The Trumpet-Major appeared in monthly instalments in the magazine Good Words, running from January to December 1880. In October 1880 it was published by Smith, Elder & Co. in three-volume form.
Hardy was yet again experimenting: this was his first and only historical novel. The subject-matter had long appealed to his imagination. In the Life he describes how, at the age of eight, he found a copy of A History of the Wars, a periodical dating from Napoleonic times: ‘The torn pages of these contemporary numbers with their melodramatic prints of serried ranks, crossed bayonets, huge knapsacks, and dead bodies, were the first to set him on the train of ideas that led to The Trumpet-Major and The Dynasts.’ Clearly the events concerned remained of particular interest to Hardy throughout his life. Several times, on Waterloo day, he visited the Chelsea Hospital to talk to survivors from the war. He remarks in his Preface to The Dynasts on the influence of ‘three accidents of locality’:
It chanced that the writer was familiar with a part of England that lay within hail of the watering-place in which King George the Third had his favourite summer residence during the war with the first Napoléon… Secondly, this district, being also near the coast which had echoed with rumours of invasion in their intensest form while the descent threatened, was formerly animated by memories and traditions of the desperate military preparations for that contingency. Thirdly, the same countryside happened to include the village which was the birthplace of Nelson’s flag-captain at Trafalgar.
The plot of The Trumpet-Major, as often in Hardy, is in essence a simple one, the stuff of a folk-song. Anne Garland, the heroine, is wooed by two brothers, a soldier and a sailor. But since John Loveday – the Trumpet-Major of the title – is eventually to fight against Napoleon in Spain, while Bob Loveday is to take part in the battle of Trafalgar, Hardy has ample scope to meditate on the momentous doings of the period, as viewed from the Wessex coast. The soldiers are seen parading on the downs, and Anne, on Portland Bill, is able to watch the departure of the Victory.
The opening words of the novel are carefully chosen: ‘In the days of high-waisted and muslin-gowned women…’ It is to be, among other things, a costume-drama, an exercise in nostalgia, picturesque and full of colour. Perhaps for that very reason The Trumpet-Major has tended to be critically underrated. It seems to have a lot in common with certain light works of romantic historical fiction, and has therefore often been mistaken for one. But there is a good deal more to the novel than that: its complexity resides not so much in the story as in the telling. Hardy’s chief interest is in the processes of time and the workings of memory. He is looking back to the early years of the nineteenth century, but many of the descriptions he provides hark back to yet earlier times. Each layer of recollection is seen to be superimposed on another. There is an account of a chest contained moth-riddled costumes from a previous century. At Oxwell Hall, a decaying mansion, ‘The iron stanchions inside the windowpanes were eaten away to the size of wires…’ In Miller Loveday’s courtyard ‘were two worn-out mill-stones, made useful again by being let in level with the ground.’ Numerous of the objects and scenes concerned have a life – a past life – of their own, of a kind to have offered Hardy the material for a poem. Revealingly he makes a most uncharacteristic appearance in his own novel, when describing a social gathering at Overcombe Mill:
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.
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 on the ways in which the past is preserved and transformed in our recollections of it.