The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.
I think it can be respectfully agreed that The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy's seventh published novel (published in 1880), is not his finest. It does however have the distinction of being his only historical novel, set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815), though he did revisit the Napoleonic Wars, a period with which he was greatly interested, in his later play The Dynasts (1904 - 1908).
The setting of this novel is a village in the fictional Budmouth, based on Weymouth, a seaside town in Dorset. At the centre of the novel is Anne Garland, one of Hardy's less appealing heroines (she has very little in common with, say, Bathsheba Everdene, Eustacia Vye, or even Ethelberta Chickerel of his earlier novels). Nevertheless she has three suitors - the vile Festus Derriman, and the two brothers John and Robert Loveday. It is John Loveday who is our trumpet major - a sergeant who supervises trumpeters (who would be Privates) who blow duty and ceremonial calls. His brother Robert or Bob, once Anne's childhood sweetheart, is a merchant navy captain. Anne lives with her mother, a widow, in Overcombe Millhouse, which has been divided into two; the other half is inhabited by Miller Loveday, the father of Bob and John, and throughout the novel we see her trying to choose between the somewhat fickle, though likeable, Bob Loveday and his more suitable brother John, all against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.
For this novel Hardy did do a great deal of research, travelling to the British Museum of London and taking copious notes, heavily referencing History of the Wars Occasioned By the French Revolution by C.H. Gifford (1817; and was accused of plagiarism), and talking to the Chelsea Pensioners of the time and other eye witnesses in Dorset, as well as looking at old records and even tombstones. As a result The Trumpet Major is very a vivid portrayal of rural life during the threats of invasion. It also very moving at times, and very funny, unlike a lot of Hardy's works. Sadly for me it lacked the appeal of his earlier works, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native in particular. Nevertheless it is certainly a curiosity. I really wish I could say more on it. I certainly didn't hate it, more it passed the time fairly well.
To finish, some illustrations by John Collier:
Next on my Hardy pile: A Laodicean (1881).