'Time, memory and Emotion in The Trumpet-Major'
Dr Andrew Hewitt (University of Hull)
Thank you for the opportunity to share some reflections on history and memory in The Trumpet-Major. I’ll be quoting from the Oxford World’s Classics edition (1991). The Trumpet-Major is regarded as Hardy’s only outing into comedy, and I know that many readers hail it as a great success in that vein, so it is only fair to begin by saying that I’m not one of them. I don’t find The Trumpet-Major funny. Overall, I’m glad Hardy’s reputation doesn’t have to rest on this book. Which is not to say that I don’t find things to cherish in it. But in my view it is a deeply compromised book, and I want to try and articulate the nature of the compromise. For me it has something to do with the claims the novel makes for itself as history versus the task it actually performs as commemoration. ‘History’ includes a lot of material that we do not find suitable for commemoration – material that we might prefer to forget altogether, were it not for the demands of the discipline.
On the other hand, if ‘commemoration’ is oblivious to this material, it can seem sentimental, flabby, or downright offensive. So a novel that aspires, on the one hand, to the status of history – based on eyewitness accounts and research in contemporary sources, with accurate depictions of dress and so on – but on the other wants to commemorate the way of life of a certain class of people at a certain time and place, has its work cut out for it. I’m going to point to a few places in The Trumpet-Major where I believe we can see traces of the struggle that this work entails. In his essay ‘What is a Nation?’ (published 1882 – two years after The Trumpet Major) Ernst Renan posits ‘forgetfulness’ as a principle of nation-building: “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation”. The “possession in common of a rich legacy of memories” is vital, but the people who form a nation must also “have forgotten many things”.
Many of the divisions we face in our own historical moment spring from disagreement about what we should remember and what we should be allowed to forget. Let’s take Empire and decolonisation. Here is the Home Office guide to Life in the United Kingdom on the topic. This is the book that you must read and commit to memory if you want to pass the test to become a British citizen. Chapter 3 is called ‘A long and illustrious history’.
It describes how, as a result of the Boer wars:
people began to question whether the Empire could continue. As different parts of the Empire developed, they won greater autonomy from Britain. Eventually, by the second half of the 20th century, there was, for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth, with countries being granted their independence. (Life, 51-52)
Led by Frank Trentmann, many professional historians have objected to the handbook which is “not only riddled with factual errors, but amounts to a distortion of the past that does violence to our basic understanding of history and raises fundamental questions for a liberal society”. Funnily enough these words haven’t been chosen to appear on the cover of the book. We could say the Home Office handbook exemplifies the principle of calculated forgetfulness. Its account of decolonisation smooths over the Partition of India, the Mau Mau rebellion, and various ‘emergencies’ in Asia and the Gulf. Decolonisation was a bloody, chaotic process. But nation-building requires “forgetfulness”, which is Renan’s polite word for the suppression of certain memories, certain truths. The Home Office version of the past isn’t history at all, it’s commemoration.
Hardy himself acknowledged the need to set aside a large quantity of the material he had collected in his research for the novel, revealing in the Preface to the 1895 edition that “If wholly transcribed” this material “would have filled a volume thrice the length of ‘The Trumpet-Major’ ”. Nevertheless he saw fit to leave behind a record of his research. The Trumpet-Major is the only one of Hardy’s novels for which we possess anything like a working notebook, and this allows us, and perhaps it was Hardy’s intention to allow us, to explore a part of that missing two-thirds which didn’t make it into the published tale. I’ll give just one example of what we might provokingly call Hardy’s suppression of material. Twice in The Trumpet-Major Notebook Hardy (or Emma, who helped him in his research) records that it was the duty of a Regiment’s trumpeters to “inflict the corporal punishments of the Regiment”, but that the Trumpet-Major himself “must never be made to punish” (Personal Notebooks, 148-49; 171). Corporal punishment covers a range of measures but alludes mainly to flogging, a practice that had become almost unique to the British armed forces by the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In June 1815 the House of Parliament was told:
The practice is peculiar to England […] in Austria it is abandoned: […] in Russia it forms no part of the military code. In Prussia it was once most general [but is now] abolished—it exists no longer. […] The system of flogging exists not in the French army; and, in fact, it forms no part of the military code of any other country. (‘Motion Concerning Capital Punishment in the Army’. Hansard, 21 June 1815, Commons Sitting. House of Commons Debates, vol 31, 919-20)
When we say today that someone has to “face the music”, we are alluding to the standard military practice of accompanying punishment with music. It was considered degrading to force ‘real’ soldiers to conduct floggings or perform as executioners, so corporal punishment was left to musicians (and sometimes, in cavalry regiments, farriers). Civilians who objected to flogging often claimed that music (drum rolls, fifes, fanfares) was used to drown out the cries of the man being punished, but the long-standing connection between music and punishment may have been more ceremonial than practical.
