin terms as the ‘extremities’ intrinsic to everyday life. Indeed, melodrama is used by Hardy precisely as Irwin suggests that melodrama in novels is: as a contrast to everyday life. Of course, Michael Irwin’s analysis of melodrama in the Nineteenth Century novel is significantly more complex than the simplistic use that I am making of it here for purposes of this brief talk. There are many examples of melodrama – and indeed, farce – in the novel. One example is the section which describes Benjamin’s insistence on Anne Garland coming to see him. When she eventually agrees to do so, he accompanies her down to a dark and dingy cellar to show her where he hides his tin box containing his valuables (chapter 24). Hardy, like all ‘great novelists’, in the words of Michael Irwin, ‘modulate[s] more or less uneasily into melodrama on occasion’.vi

The novel offers a mixture of theatre and melodrama. In modern terms, there is a cinematic opening to the novel with Anne Garland looking out ‘from the open casement’. We are given a detailed description of the view teeming with fauna and flora. It is as if the reader is standing beside Anne watching the view framed by the window (chapter 1). The peaceful scene slowly fills up with soldiers and progressively bubbles with frenetic activity. The entertainment begins. Widow Garland asks. ‘”Can it be the French? […] Can that archenemy of mankind have landed at last?”’ – i.e. Napoleon Buonaparte. When Miller Loveday first appears, he is ‘got a glimpse of […] through the same friendly chink that had afforded him a view of the Garland dinner-table’ (chapter 2). This device of observing through doors, windows, chinks and other such like, is used frequently in the novel: Anne sees Benjamin Derriman’s Oxwell Hall through ‘the arched gateway’ (chapter 6). She sees Festus arrive at his uncle’s through an opening to the ‘quadrangular slough’ outside. When Festus, as a youth, secretly shaves he uses the window with his black hat on the outside to create a mirror (chapter 8). In the same chapter, Anne escapes Festus by leaving through the bushes by the kitchen garden wall and through a door leading into a rutted cart-track. Again, in the same chapter, John Loveday passes by and looks into the window and smiles at Anne and her mother. In chapter 9, Festus is at Anne’s window and, in the same chapter we have John Loveday fetching Anne after a conversation across the threshold. As they walk back and they observe Festus and his friends carousing noisily through a chink. By using this device of seeing through an a opening in a barrier, Hardy frequently reminds the reader that this is, after all, ‘a tale’ and in it are players oblivious of what is to come, ‘There is not one among them who would attach any meaning to ‘Vittoria’, or gather from the syllables ‘Waterloo’ the remotest idea of his own glory or death. Next appears the correct and innocent Anne, little thinking what things Time has in store for her at no great distance off’ (chapter 5). There are some 305 occasions on which Hardy creates a scene observed through a frame of some kind (see the first paragraph in the section above entitled ‘Wealth of Detail of Physical Appearances’).

This theatrical use of framing fits in with the melodrama used by Hardy, for example, when Festus throws the sweet-william out of a window above and Anne innocently picks it up, she passes it on to John Loveday as soon as she realises that it has come from Festus. Festus’s reaction is a rather grotesque exaggeration befitting the best tradition of melodrama: ‘Festus, seeing this, enlarged himself wrathfully, got hot in the face, rose to his feet, and glared down upon them like a turnip-lantern’ (chapter 13). Theatricality is abundant both when Bob Loveday’s letter arrives home as well as when he himself arrives, followed by his father, who, in turn, is attended by an audience made up of Crippleshaw, Comfort, Mitchell, Beach, Snook and the children of Fencible Tremlett described delightfully as ‘some small beginnings of Fencible Tremlett’s posterity’ (chapters 14 and 15).

The characters that Irwin describes as ‘stereotypes’ are indeed so in as far as each evinces specific limited traits whilst exhibiting no real depth. This, I would like to suggest, is deliberate in order to further the narrative – a little bit like a theatrical farce where behaviour is driven by the plot rather than the other way around. For example, when Bob returns home the second time after a long absence after the Battle of Trafalgar, he justifies his behaviour in falling for ‘this other girl’ by explaining rather lamely, ‘“But thou’st see, Jack, I didn’t think there was any danger, knowing you was taking care of her, and keeping my place warm for me I didn’t hurry myself, that’s true…”’ (chapter 39). When John tells him that Anne already knows all about ‘this other girl’, Bob, the fickle man of straw, says: ‘“I’ll be a new man. I solemnly swear by that eternal milestone staring at me there that I’ll never look at another woman with the thought of marrying her whilst that darling is free…”’ Notice that this promise is conditional on ‘looking at another woman’ only ‘with the thought of marrying her’ and that this will NOT happen only whilst ‘that darling is free’. Presumably, after they marry, Robert can resume the important business of looking at other women only ‘with the thought’ of other and, more interesting, things than marriage.

