Analysis of Thomas Hardy’s The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion

Thomas Hardy first published this story as “The Melancholy Hussar” in the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1890 and revised and reprinted it several times, notably in Life’s Little Ironies (1894) and in the Wessex Edition of his Wessex Tales (1912). He had begun working on the story some time before July 1888 but then laid it aside for more than a year before offering it for publication in October 1889. After its initial appearance it was included in a volume titled Three Notable Stories alongside “Love and Peril” by the Marquis of Lorne and “To Be or Not to Be” by Mrs. Alexander.

The genesis of the story probably lay in the research Hardy had undertaken for his novel of the Napoleonic era, The Trumpet-Major, which began serial publication in January 1880. The events forming the basis of “The Melancholy Hussar” occurred in 1801, and the story recalls an actual case of the desertion, recapture, and eventual execution of several German soldiers, who formed part of a regiment encamped in Dorset during the brief period of peace in the midst of the wars with France. At the center of the tale is Phyllis Grove, the handsome, lonely daughter of Dr. Grove, a retired professional man of intensely reclusive habits. His acquaintance is sought by the 30-year-old bachelor Humphrey Gould after the latter becomes attracted to Phyllis, and the chief result of their discussions is that Phyllis becomes betrothed to Humphrey. Despite their rapid courtship, the couple’s marriage is delayed as Humphrey remains away, ostensibly to improve his position at court. In the meantime, Phyllis finds herself drawn to a corporal of the Hussars named Matthäus Tina. Matthäus is deeply dissatisfied with the state he finds himself in, being eager either to return to his native Germany or to engage his enemies on the battlefield. As his feelings for Phyllis intensify, Matthäus determines to desert his regiment and flee to Germany, taking Phyllis with him. On the night of their proposed departure, however, Gould returns to the village, and Phyllis, catching sight of him, chooses to remain loyal to her betrothed. Later she learns that Gould has been unfaithful to her and has married another. Matthäus is subsequently captured and executed as a deserter. Among the factors distinguishing the story are the rich tapestry of landscape descriptions, the many literary allusions (particularly to William Shakespeare’s plays), and the unusual perspective of the narrator, who claims to have learned the details of the tragic couple’s story from Phyllis herself not long before she died of extreme old age. A film adaptation titled The Scarlet Tunic was produced in 1996.

Hardy, Thomas. Wessex Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Orel, Harold. The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Ray, Martin. Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1997.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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