One of my favourite sources of reading material is the minor works of famous authors. When I find an author I love, I steadily munch my way through pretty much everything they ever wrote. Sometimes the neglected works are better than the well-known books – I personally prefer Tolstoy’s short stories to Anna Karenina. Sometimes, even though they’re not so polished, they’re still enjoyable, like Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, with its deliciously wicked anti-heroine. Other times, it’s easy to see why they never achieved classic status (This side of paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, took up a week of my life that I’m never getting back). But if it only cost a pound from a secondhand bookshop, or was instantly available to borrow from the library, languishing on the shelf while its better-known siblings are out on loan with multiple reservations, how can I complain?
I’ve just finished reading The Trumpet-Major, one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser-known works. I’ve read several Thomas Hardy books now and not yet been disappointed, and this is another success as far as I’m concerned. It’s a light rural comedy which has the distinction of being the only historical novel he ever wrote. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it tells the story of Anne Garland, who is courted by three very different men and has to decide which one to marry: boorish, bullying but wealthy Festus Derriman; noble, generous John Loveday, the trumpet-major of the title; or John’s brother Bob, who is good-natured and affectionate, but ultimately fickle and selfish.
In between Hardy books I always forget how comic he can be. Most of the humour arises from the personalities of the protagonists, and in The Trumpet-Major the funniest character is the vain and stupid Festus Derriman. Such as this passage, where he ogles Anne while she reads aloud and refuses to leave the room despite the fact that he is intimidating both her and his uncle:
After sundry endeavours to peep at his nephew from the corner of his eye, he could bear the situation no longer.
“Do ye want to say anything to me, nephew?” he quaked.
“No, uncle, thank ye,” said Festus heartily. “I like to stay here, thinking of you and looking at your back hair.”
Or this, when he fishes for compliments from his uncle’s servant Cripplestraw:
“Do people talk about me here, Cripplestraw?” asked the yeoman, as the other continued busy with his boots.
“Well, yes, sir; they do off and on, you know. They says you be as fine a piece of calvery flesh and bones as was ever growed on fallow-ground; in short, all owns that you be a fine fellow, sir. I wish I wasn’t no more afraid of the French than you be; but being in the Locals, Maister Derriman, I assure ye I dream of having to defend my country every night; and I don’t like the dream at all.”
“You should take it careless, Cripplestraw, as I do; and ‘twould soon come natural to you not to mind it at all. Well, a fine fellow is not everthing, you know. O no. There’s as good as I in the army, and even better.”
“And they say that when you fall this summer, you’ll die like a man.”
“When I fall?”
The other strength of this novel is the description. Normally I’ve got no patience with long descriptive passages, especially of landscapes: if they go on for more than a paragraph I tend to skim ahead, thinking the blasted heath, so what? the bleak moors, blah blah, until my eyes alight with relief on some dialogue or action. And yet with Hardy I can quite comfortably while away several pages with a description of a watermill or a turnip field. The Trumpet-Major is set in a part of the country (Hardy’s beloved ‘Wessex’) and a period of history that was vivid to Hardy, and it shows. He brings alive the very real fear of a French invasion – the pikes kept in the church tower for villagers to defend their homes and families, the beacons on the hills ready to be lit at first sight of enemy boats on the horizon. The historical detail feels authentic without making the book a self-consciously ‘historic’ piece.
Even though I’ve described this a comedy, I’d warn that if you like to be reassured by happy endings, then Hardy is not for you. Everything is neatly tied up in the end, but Hardy had an intrinsic inability to believe in unalloyed happiness, and there’s still an element of tragedy. This is indicated early on in the book, when the troops stationed at Overcombe parade for King George:
The troops then cleared off the field, the spectators followed, and by one o’clock the downs were again bare.
They still spread their grassy surface to the sun as on that beautiful morning not, historically speaking, so very long ago; but the King and his fifteen thousand armed men, the horses, the bands of music, the princesses, the cream-coloured teams – the gorgeous centre-piece, in short, to which the downs were but the mere mount or margin – how entirely have they all passed and gone! – lying scattered about the world as military and other dust, some at Talavera, Albuera, Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse, and Waterloo; some in home churchyards; and a few small handfuls in royal vaults.
The book has its weaknesses: it seems like Hardy runs out of enthusiasm for this novel towards the end, and later events are hurriedly outlined rather than filled in. Also, there is no character development, which makes the characters, although initially well-drawn and humorous, seem a little flat towards the end, so it’s hard to care about what happens to them. This means that The Trumpet-Major fits into the category of lesser-known works that are enjoyable but suffer from comparison to author’s masterworks. If you’ve never read Hardy before I would recommend that you read Far from the madding crowd first if you want a gentle comedy, or Tess of the D’Urbervilles for an emotional tragedy. Still, all the Hardy novels I have read so far are well worth reading, and given that he wrote fifteen novels, plus three collections of short stories, I can see myself quite happily working my way through his entire works for years to come.