When John Loveday describes the respectability of his position to Anne, he is careful to point out that he gets “a good deal a year extra to the trumpeters”, that he is not allowed to “drink with the trumpeters who serve beneath me”, and that “by the orders of the War Office” he is to “exert over them full authority”; “and if any one behaves towards me with the least impropriety, or neglects my orders, he is to be confined and reported”. These words are more or less lifted from the Standing Orders that Hardy copied down into his working notebook. However, Loveday stops short of mentioning the corporal punishment that, in the early days of his career as a trumpeter, he would have been obliged to inflict, nor that as a Trumpet-Major he is now exempt from carrying out actual floggings, though he must supervise those who do.
In the regiment of the 10th Hussars, from the 4th of January 1813, to the same day 1814, 63 men have been flogged, and 35 in the period of the next six months; that the 63 men received 14,000 lashes: that the number of 600, of 500, of 400 lashes, have been inflicted at one time. […] Rather than hear the cries and groans of our soldiers under torture, men would quit their dwellings. Our residence in their cities was complained of; and while we were every where hailed as benefactors, this single, but constant calamity that we brought in our train, has stamped in the minds of those who had the misfortune to witness it, an opinion most unfavourable to the national character. […] no man could venture to treat an animal at Charing-cross in such a manner as our soldiers were treated under the infliction of flogging, for the indignation of the public would overwhelm him. (op. cit.)
So – suppression. Now, it makes psychological sense for John to hold back the information that his job description includes managing the delivery of corporal punishment. It would be unlikely to raise him in Anne’s estimation, and in any case floggings and executions are not a subject for polite conversation, let alone courtship. But why does Hardy, or the narrator, hold this information back? A good historian would make it available. It seems that it did not fit Hardy’s conception of the character of John Loveday to allow him to be associated with the meting-out of “cruel, unmanly, and disgraceful punishment”, which by the time of the Napoleonic Wars had already been abandoned not only by our allies but even by our so-called arch-enemies, the French. Accordingly, there’s no mention of this disagreeable aspect of his job.
You’ll recall that in Hardy’s story ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’, the two soldiers slated for death by firing squad are led to the place of execution by “the band of the York Hussars playing a dead march”. It might well have fallen to John Loveday or his equivalent to supervise the execution of Matthias, the ‘Melancholy Hussar’ himself, who deserts his regiment out of homesickness and love. But the task of The Trumpet-Major is to commemorate John Loveday and his world. To paraphrase Ernst Renan, forgetfulness if not historical error may be essential in the creation of a character who is meant to represent an ideal of honour, loyalty, and tact. The history of how the British Army maintained discipline has been “forgotten” in the interests of commemoration.
And yet, it is John Loveday who when off-duty administers a beating to Festus Derriman as punishment for the attempted rape of Anne Garland. So corporal punishment does find its way into the novel, via the very character who according to the orders of the War Office must “never be made to punish”. Thrashing someone in a private capacity, in defence of a woman’s honour, is acceptable. Loveday’s violence on this occasion is a trace of the novel’s struggle to find a compromise between the demands of history and the desire to commemorate.
My struggle with The Trumpet-Major is over the very slackness of the challenge it offers to what we might call the master-narrative of England’s “long and illustrious history”. At times the narrator implies that at the very least he wants to supplement that narrative with scenes from “the unwritten history of England” (16). The contribution made by Miller Loveday’s ancestors is as significant in its own way as that of any aristocratic family. The narrator wants to be able to call on the readership’s diffuse knowledge of the master-narrative (“at this critical time of our history”, 254), but also to correct it and fill it out, paying tribute to commoners like the Lovedays and the Garlands while showing the ordinary side of men who are acknowledged to be great, like Captain Hardy, the hero of Trafalgar. But these acts of tribute and humanising don’t bring any pressure to bear on the dominant narrative. We read of Bob’s escape from the press-gang or the attempted rape of Anne Garland by Festus, we acknowledge Mrs Garland’s realisation of the emptiness of the class system, but there is nothing dislocating about any of it.
