Tag Archives: Romance

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.

A Valentine’s Day special: The flawed romanticism of The Princess Bride

Happy Valentine’s Day, one and all!

There, that’s done. Now I can carry on a give you some miserly thoughts on the theme of love. Those of you who have met me may testify that I am about 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 8 in height. The observant among you will also note that my avatar is that of a mouse. Therefore, it may not be unfair to describe me as a Rodent Of Unusual Size (ROUS). We large rodents often feel prejudiced against, particularly when it comes to casting in films. There are just so few roles for us. While some may strive for equality in the realms of politics, and others have called for quotas of ROUS in company boardrooms, the cinema is what we really love.

A notable exception to this was the 1987 film, The Princess Bride, when Rodents Of Unusual Size were granted a small cameo role in a scene in the fire swamp. While some protested that it cast us in a villainous role, I was personally not offended by it. However, there is another aspect of that film which I wish to talk about today.

What was not so much offensive, as utterly baffling, was the opening story involving Buttercup and Westley. We are given a bizarre account whereby Westley declares his love by the simple use of a three word phrase, not one of which fitted into “I love you.” This declaration is less than straightforward, to say the least. I know men have difficulty finding the right words when it comes to expressions of love, affection or even modest fondness, but I really think he could have done better.

Then we have to ask ourselves, how did this arise? He may have seen Buttercup each day yet the two never held a proper conversation; unless you consider her ordering him around to be a conversation. Personally, I don’t regard that to be an adequate basis on which one might get to know the hopes & fears, likes & dislikes of another person. If anything, it shows Buttercup to be an extremely mild-mannered proto-dominatrix.

How can you claim to love someone if you don’t know them? Can “true love” be cultivated by the mere observation of how another person looks, moves and orders you about? Though some knowledge about a person may be gleaned from observation, a knowledge of the person requires an understanding that can only come by an intimate and personal conversation. Did Westley and Buttercup ever sit down at the kitchen table and talk about anything and everything over hot chocolate and toasted crumpets until the sun came up the next morning, not realising how much time had passed?

I’m honestly not sure which is more old-fashioned: this idea of love based on sight alone or my idea of actually getting to know someone a little before any such passions arise and take shape. There are times when a conversation may be held in complete silence, with a look of the eye, a tilt of the head or a half smile. Such an understanding, though, can only come once two people have already become accustomed to the minutiae of each other’s mannerisms, which takes quite some time to achieve; getting it wrong along the way can cause misunderstanding, laughter or tears. Only by getting it wrong do we eventually get to know one another well enough to get it right.

Well, I’ve wittered on for long and I’m sure you want me to stop.

As you wish.

Book Review: A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

If you were to ask the average person on the street to name 5 Thomas Hardy books, I doubt A Pair of Blue Eyes would appear very often in such a list. Being one of Hardy’s lesser known works, I began my reading in a state of perplexity as it has all the makings of as fine a romance as Hardy has written. The main character, Elfride Swancourt, is the owner of the titular eyes and is said to have been based on Hardy’s first wife.

A vicar’s daughter (oh, how I know the dangers thus!), Elfride soon attracts the attention of an architect from London, come to do some restoration on her father’s church building. But the path of love never does run smooth in Wessex and circumstances of family status conspire to confound them. Even an attempted elopement fails when Elfride’s fickle nature gets the better of her and she hastily retreats, though the couple retain their affection for one another while further circumstances ensure that they are physically apart for a while.

Hardy makes some slyly self-deprecating remarks in this book including, “The regular resource of people who don’t go enough into the world to live a novel is to write one.” This advice is offered to Elfride, unbeknownst that she already had and that a copy had made its way to a reviewer, a friend of the architect.

Though Elfride shows some affection to this reviewer, it is not reciprocated. Well, at least not at first…

I could continue but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. The more I read the more I was puzzled as to why this is not considered one of Hardy’s best works. The only reason I could think of was that there are early shadows of Tess here and that it comes second in a direct comparison between the two. Hardy’s sense of place, societal pressures and the passions of individuals are as strong as ever. It was a delight to read, with the ending leaving me a little choked up and possibly something in my eye too.

Book review: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I came to this book not really knowing anything about it, other than the fact that it is comes highly recommenced and that it often appears of lists of ‘100 books to read before you die’ and their ilk. So other than expecting it to be good, I approached it with a relatively open mind.

What I discovered was not so much a novel as a love letter; it is a love letter addressed to love itself. The story focuses on three individuals and charts their experiences of love over the course of a lifetime. Many varieties of love are explored: faithful, unfaithful, obsessive, innocent and (a warning for the more cautious reader) this involves some descriptions of sex and, towards the end of the book, an account of paedophilia. That said, it was never pornographic or particularly vulgar; it was carefuly done.

Marquez writes in a very vivid way, with visceral descriptions of his characters and settings. So even though there is very little ‘action’ in the book, there are passages of extreme floridity, where the reader is just immersed in his world, drawn in by the beautiful phraseology. I read this as an English translation although it was clearly translated by an American, which has resulted in the book being punctuated by spelling and grammatical errors and one or two sentences that simply make no sense whatsoever, but don’t let that distract from overall quality of the book. Marquez’s writing is just too good to be ruined by the translation.

I cannot really recommend it enough to you. It is not a particularly short book, but reading it never felt like a chore. It was a joy to go through from start to finish and it is a book I am sure I will read again in the future.