“The Trumpet-Major” was the first Thomas Hardy novel I read. Its full title is the almost comical “The Trumpet-Major and Robert his Brother”. For to be sure I’d seen a number of television and film adaptations of Hardy’s work – including the unforgettable “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and the impossibly sad “Jude the Obscure”. Fabulous though these were, they are not the same as reading an author’s own words. I was unsure what I would make of Hardy’s writing. I’m not a fan of some Victorian writers, the words of Charles Dickens, for example, often grate with me. So I was delighted to find that they were as fresh as the day they were written. I found the tale of the widow’s daughter, Anne, the neighbouring miller and Anne’s suitors, completely captivating. I was taken back by the beauty – and detail - of his description of the world he observed, even such tasks as sprucing up the Mill for a wedding fire the imagination with a portrait of everyday life now disappeared. Oh to be able to step back into the pages of that novel and be there in Overcombe Mill with the characters …
A Dorset mill-pond (not one of those that inspired Hardy but just as beautiful!) © the Author
I was surprised to learn that “The Trumpet-Major” was Thomas Hardy’s only historical novel. This intrigued me. I had, perhaps, fallen into the trap of perceiving his works all as period fiction. A nonsense of course, it was contemporary and very real social ills which Hardy was describing in his novels, not dimmed memories or imaginations of past eras. Perhaps this is why many of his novels remain shocking. Hardy was not writing about his own era as if through some saccharine lens of future years, seeing the past as a golden era. He was writing about things he saw, that he had experienced and felt personally. Except “The Trumpet-Major”. “The Trumpet Major” was set in the early years of the 19th century and first published in 1880, a distance of over 70 years, relating to events a full generation beforehand. Which made me wonder - as someone aspiring to write historical fiction myself - how Hardy himself treated the past. How did Hardy go about writing historical fiction? What lessons can I learn for my own writing?
Authenticity. Hardy knew Dorset and its surrounds – his fictional Wessex – inside out. He had been born in Higher Bockhampton, a rural backwater, a brisk walk from leading county town, Dorchester, in 1840. His life was shaped by a sense of time and place. Writing about Wessex was not some abstract task for him. There is, therefore, an authenticity in his description of locations, many of which would have changed little, if at all, between the time when the fictional events were located and his own time. More than this, “The Trumpet-Major” told a story that had been passed down through generations. Hardy may not have been there to experience the fear of Bonaparte’s threatened invasion, which forms the context of “The Trumpet-Major”. But the tales of those who had lived through that fearful time had been passed down to him. He was reliving an imagined world of his forbears. The quest for authenticity is important for me as I set out on the road as a writer of historical fiction. I grew up in Plymouth, a city that had been torn apart by enemy bombing, there were bomb sites and reconstruction all around, I sensed the deep mourning of the survivors for their beautiful city, much of it lost forever. My mother told me incredible tales of the blitz, how her family would walk miles out of the city each evening, her father trying to protect her from being strafed by bullets … I would visit the Plymouth room in the museum and try to imagine how the city had once been. I developed a passion for photography and walked its streets, trying to capture some of what remained and what was emerging from the ashes. The emotions of that experience shape my quest for authenticity.
Reflection. Hardy did not always live in Dorset, and may not always have felt the deep love for it with which he is associated. He also lived in London (and married Emma Gifford, a woman from obscure St Juliot in Cornwall). Perhaps that also shaped his thinking, the sense of loss that you feel when you move away from your roots. It was in London in his early 20’s that Hardy spent much time jotting down ideas for poems and stories. What we know of Hardy suggests he must have thought very deeply about the experiences that had shaped his own life, the injustices of status and class, his aspirations to a church that had hurt him deeply, the capriciousness of life. Instead of becoming bitter he wrote and his writing was the better for it. I struggle as an aspiring writer with the quasi-autobiographical nature of much of Hardy’s writing, to my mind he wore his heart on his sleeve. I look at the key experiences of my own life, including loss and grief, lost hopes and dreams; and, like Hardy, muse on the capriciousness of fate, or perhaps life. Do I dare turn them into fiction? Early experiments suggest there is a dark intensity when you write about your own experiences, reflected on and mindful, that it is difficult to conjure up when writing pure fiction. And which readers value. It is a mirror to their souls too.
Inspiration, a special moment. Hardy’s motivation for writing “The Trumpet-Major” emerges when describing the entertainment devised by the miller for soldiers encamped nearby. Hardy makes an appearance here to say how he could never return there, even after so many years, without picturing the candlelit scene with the soldiers in their colourful uniforms – and Anne herself, blissfully unaware of what life had in store. Something in Hardy’s emphasis says this was a very special moment for him, not one he could actually have seen with his own eyes, but which lived on in his imagination for most of his life. This is intriguing for a modern writer exploring Hardy’s historical fiction writing. What events have lingered in my own mind from childhood, not even experienced, that lay claim to such emotional intensity? I find myself exploring my childhood experiences of the small Cornish coastal town where my grandparents had lived all their lives, and where I would spend much of my weekends and holidays, and empathise with Hardy. I grew up with tales of wreckers and smugglers, sitting in their small cottage while a gale howled all around, listening to my family’s conversations by the light of an old Victorian oil lamp, climbing across the rocks to see the remains of a small yacht broken up by the harsh sea. I empathise with Hardy here, images inspire me to write of the past too.