One feature of the narratology that seems intended to jar the reader is the repeated use of what Ken Ireland in his book on the management of time in Hardy’s novels calls “proleptic analepsis”, the “reference backward to future events”, to inform us of the fate of the Trumpet-Major and his brothers-in-arms. An example of such a moment of revelation occurs after Sergeant Stanner, in the prime of life, entertains the party at Miller Loveday’s with a satirical song. The narrator comments:
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. (Trumpet-Major, 38)
The passage starts as commemoration, but ends as official History, which is of course commemoration of a different kind, as in the Home Office guide to life in the UK: History with a capital H. Who fell Where when deployed into line under Whom? The focus is ostensibly on “Poor Stanner”, but even so, the narrator deems it important to mention by name Sir William Beresford, Marshal General of the Portuguese Army and later a member of Wellington’s government. Indeed, the closing words of the passage “the brigade was deploying into line under Beresford” seem calculated to soothe away any distress that might be aroused by “mortally wounded and trampled down”, as if “Poor Stanner” is being gently diffused into that kind of capital-H History presided over by more monumental figures such as “Beresford”. It is a variation on the movement that the narrator performs on a larger scale when he describes the gradual absorption of pike-handles into domestic use:
The religion of the country had, in fact, changed from love of God to hatred of Napoleon Buonaparte; and, as if to remind the devout of this alteration, the pikes for the pikemen […] were kept in the church of each parish. There against the wall they always stood, a whole sheaf of them, formed of new ash stems, with a spike driven in at one end, the stick being preserved from splitting by a ferule. And there they remained, year after year, in the corner of the aisle, till they were removed and placed under the gallery stairs, and thence ultimately to the belfry, where they grew black, rusty, and worm-eaten, and were gradually stolen and carried off by sextons, parish clerks, whitewashers, window-menders, and other church-servants for use at home as rake-stems, benefit-club staves and pick-handles, in which degraded situations they may still occasionally be found.
Everything is damped down, soothed away, gently repurposed, pacified. The hidden, “unwritten history” brought to light in The Trumpet-Major gives an impression of English society as profoundly unrevolutionary and untraumatised; but if this is the case, then where does the impulse for war come from in the first place? The question doesn’t arise in Tolstoy, in Stendhal, in Thackeray, where war can be read as an expression of a society that already enshrines exploitation, hypocrisy, violence, and the pursuit of self-interest. (Nor would it arise in any other novel by Hardy.) But The Trumpet-Major wants to answer this question of the origins of war solely by reference to an external enemy, in fact “the arch-enemy of mankind” (11), Napoleon, and to valorise the civilisation of the country he is bent on attacking. This entails making light comedy out of the more barbarous aspects of that civilisation. Let’s be clear: John Loveday, Stanner, and the others lay down their lives to defend a social order where free citizens are kidnapped to serve in the navy; women are assaulted and subjected to threats of rape by cowardly posturing bullies; the behaviour of neighbours towards one another is restricted by a fine awareness of the gradations of class; good order in the ranks depends on the threat of corporal punishment; promotion depends on a timely word spoken to the King; only the death of officers is worthy of being reported; and the bulk of the dead are left to moulder where they fall, “scattered about the world as military and other dust” (106). There really isn’t much to laugh about. Hardy knows that perfectly well, which is why his efforts at comedy fall flat. But he has to try.
There is at least one moment in the novel, albeit at the very end, when despite the narrator’s best efforts to keep things light-hearted, the ‘Rotten Core’ suddenly erupts. I’m referring to Bob Loveday’s parting words to his brother in which he rapidly brings the novel’s marriage-plot to a close:
“It’s all right Jack, my dear fellow. After a coaxing that would have been enough to win three ordinary Englishwomen, five French, and ten mulotters she has today agreed to bestow her hand upon me at the end of six months…Good-bye, Jack – good-bye!” (350)
Bob’s blithe farewell manages to compress misogyny, chauvinism, racism, and sheer blustering insensitivity into a single sentence that would not be out of place in the mouth of General Hogmanay Melchett, Stephen Fry’s character in Blackadder Goes Forth. That John has to go forth with this combination of low ideas and lofty cliché (“agreed to bestow her hand on me”) ringing in his ears is a devastating irony. It’s as if the narrator has suddenly forgotten that John’s rivals in love, Bob and Festus, were meant to be different characters. No wonder John goes off to seek death with a “smart” step, determined to “blow his trumpet till silenced for ever” (351).