In fact, Robert’s explanation to Anne of why he was ‘unfaithful’ is itself a wonderful stereotype of the eternal philandering cad: ‘“When a man is away from the woman he loves best in the port – world, I mean – he can have a sort of temporary feeling for another without disturbing the old one, which flows along the same as ever”’ (chapter 39). This explanation delivered to Anne herself vies equally between top and second prizes for insensitivity and odiousness. The explanation justifying the behaviour is worse than the original offence itself. Indeed, Robert’s behaviour becomes positively pantomimic when, in the same chapter, Anne refuses to forgive him, he resorts to pure emotional blackmail: ‘“Very well, then! Now I know my doom! And whatever you hear of as happening to me, mind this, you cruel girl, that it is all your causing”’. Hardy part colludes with this behaviour by explaining that ‘Youth is foolish; and does a woman often let her reasoning in favour of the worthier stand in the way of her perverse desire for the less worthy at such times as these?’ (chapter 40). In other words, Anne, against all reason, will forgive Robert who does not deserve it. Hardy sees the theatrical behaviour as probably reflecting reality in more ways than one, and he acknowledges the lack of reason in Anne’s behaviour – thus placing the blame on her and, by implication, letting Bob off the hook.

The Comic Effect of the Light-hearted Tone

The novel’s detailed physical descriptions, accurate historical details, diversity of characters and theatrical props are all used to magnify its main feature of light-hearted humour. We should start with Festus whose name in Latin means ‘holiday’ and in Greek ‘happy’. The Biblical meaning of the name is ‘festive’ or ‘joyful’. Hardy also refers to him variously as ‘Rufus’ (i.e. red-head), ‘Fess’ and ‘Festy’ (by his uncle). Festus is a typical villain such as Count Fosco in Collins’s The Woman in White, Ralph Nickleby in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Blandois/Rigaud/Lagnier in Dickens’s Little Dorrit, Lovelace in Richardson’s Clarissa and so many others. At times he is funny and at others he is downright threatening and really unsavoury.

The very language that Festus uses places him on the stage of a pantomime. He repeatedly says ‘Dash my wig’ or simply ‘My wig’ (chapters 4, 5, 7, 8, 9 and 27). He is given to saying things like ‘I’ll come… hang me if I don’t’ and, most exaggeratedly, ‘O, my heart and limbs!’ (chapter 28). This way of exclaiming seems to run in the family since Benjamin Derriman says ‘Scrounch it all’ when exasperated (chapters 5 and 14). These are somewhat comic utterances that place their speakers apart from other characters – Festus the bully and manipulator and his uncle Benjamin Derriman the miser and coward. The latter is reminiscent of the miserly Felix Grandet in Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (published 1833). Both men are deliciously horrible with a touch of pathos.

When the false alarm of the French invasion spreads in the local area, Festus, knowing that the alarm is false, immediately acts mock-heroically and exhorts his men to battle. He is discovered and escapes a beating from his angry men. His stalking of Anne results in him falling in the river face down (chapter 25). He fails to get Anne to come out of the cottage so that he can have a kiss of her (chapter 27) and he loses his horse to Anne who rides away on it. Even then, his language is melodramatic and self-engrossed, ‘She on Champion! She’ll break her neck, and I shall be tried for manslaughter, and disgrace will be brought upon the name of Derriman’ (chapter 28).

From this point the novel slips into farce with confusion, mistaken identity, dissemblance, secrecy, pretence and so much else which causes Anne to ‘feel that she did not like life particularly well; it was too complicated…’ (chapter 30). John sees Robert and Anne canoodling and immediately decides to help his brother’s suit. He pretends to be in love with an actress (they assume her to be Matilda who plays along). The whole episode at the theatre is full of smoke and mirrors. Even the news brought to the King of a great triumph at the Battle of Cape Finisterre is what, in reality, not a victory because the real Admiral Sir Robert Calder was court-martialled and severely reprimanded rather than being seen as the hero as initially assumed (chapter 30). When the first performance is over, the curtain falls and the final act begins the farce of ‘No Song for Supper’. I am assuming that Hardy means No Song No Supper by Stephen Storace which itself has a complicated plot of pretence, disguise, separations, overheard conversations…etc… rather like The Trumpet-Major wherein it appears as a theatrical episode.