Professional discipline. Hardy had a love-hate relationship with his work in architects’ practices, despite winning some prizes. He dreamt of alternatives in journalism or the church, before settling on becoming a writer. But in his preparation for writing I would still expect his professional background to shine through. His work would be rigorous, build on strong foundations … and beyond that be focussed on creating a thing of beauty for the future, like the church architecture he worked so meticulously on. Our professions inevitably shape what we do (and, perhaps, our choice to become a writer!). My background as a legal academic also affects my writing. Often I see this as a negative thing, I would like to be a free spirit, to be able to indulge the art of storytelling. But when it comes to historical fiction I find myself struggling to escape the precise use of language, always checking the facts, the need to succeed in winning an argument. I wonder whether Hardy felt a similar predicament, did he embrace his past profession in his writing? Or did he seek to be freed from its shackles?
Thomas Hardy’s statue, Dorchester © the Author
Research. “The Trumpet-Major” was notably lighter than some of his other work, notably the impossibly dark “Jude the Obscure”. Was Hardy influenced by some romantic notion of the past as against the present? Hardy’s research for “The Trumpet-Major” was modern in scope and rigour. He relied on oral testimony of those who had lived through the events. He was inspired by physical relics and artefacts, even an old door filled with bullet-holes that had been used for target practice. He read contemporary newspaper accounts as a corrective of any flaws in survivors’ memories. He checked out those niggling details that would have been present in his characters’ everyday lives in a variety of authoritative sources, including a local museum. Research, research, research, is the mantra of almost all writers of historical fiction. It inspires, it informs – and it corrects. We all have our mental pictures of the past. But historical reality frequently is much more strange and surprising than anything we could ourselves invent. As I approach writing historical fiction, I find the level of research required a daunting task. To be effective it is not enough to have an awareness of major historical events, but to become thoroughly immersed in the characters’ lives – as Hardy did. What would they have worn and eaten? What would the pattern of their day have been? The landscape and built environment, what has remained the same, what has changed, how did their locality impact uniquely on them? How would they have understood the world, religion, superstition, science? What would they have read, what music would have stirred their hearts? What gave them happiness and pleasure, what would have made them fearful and sad?
Hardy’s world, blending fact with fiction. Hardy is justly famed for his creation of fictional Wessex. It’s magical stuff. “The Trumpet-Major” mixes fictional places, all inspired by real life, such as Overcombe Mill, Budmouth and, of course, Casterbridge, with actual places, such as St Aldhelm’s Head and Badbury Rings. A comfortable world of the known and familiar with the (slightly) unknown (we can guess!) where Hardy regains the freedom to indulge his very fertile imagination. The blending of fact and fiction includes the very real threat of Napoleonic invasion which threw Dorset into a tizz, with fictional Bob’s desire to be one of the many who sailed on the Victory, a real vessel under a real Captain Hardy who features too. There’s much, much more of course. The decisions faced by any modern writer of historical fiction are the same as Hardy would have faced. Do you recreate actual historical events – including real people and places - portraying them as closely as possible to historical orthodoxy? Do you rewrite history by taking actual historical events and creatively filling in the gaps, whether to indulge a flight of fancy or to advance your own thesis? Do you write an alternative counter-factual history, exploring those fascinating “what if’s”? Do you use actual historical events as the context for a fictional story, addressing ordinary people’s lives, their hopes, their aspirations, often against incredible odds? Hardy’s tale, “The Trumpet-Major”, fits the last of these and in my opinion succeeds at a variety of levels. It’s an enjoyable romantic yarn. It shares a memory of old “Wessex” which clearly moved Hardy very deeply and that he wanted preserved. Along the way we become bystanders to major historical events, just as Hardy and his forebears had been, not just expanding our knowledge but being gripped at an emotional level too. We feel what they would have felt.
There is much to learn from Thomas Hardy’s writing of “The Trumpet-Major”, especially as an aspiring writer of historical fiction. It is not simply a reminder of the storyteller’s art, the ability to craft beauty from words. It is a lesson as to how to authentically preserve past memories, oral traditions passed from one generation to another, easily lost forever. Our lives are enriched by our coming to know Anne and the other characters in this book. How they coped with fear of the future in uncertain and threatening times, the decisions they made and their impact. Historical events are outside the control of most of us, we are takers not givers, perhaps too much attention is paid in historical fiction to kings, queens and courtiers. A time to pause for thought.
Inscription on Thomas Hardy’s statue, Dorchester © the Author
A. Gibson, “With Magic in my Eyes, West Country Literary Landscapes” (Bath: Fairfield Books, 2011)
R. Gittings “Young Thomas Hardy” (Penguin Books Ltd, 1988)
T. Hardy “The Trumpet-Major” (ed. R. Ebbatson) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987)
D. Hawkins, “Hardy’s Wessex” (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1983)
M. Millgate “Thomas Hardy, a Biography” (Oxford: OUP, 1992)
C. Tomalin “Thomas Hardy, the Time-Torn Man (Penguin Books Ltd, 2007)
Stephen F Copp
25th November 2021
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