Book Review: “The Trumpet Major” by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy was a master of crafting tragedies that deliver powerful feelings of gloom, doom, despair, and thoughts of self-harm, wrapped in haunting language and sun-dappled, open-aired imagery. So just imagine what he’s like when he switches register from tragedy to romantic comedy. Now that haunting language and open-aired imagery are turned to the purpose of a light, humorous tale of love in the semi-fictitious Wessex countryside. It oozes charm; it makes you laugh and chuckle archly; and without any noticeable shift in tone, it leaves you feeling disgusted and miserable. Truly, it is a performance worthy of his name.

I inflicted this delicious misfortune on my soul by listening to an audiobook read by Robert Whitfield that the Morgan County Public Library bought on my suggestion. I hope many others will pick up the positive aspects of what I say about it and listen to it too and make the purchase worth the library’s while so that the library will continue to listen to my suggestions.

It has many things going for it. Set near the coast of the English Channel during the part of the Napoleonic wars when French troops were expected to land on British soil any foggy evening, it exploits the interesting possibilities of that tense time, as well as the earthy charm of a village flour mill where a lovely but independent-spirited young woman named Anne Garland is torn between the attractions of three suitors. They include a pair of brothers, one a soldier and the other a sailor, who are below her in class but ahead of her in fortune; the third is a boorish young gentleman of Anne’s social station and an impressive physical specimen, of a character so repulsive that it varies moment to moment between the ridiculous and the terrifying. Throw in another woman, and a fallen one to boot, and you have the set-up for a most engaging farce in the form of a love pentagon. But this being the work not of Jane Austen but of Thomas Hardy, the final outcome is that nobody lives happily ever after, and the one person who almost deserves to do so doesn’t live at all.

Written in 1880 but set in the handful of years around 1805, The Trumpet Major was Hardy’s only historical novel. As I listened to it, the thought occurred to me that parts of it would lend themselves well to an opera. I found afterward, when checking my spelling of the characters’ names on Wikipedia, that there actually is an opera based on it. For a while there seems to be nothing but fun in the heroine’s efforts to elude the grasp of the blowhard Festus Derriman, who embodies all the worst aspects of manhood and yet is sometimes pathetic and even silly in his villainy. But setting Festus aside – for, in the last analysis, he serves mainly as a plot device – the real tension in this book lies between Anne and the two Loveday brothers.

John, the elder, is a trumpet major in the king’s dragoons who looks fine astride a horse and sounds a beautiful signal on his horn, but somehow he never seems to find it in himself to blow a clear signal at Anne. Knowing she is sweet on his younger brother Bob, the sailor, he is continually stepping back from the point of winning her hand to make way for that fickle, faithless blockhead. And I mean continually. If there’s one immutable fact in the world of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, it’s that people do not change. Forever Bob is disappearing off to sea, leaving Anne crushed yet devotedly waiting for his return, and when he does return it’s to announce that he has gotten engaged to the first hussy he met on dry land. Then somehow or other that falls through, and Bob comes crawling back to Anne, just when she has almost gotten over him and is ready to accept John’s suit – and worse, John gives her up out of a strange sort of honor in favor of his brother’s prior claim. By the end of this book I wanted to shake each of the protagonists firmly, and not by the hand.

It looked for a while like it was going to turn out well, but life isn’t like that either in the real world or in Wessex, and the pretty soft-focus Hallmark Hall of Fame picture ended in a flat out picture of nihilistic desolation. John’s sacrifice isn’t as ennobling as Sydney Carton’s in that Dickens Tale, nor does Anne’s disappointment break one’s heart like that of Sir Harry Hotpsur’s daughter in the book by Trollope, nor is there ever any reason to believe Bob will mend his ways. John simply gives up like the epitome of British male inadequacy that he is and leaves his bones rotting on a Spanish battlefield, while Anne, the fool, proves to deserve all the unhappiness Bob doubtless has in store for her. And the trick of it is, you enjoy every minute of it, including the parts when you want to shake the main characters for their own good, and by the time it ends the only way you know it could end you feel only a sick emptiness inside that you realize must have been there all along, underneath it all.

And this is one of Hardy’s lighter books. I don’t know what it says about me that I still feel drawn to them, one after another. I’d better read The Woodlanders next.

Buy the book
Thomas Hardy’s wiki page
Recommended Ages: 13+