The evil Festus continues the melodrama by colluding with Matilda in telling the press-gang about Robert Loveday which then gives us a chapter of the farce of the gang trying to get him, of Anne being heroic and of Bob escaping in a most improbable way. The farce is soon to come to an end – although it is debatable whether it is a happy ending or notvii.

The humour is also in the asides thrown in by the novelist, e.g. in chapter 10, there is a comic description of the soldiers who, on losing all the local pretty girls to their quicker comrades, settle for the less pretty ones because they are not ‘at all particular about half an inch of nose more or less, a trifling deficiency of teeth, or a larger crop of freckles than is customary in the Saxon race’. Their German comrades in arms invariably bear humorous names, e.g. Lieutenant Knockheelman, Cornet Flitzenhart and Captain Klaspenkissen.

Hardy even uses humour in descriptive passages such as happens in chapter 10 when Anne walks in the garden with ‘the pleasant birds singing to her, and the delightful butterflies alighting on her hat, and the horrid ants running up her stockings’.

Rob Loveday decides to marry Matilda Johnson ‘having known this lady for the full space of a fortnight [which meant that] he had had ample opportunities of studying her character…’ (chapter 14).

If these comic characters and interludes appear exaggerated, within the grand scheme of the novel as a whole, they are perfectly acceptable. Indeed, Hardy has given a convincing explanation of the art of fiction: ‘The whole secret of fiction and the drama – in the constructional part – lies in the adjustment of things unusual to things eternal and universal. The writer who knows exactly how exceptional, and how non-exceptional, his events should be made, possesses the key to the art’.viii Elsewhere Hardy adds, ‘Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened’.ix

Exaggerated gestures, over the top behaviour, archaic theatrical language and stylistic intrusions all contribute to the comic and light-hearted narrative. When Bob Loveday loses his beloved Matilda Johnson, he suffers exquisitely. As a consequence, ‘he had eaten in meat no more than fourteen or fifteen ounces a day, but one-third of a quartern pudding on an average, in vegetables only a small heap of potatoes and half a York cabbage and no gravy whatever’ (chapter 22). He also loses ‘the rational amusements of manhood’ and only goes to Budmouth to see the King and Queen, watch the picket-mounting, listen to the bands, observe the staff, and above all, see ‘the pretty town girls go trip-trip-trip along the esplanade, deliberately fixing their innocent eyes on the distant sea, the grey cliffs, and the sky, and accidentally on the soldiers and himself’. This state of utter misery soon expires as Robert turns his eyes on to Anne because, as Hardy tells us, ‘love [is] so much more effectually got rid of by displacement than by attempted annihilation’.


It is true that The Trumpet-Major is not the kind of novel that the reader has come to expect of Hardy. It is funny, full of action, melodramatic, in turn romantic, full of improbable characters and, perhaps most glaringly, it is not pessimistic with its alleged happy ending. I am not convinced that it has a happy ending because it would appear that Anne has chosen the wrong man. Festus is unsavoury. He and Matilda deserve each other – anyhow, he only courts her to spite John who did not love her anyhow. John is a decent chap full of consideration and kindness. Robert is a philanderer. One can imagine what married life is likely to be with him given his obviously roving eye. His attitude to women is quite repugnant. In fact, all three suitors of Anne appear to regard woman as a piece of property. The two brothers each offers to give up Anne in each other’s favour. In chapter 34 Robert tells John, ‘You have more right to her than I. You chose her when my mind was elsewhere, and you best deserve her; for I have known you forget one woman, while I’ve forgotten a dozen…’. Bob adds, ‘Take her then, if she will come, and God bless both of’ee’. It is decent of Robert to assume that Anne does have a choice to ‘come’ to John. Some time after, when Bob has betrayed Anne, John approaches her again and is rejected. She softens after he is scalded when saving her. Even then, he writes to check with his brother who then decides to come back to Anne.

