Friday, March 5, 2010

The Trumpet-Major

Every few months or so I read a 19th century English novel, during the course of which I usually experience one of the following two phenomena: either a sense of tedious yet dogged perseverance, or a sense of excited wonder. To the former I chalk up Charles Dickens's Hard Times, which far and away trumps all the other texts that fit that category (although, fortunately, this novel is only about a quarter the length of Dickens's others). To the latter, however, I would add George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, Dickens's Bleak House, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the novels of Jane Austen, and most of the novels of Henry James (if we want to deem him "English"), among others. The jury's still out on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, of which I've only creased about fifty pages, as well as Eliot's Silas Marner, the story of which I didn't particularly enjoy but the experience of which I did, largely because I heard it as an audiotape while driving through Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada with AFD one summer.

Into this indeterminate third category I would place Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I read as a college freshman for a survey course. I remember finding the plot interesting, but the text never grabbed me in the way that a truly pleasurable reading experience mandates. As a result, in the years since I've never sought out Hardy's novels, although somewhere in storage I know I possess an old Penguin edition of Jude the Obscure, and in spite of the fact that "Drummer Hodge" is a favorite poem of mine, not least because of the word play with which Robert Hass engages it in his poem, "English: An Ode". And so instead of seeking out Hardy, every now and then I'd stand in the back aisles of Green Apple or some other used bookstore and stare both glumly and uninspired at the Victorian covers gracing The Return of the Native, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Until now. Two weeks ago I stood yet again in the back section of Green Apple's used fiction annex, to which I'd wandered in a fit of pique. I had an early morning flight back to New York the next day, and, as always, I needed something to read. Something consuming, yet detailed; something that would require me to notice and sink into the writing as well as the narrative. Something like a 19th century English novel. And then my eyes alit upon a petite orange spine, which was tucked between two copies of Tess. In straightforward black letters, the title read simply, The Trumpet-Major.

Dear Reader, if I could press this book to your chest with my warmest wishes, I would. That's how good it is. I say this as a reformed Hardyite (if only my grad school Victorianist roommate were here to tell me if that's an accurate term), and as one who now plans to read The Woodlanders and The Return of the Native as soon as possible. The premise of The Trumpet-Major may sound lighthearted--indeed, such is the reason many contemporaneous critics embraced this novel--but the characters are so finely and deeply sketched, and the events so uniquely depicted, and the voice of the text so true that one soon sees how much richness this premise actually allows. And the wittiness! Not only from the droll voice-of-the-narrator Hardy, but also from characters like Simon Burden and Corporal Tullidge, who pop up like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and from hot-headed Festus Derriman, who is outsmarted by everyone in sight, including his myopic uncle.

Anne Garland is now a favorite heroine of mine, she who "beneath all that was charming and simple in this young woman there lurked a real firmness, unperceived at first, as the speck of colour lurks unperceived in the heart of the palest parsley flower", and as she moves like a spectre among the hills, fields, and coastline of fictitious Wessex, I only wish that Hardy had given her another novel as well. Since he did not, however, the petite orange spine with its 320 well-thumbed pages rests on my bed stand, among which lie Overcombe and its residents, who picnic, and mourn, and love, and sail, and stroll, and sleep under no "strange-eyed constellation". To think, they do all that under the threat of Napoleon! And while no power-hungry Corsican threatens your reading time, I urge you--do not delay. Savor, enjoy, and read this novel, for as another English poet once wrote, "Old Time is still a-flying".

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