Thomas Hardy, The Trumpet-Major. Penguin Classics, 1997. First published in serial form, then, slightly revised, as a three-volume book, 1880.
My attempt to end a run of disappointing reading experiences wasn’t entirely successful with Hardy’s sixth (I think) published novel, The Trumpet-Major. This Penguin edition’s introduction (by Linda M. Shires) discusses the incongruities in its three generic strands: comedy, romance and history – it’s set in 1805, when Britain feared imminent invasion by Napoleon’s army, massing on the north coast of France.
Her argument in defence of Hardy’s artistic achievement in this novel is ingenious, but didn’t convince me. My response was to find the comedy too broad (stereotypical rural characters) and laboured – but there’s a very funny scene in which the hopelessly inept local rustics attempt a drilling exercise in which their inability to distinguish left from right is exacerbated by their impatience to leave in order to fulfil their duties in the church service about to start nearby. British readers will recognise the humour here as in a similar vein as that found in the old sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’, about the Home Guard in southern England early in WWII, preparing to combat the expected Nazi invasion.
The romance will disappoint any reader, including me, who likes to see a satisfyingly happy ending (spoiler alert). The good, steady, decent guy is the one who should marry the beautiful protagonist, and his feckless, selfish rival should not. The beautiful young woman should not be inconstant in her affections – a central image of a weathervane sums her up here. Admittedly this is a pretty shallow expectation of novelistic artifice.
The historical aspect is the most interesting element. The Trumpet-Major is set near Weymouth in Dorset, on the south coast of England, and therefore likely to be a landing-point for the feared French invasion. The locals are understandably nervous and frightened, and fake news is rife. A system of hilltop beacons will be lit as an early warning. One section of the novel describes a false alarm, which sets all the inhabitants off on a terrified evacuation. Meanwhile large groups of soldiers set up tented camps just outside the village at the centre of the narrative. The uniforms set all the local female hearts aflutter.
I found these incongruous strands simply didn’t combine effectively, despite the editor’s claim that aesthetic disjunction was Hardy’s intention.
Just took a look at my posts in January last year. Snowdrops and daffodils began to appear by the second week (none yet in my garden, but they’re coming), and we’d just entered another lockdown. This year the Covid infection rates are soaring again, but there are few restrictions. Let’s hope the government policy (perhaps that’s too flattering a term for their reluctance to act decisively) works: so far the signs aren’t great.