Thomas Hardy Takes a Stab at Napoleon

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The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy, 1880

In 1880 our boy Thomas Hardy attempted a historical novel. As much as I love a romanticized historical setting, Hardy’s Regency Era novel is a big fat fail for me. The story concerns the denizens of a mill, which is a good start, because who doesn’t love a literary miller? The miller has two sons. A sailor named Bob and soldier named John. I knew from the names alone that Hardy didn’t put his thinking cap on for this one. This is the man who created Cytherea Gray, Bathsheba Everdeen and Gabriel Oak. He named the brothers Bob and John. And guess who both brothers are in love with? Anne Garland. No offense intended to the many Anne’s I love in this world, but Hardy sure didn’t strain his creative faculties for this novel.

Anne lives at the mill with her widowed mother. The miller also lost his spouse and decided to rent out part of the mill house to pretty, little Anne and her brainless mother. Of course, both his sons take a fancy to the maiden. Thomas Hardy is too cool for triangles; he loves a love square. So, the local aristocrat also falls for Anne. Anne. Come on now. At least the squire-ling is named Festus Derriman. That’s a name worth hearing. Apart from his appellation, Festus is worthless. He’s a big hulking bro who constantly attempts to or threatens to assault dear little Anne. It’s terrifying. To add another layer of horror, Anne remains silent about Derriman’s persecution, because she doesn’t want to interrupt trade between the manor and the mill. What’s more important than women’s safety in a capitalist society? Everything.

The reader is meant to admire steady, loyal John the soldier and look down on Bob the fickle sailor. However, the characters are so thin and bland, that I couldn’t work up any emotion. The great question of the book is who will Anne marry, but Anne is boring and so are her suitors. My only investment was hoping she didn’t chose Derriman for the sake of increasing her social status. It’s unclear to me why Hardy bothered with the Regency setting when it functions only as a background for his typical love square scenario. Unlike Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the war is incidental to the action of The Trumpet-Major and not fully utilized.

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This book is light, frivolous and unlike Hardy’s other novels, free from any point of view. Yet, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It’s not a strong novel, but it’s still Thomas freaking Hardy we’re talking about. He’s my favorite writer. Even when he has nothing to say, he says it well. The style of his writing pleases me. Always. I think Hardy wanted an excuse to interview his aged neighbors about their memories of the Napoleonic Wars. That exercise did not result in an excellent novel, but I like to think he enjoyed the process. I still enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Henry James so far. Pick up your game, Henry James.

 

You might like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you have a thing for stories about brothers squabbling over the same lady
  • you have a thing for novels about the Napoleonic Wars
  • you want to read a decently written novel that doesn’t require much thought

You might not like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you only have time for the best works by the best writers

Final thoughts: It’s still better than Under the Greenwood Tree. Thomas Hardy’s second worst novel so far. We have at least two truly spectacular novels to go, y’all. Have faith in our boy.

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