For much of the novel, however, Hardy almost manages to forget history in the interests of commemorating the Lovedays and the Garlands and their circle. He was certainly heavily invested emotionally in his material, and was being loyal to the members of his family and childhood set, those “old persons well known to the author in childhood, but now long dead, who were eyewitnesses” to the events of the novel, on whose “testimony” some of it is based (3). To have brought the pressure of his wider vision and mature sense of irony to bear on the “testimony” of these survivors might well have seemed to Hardy like a kind of betrayal of the atmosphere of his childhood. Hardy’s depictions of older people are almost always tender, and it seems reasonable to suggest that this was generally how he felt towards older people he knew and had known in life. And so it is possible to speak of compassion as the ruling emotion of The Trumpet-Major, but it is a compassion towards the people who were the author’s sources rather than those he wrote about.
The novel gains what artistic value it has from those moments when this compassion is allowed its full ahistorical expression:
The present writer, to whom this party has been described times out of number by members of the Loveday family and other aged people now passed away, can never enter the old living-room of Overcombe Mill without beholding the genial scene through the mists of the seventy or eighty years that intervene between then and now. First and brightest to the eye are the dozen candles […]. Next to the candlelights show the red and blue coats and white breeches of the soldiers […]. There is not one among them who would attach any meaning to ‘Vittoria’, or gather from the syllables ‘Waterloo’ the remotest idea of their own glory or death. Next appears the correct and innocent Anne, little thinking what things Time has in store for her. (42-43)
For the party-goers “Waterloo” is nothing but a string of syllables, and the writer’s relief is almost palpable in belt-loosening phrases like “times out of number”, “can never enter”, “not one among them”, as well as the superlatives (“brightest”, “remotest”). Memories can be embraced at any time, under any conditions, which makes them exceptionally valuable to the soldiers:
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. (26)
Memory closes up the time of “many years” between that half-hour of “amusement” and the moment of suffering (let it be brief) on the battlefield. It also closes up the time between childhood and a dearly-bought maturity: the “martial men” gathering cherries remember what it was like to be boys, and years later, “weak and wounded”, they remember it again, through the recollection of themselves as “cheerful, careless” young soldiers, engaged in a “boyish” pursuit. Their ability to slide back and forth along the timeline of their lives is similar to the narrator’s ability to dip in and out of the past. The passage shows that pure commemoration need not be sentimental or involve facetious comedy. Note for example how the “ripe cherries” hang “under dark leaves”, or how the troopers transition from upright on their mounts to prostrate on the ground via the half-way point of metaphorical “stooping”. It is perfectly possible for the commemoration of home, youth, health, hospitality, nature, abundance to include such touches that gesture to the proximity and darkness of death.
In summary, then, The Trumpet-Major is the site of an unresolved tension between history and commemoration, a tension that reveals itself in the attempt to use comedy to render certain unpalatable features of history fit for inclusion in a commemorative text. I want to close this very brief set of reflections with a few thoughts on the novel’s heroine, Anne Garland, and her relationship to history and memory. Early on in the novel Anne is shown to be curious about unwritten history, but is denied the opportunity to learn about it:
In the evening the village was lively with soldiers’ wives […]. One of these new arrivals […] seemed to have seen so much of the world, and to have been in so many campaigns, that Anne would have liked to take her into their own house, so as to acquire some of that practical knowledge of the history of England which the lady possessed, and which could not be got from books. But the narrowness of Mrs. Garland’s rooms absolutely forbade this, and the houseless treasury of experience was obliged to look for quarters elsewhere. (22)
Anne’s desire to gain “practical knowledge” of history is thwarted by the “narrowness” of her mother’s house, which may suggest another kind of narrowness – of intellectual scope, perhaps. In a sense The Trumpet-Major is a belated attempt to make up to Anne for what was lacking in the books of her own day – a book of “practical history” that could not otherwise be “got from books”. At other points in the novel Anne seems to be tasked with the responsibility to commemorate. I’m thinking in particular of the episode of the Aeolian harp which Bob Loveday hangs over the river at John’s request as a diversion for Anne. This is a mysterious episode that almost seems to belong in another kind of novel, although it builds on Anne’s relationship with running water. You’ll recall how Anne find herself “looking into the stream of recorded history, within whose banks the littlest things are great” (108) and how she bumps into the King while visiting “a little spring of water” with supposed curative powers where she weeps “without restraint” for Bob (294). Anne’s affiliation with flowing water is established at the very beginning of the novel. In the first chapter, Anne sits “at the back window of her mother’s portion of the house, measuring out lengths of worsted for a fringed rug that she was making”. The “inherent nature” of rug-making is that, once begun, it has no end: “Nobody was expected to finish a rug within a calculable period, and the wools of the beginning became faded and historical before the end was reached”. What Anne sees from the open window is “the large smooth mill-pond, overfull, and intruding into the hedge and the road. The water, with its flowing leaves and spots of froth, was stealing away, like Time, under the dark arch, to tumble over the great slimy wheel within” (9). Just then, the soldiers arrive, stirring Anne from her torpor, and the action of the story begins.
