- Mixed Modes in The Trumpet-Major
Thomas Hardy's The Trumpet-Major (1880) seems in much too definite a way to be attempting to 'repeat' the success story, and the story, of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), thanks to the worse than muted critical reception of The Hand of Ethelberta (1876) and The Return of the Native (1878). The result might easily have been an exercise in self-parody, or a pot-boiler, but on closer inspection the novel holds up well as an aesthetic achievement, even if first impressions conclude it to be ramshackle, and inattentive critics proceed to judgement without having established just what has been going on. Jim Reilly, for example, claims that its heroine Anne Garland 'falls for the dragoon John Loveday',1 while even Valentine Cunningham can speak of 'the fickleness of Anne Garland's affections'2 in a discussion that is notably critical. Neither statement properly applies here. And the blurb on the cover of the New Wessex edition misses the point, with its idea that Anne 'finds it hard to resist the attentions of John Loveday, the gallant Trumpet-Major'.3 Alas, she does not.
Not so much a full-blown 'historical novel' as a sort of historical entertainment assembling colourful ingredients for all-conquering success, The Trumpet-Major's large-scale happenings mesh with its sense of the personal turmoil that results, conveying Hardy's ironic intimation that the heroine – like the earlier Bathsheba Everdene of Far from the Madding Crowd, who also has three 'interested' men to cope with – is infatuated with the most unreliable, 'weathercock'4 sailor Bob Loveday. It seems to be Bob's 'power to hurt' which provides the [End Page 351] measure of Anne's love for him. A note in chapter XV on Bob's resemblance to his dead mother (p. 119) whispers of what has inspired the indulgence with which he has been treated, as 'baby' brother by his widowed father William, the friendly miller of Overcombe, and by his protective elder brother John.
Hardy also inserts a hint of what is to follow in chapter XI, referring to a 'Loveday' who has 'thrilled' Anne's heart when her widowed mother Martha Garland confesses that Miller Loveday has asked her to marry him (p. 91). John is prominent in the story here, so the reader needs to look sharp to realise that this refers to her childhood sweetheart Bob, who captivates her with his puppy love even though this love will prove to 'bear division and transference', the phrase used of the love of the fickle Edred Fitzpiers in The Woodlanders (1887) (chapter XXIX). Self-effacing John is as slavishly devoted to Anne Garland as Gabriel Oak is to Bathsheba Everdene in the earlier novel, but without the positive outcome. And The Trumpet-Major, though hard pressed by its critical reception to emerge from minority status, may seem more psychologically plausible in pursuing a cynical sense of love choices to a more logical conclusion. Sober realism of assessment contrasts with giddy genre swings here; demonstrable stagecraft with positively farcical elements combines with a 'poetry of perception', in Tom Paulin's suggestive phrase,5 and a gradually fading George Eliot-like approach – see, for example, the sepia-tint effects of the 'retrospective narrator as character' lexia (chapter V), to deploy Roland Barthes's 'unscientific' term for the slivers into which a text may provisionally be divided.6
The novel's conclusion is not prepared to vouchsafe information about what the marriage of Anne Garland and Bob Loveday will actually be like, as John is offered the final moment in flickering candlelight before plunging into the dark, as if already 'annihilated' (chapter XLI). Georg Lukács's historicisation of aesthetic categories does not allow the realistic novel to 'contain' a tragic hero,7 and on this theory we may regard the fate of John as allegorising expulsion from a genre which cannot finally accommodate him. Hardy's title makes John central, but his plot makes him peripheral. At any rate, the misplaced devotion on the heroine's part provides a further [End Page 352] irony in a novel 'containing' the tumults of history. Though...