Read June 2014
We were doing so well, you and I. I was thinking of reading your poetry and planning Far from the Madding Crowd as my next big read. And then came along The Trumpet-Major. It started well, although a bit mellow for you, but then turned into what felt like (but was not actually) a long, long, long read. Your love quandrangle between boring Anne and her three suitors is a bit, well, dull. The plot and choices are very Austen, but without her sparkle. Your characters are a bit Elliot, only without her themes, prose, or depth, and I am left wondering why you would ever serialize anything. I think there are bits you actually stuck in between serialization and publication.
Anne, our heroine, such as she is, is a painter’s daughter brought low(ish) by her Father’s death. She lives in a partioned mill with her mother, despite their obviously superior class. They initially do not deign to socialize with the Miller Loveday, but finally Mom is just in the mood for fun. She throws a ribbon in her hair and ends up married to Mr. Loveday. Anne, on the other hand, is very much above the Lovedays, initially bad-mouthed by her Mom, her now-step songs Bob (the boring sailor) and John (the dreamy Trumpet major) both think Anne is the greatest. She’s not. Early in this book I was struck by the potential for star-crossed love between John and Anne, something you do so well, Thomas. But no. Not to be. Booo!!!!!!!!
In addition to the man Anne should have married but instead sent to war with Napolean and his brother Bob, the one she actually married for reasons best known to no one, Anne is also hounded (perhaps literally at one point) by Festus Derryman, who is such a ridiculously awesome character, he should have had more air time. If Charles had written The Trumpet-Major instead of you, Derryman would have been the star and it would have been a different book. As it is, you relegate him to a funny side line.
As a result, the characters don’t move the plot. While two of them want something, they are stymied by Anne’s indifference, and we wait for you to tell us the direction, instead of feeling the book move from the urgency of the characters. So it plods.
At the same time, this is your only historical novel, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. And while this could have been an interesting way to move the story, or set the story, or drive the story, it ends up being like a studio movie back drop. All scenery and no movement. When John leaves for the war, your reader SHOULD feel bereft, he’s going to fight in some of the scariest wars of the 19th century. Instead, it’s like by brother-in-law/step-brother. I’m going to hang at the mill. Drop me a line.
To be fair, Thomas, this book has its lovers, but I think they might all be Conrad fans or stark realists, so I’m a bit inclined to disregard their opinions, or understand their enjoyment in the context of the prose style and storytelling they enjoy. For me, this is a necessary read for any serious student of 19th century literature or any Hardy lover, but really in the context of understanding what doesn’t work now (although it may have at the time. The word on the street was that you published (serialised) The Trumpet-Major after you received poor reviews on my very favorite of your novels The Return of the Native. The explanation makes sense, because in almost every way, this is the anti-Native, and I think you thought so too, because not only is the prose stiff, but you return to your earlier style in later books Jude, Tess, Casterbridge. To paraphrase Frost, this didn’t begin as a writing experiment, but turned into one when it because unsuccessful.
The two things most striking about The Trumpet Major are the stiffness of the writing and the blandness of your heroine. It feels a bit like you were pretending to be Austen, but couldn’t bring yourself to go through with it. I hope you learned your lesson with this and stuck with your guts in later novels (as I know you did from reading Jude and Tess), because regardless of reviews, Thomas Hardy, you have an amazing mind and I want to hear more of what you have to say, not what you think you should say.
A bientot. See you mid-July.