The scene places Anne is what Roger Ebbatson calls a ‘Lady of Shallott situation’ (Ebbatson, 1993: 52; see also Sanders, 1978: 232), but it is also important in setting up her relationship with the river and, therefore, with Time. Anne is to the river as the pond with its ragged overflowing edges is to the fringed rug; neither the pond nor the rug will ever be finished; the work of time is not properly ‘work’ at all, with a goal or end in mind. The mill-pond is a place where the river seems to pause momentarily to collect itself for the plunge into darkness; perhaps the individual consciousness of someone like Anne is nothing more than a place where the flow of Time pauses for a moment, acquiring depth and force before “stealing away”.
As it flows away from the mill, the river disappears from view, though its destination is just audible to Anne at night as “the miles-long voice of the sea, whispering a louder note at those points of its length where hampered in its ebb and flow by some jutting promontory or group of boulders” (22-23). Later in the novel we hear the voice of the river – of Time – more distinctly. To reach our ears, it requires a series of mediations. These are described in the rich and unsettling Aeolian harp sequence, which begins one day when Bob Loveday announces to Anne that he has made something for her and placed it “ ‘out by the bridge at the mill-head’ ”:
He arose, and Anne followed with curiosity in her eyes…On reaching the mossy mill-head she found that he had fixed in the keen damp draught which always prevailed over the wheel an Aeolian harp of large size. At present the strings were partly covered with a cloth. He lifted it and the wires began to emit a weird harmony which mingled curiously with the plashing of the wheel.
‘I made it on purpose for you, Miss Garland,’ he said.
Bob is not lying; he did make the harp, but it was his brother, and competitor for Anne’s love, who had the idea. Anne enjoys listening to it, and thinking about “ ‘the person who invented it’ ”:
Every night after this, during the mournful gales of autumn, the strange mixed music of water, wind, and strings met her ear, swelling and sinking with an almost supernatural cadence.
Thinking the harp is Bob’s inspiration as well as his handiwork, Anne allows “her emotions to flow out yet a little further” in his direction. A moment comes when the harp itself provokes Bob to confess the truth:
One breezy night, when the mill was kept going into the small hours, and the wind was exactly in the direction of the water-current, the music so mingled with her dreams as to wake her: it seemed to rhythmically set itself to the words ‘Remember me! think of me!’ She was much impressed; the sounds were almost too touching; and she spoke to Bob the next morning on the subject.
[…] ‘There was a little matter I didn’t tell you just now, Miss Garland,’ he said. ‘About that harp thing, I mean. I did make it certainly, but it was my brother John who asked me to do it, just before he went away. John is very musical, as you know, and he said it would interest you; but as he didn’t ask me to tell I did not. Perhaps I ought to have, and not have taken the credit to myself.’
‘Oh it is nothing,’ said Anne quickly. ‘It is a very incomplete instrument after all, and it will be just as well for you to take it away...’
He said that he would, but he forgot to do it that day; and the following night there was a high wind, and the harp cried and moaned so movingly that Anne, whose window was quite near, could hardly bear the sound with its new associations. John Loveday was present to her mind all night as an ill-used man; and yet she could not own that she had ill-used him. (183-84)
The passage of time is embodied in the flow of water. The water of the mill-race stirs the air in a “damp draught”. The air awakens the harp. The notes of the harp stir the listener’s emotion. Emotion takes verbal expression, and the process culminates in a vocalisation from someone who is not there, who may already belong to the past, begging, “Remember me!” It is an extraordinary sequence that deserves to be considered alongside those poems of Hardy’s that give voice to the departed, notably, of course, ‘The Voice’ (1912): ‘Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me… | Or is it only the breeze in its listlessness | Travelling across the wet mead to me here’ (Poems, XX: lines 1, 9-10). In the interests of the nation, the people may be required to forget; but Time itself, through the medium of the river, the wind, the strings of the harp, and the dreams of a sensitive young woman, calls on us to remember. It is on the strength of The Trumpet-Major’s commemoration of the past that we may forgive Hardy’s forgetfulness of history.