Book Review: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy

If you know me well and follow this blog (which narrows it down to about 4 people) you may have noted that I haven’t read that much Thomas Hardy lately. Aside from having other reading to do, I am fairly close to the end of the Hardy canon. Having been hooked by Jude the Obscure quite a few years ago, before this blog started, I have worked my way through his major works and am now going through some of lesser known novels. After this, the only ones I will have left to go are:

  • Two on a Tower
  • The Hand of Ethelberta
  • A Laodicean

After which, I expect to start again with those haven’t been reviewed on this blog. But enough of the future plans, what about this book?

This was the first of the books I received for Christmas. Starting a Hardy novel often takes a little time to tune in, as the cadences of the speech and some archaic words, as well the regional accents spelled phonetically, can confuse the modern reader who is more used to plain English. In this respect, the book’s opening reminded me of a slightly less shambolic start to that which greets us in Under the Greenwood Tree.

Our two main characters which come into sight are the Trumpet-Major himself and Anne, who is quite fond of the arrival of an army regiment in Overcombe in the Wessex downs. Unlike most of Hardy’s novels, set in the latter part of the 19th century, this is set in the early years of that century, particularly against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Indeed, the reason the regiment take up their post on the south coast is because there is a belief (or is it fear?) that Buonaparte, as he is referred to, may be about to launch an invasion.

There is something of a friendship developed between the man of the army and woman of the village, but their social status is not the primary driver between them. Other suitors are nearby, not least the character of Festus Derriman. To him is afforded the very worst of characteristics. He thinks of himself as a gentleman, but is a misogynist of the ugliest character, with lines such as “Haw, haw; why, I thought your “go away” meant “come on” as it does with so many of the women I meet.” Charming.

The other contender for Anne’s affection is a character called Bob. Here, Hardy’s storytelling skills fall down a little, as it is not until second half of the book that we work out (though it is not a startling revelation, as though it were a plot point) that Bob is in fact the brother of trumpet major, who is sometimes referred to as John, sometimes as Jack. This creates some confusion when a character is then referred to simply by their surname, as the reader cannot immediately tell if it is Bob or John who is being referenced.

As with some of Hardy’s best work, somebody dies and somebody falls in love, though I shan’t disclose here the final outcome. The level of drama ramps up, making the second half of the book much better than the first, not least because some of the background characters drop out of the picture, leaving us with fewer characters to focus on, though I wasn’t overly impressed with the depth of characterisation. The climax of the book was marvelously entertaining and I still wasn’t sure what the final outcome would be right up until the final few pages.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book that kept me distracted for little over a week, but I can see why it’s not considered part of Hardy’s “core” canon.

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