In chapter 25, Hardy makes a reference to Paul-and-Virginia as being the life that Bob hopes for with Anne. Paul et Virginie is a novel by Bernardin de Saint-Pierrex. Hardy was given an English translation of the French novel when he was nine. The copy had come from his Melbury grandmother’s collection of books. Paul et Virginie is an idyllic love story full of gentleness and coincidences. Hardy had read it and is said to have been impressed by it. The Trumpet-Major occasionally has echoes of Paul et Virginie especially in the delineation of love and of nature. For example, when Anne begins to soften towards Robert after her mother and his father get married, we have a very short passage that is reminiscent of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: ‘[Anne] descended to the open air, shook the flour from her like a bird, and went on into the garden amid the September sunshine, whose rays lay level across the blue haze which the earth gave forth. The gnats were dancing up and down in airy companies, the nasturtium flowers shone out in groups from the dark hedge over which they climbed, and the mellow smell of the decline of summer was exhaled by everything’ (chapter 22). One can almost hear Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony echoing in the distant background. When love is in the air, all is well with the world. The Trumpet-Major also evokes another romance which Hardy would not have read since, although written in 1795, it was not made public till 2007. It is the very short and unfinished novel Clisson et Eugènie by Napoléon Bonapartexi. It is the story of a soldier and his lover (based loosely on Napoléon’s own relationship with Eugénie Désirée Clary). Representations of the truly romantic appear to elude Bonaparte who mistakes it for passion. But then he would, wouldn’t he, especially when we consider his famous message to Joséphine: ‘Ne te lave past, j’accours et dans huit jours je suis la’.xii (‘Do not wash, I hasten, and, in eight days, I shall be there.’)

In his brief piece on The Trumpet-Major, Michael Irwin has this to say about the novel: ‘The affection and the sense of personal engagement are in evidence throughout the novel, giving it a distinctive quality. The characters, though engaging enough, are little more than stereotypes, and the story rather loses direction towards the end, but these limitations were perhaps a price that Hardy was willing to pay in the interest of producing a work of an unusual kind, a meditation of the ways in which the past is preserved and transformed in our recollections of it.’xiii I would like to add that the novel’s whole is greater than its individual parts. I base this judgement on the fact that, taken as a whole; made up of the wealth of detail, historical accuracy, diversity, melodrama, the comic effect and the light-hearted tone all build up into an enjoyable, memorable and meaningful novel worthy of genuine literary appreciation.

‘The meaning of a work of art cannot be defined merely in terms of its meaning for the author and his contemporaries. It is rather the result of a process of accretion, i.e. the history of its criticism by its many readers in many ages.’xiv I hope, that for this age, I have gone a little way towards showing that The Trumpet Major is not only enjoyable; it is also worthy of being taken seriously as a good novel.


  • Page, Norman (Editor), Oxford Reader’s Companion to Hardy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, pages 436-441.

  • Irwin, Michael, Picturing: Description and Illusion in the Nineteenth Century Novel, Routledge, London and New York, 2016 (first published in 1979).

  • Taylor, Richard H. (Editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London and Basingstoke, 1978 pages 115-186.
  • Ibid, page 171.

  • Irwin, Michael, ‘Readings in Melodrama’ in Gregor, Ian, Reading the Victorian Novel: Detail into Form, Vision Press Limited, London, 1980.

  • Irwin, Michael, Picturing: Description and Illusion in the Nineteenth Century Novel, Routledge, London and New York, 2016 (first published in 1979).

[Note added after this paper was delivered on Saturday 24 October 2020]. During the Study Day, Alastair Simpson – Actor and Musical Conductor of The New Hardy Players; spoke evocatively about Thomas Hardy being strongly influenced by the comèdia dell’arte characters of Harlequin (Bob Loveday), Columbine (Anne Garland), Pantaloon (Benjamin Derriman), Captain (Festus Derriman), Soubrette (Matilda Johnson) and, of course, Pierrot (John Loveday). Mark and Andrew North also delivered a paper on ‘A Ridge in Wessex: South Dorset During the Napoleonic Wars’ during which they paralleled real events with Hardy’s presentation of both the military as well as places in Dorset/Wessex in the novel. Speakers on the day compared Hardy’s presentation of the Fencibles to the Twentieth Century popular television comedy Dad’s Army. These, and other, links made during the day reinforce the strong theatrical/pantomimic/farcical underpinnings of aspects of Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.

  • Hardy, Thomas, The Life of Thomas Hardy 1840-1828, Wordsworth Literary Lives, 2007, Part Five, Chapter 21, page 260.
  • Taylor, Richard H. (Editor), The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London and Basingstoke, 1978, February 1871 page 8.
  • Saint-Pierre, Bernardin de, Paul et Virginie, Garnier-Flammarion, Paris, 1966, first published in 1788.
  • Bonaparte, Napoleon, Clisson et Eugénie, rentrèe littèraire fayard, France, 2007.
  • Bonaparte, Napoléon, Lettres d’amour à Joséphine, présentée par Jean Tulard, Fayard, Paris, 1981, page 155.
  • Irwin, Michael, ‘The Trumpet-Major’, The Thomas Hardy Society Website, accessed 21 September 2020.
  • Wellek, R. and Warren, A., Theory of Literature, Harcourt, Brace, and World, U.S.A., 1942, 3rd edition Peregrine Books, 1963, part one, chapter 4, page 42.
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