“A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” by Thomas Hardy (1882)
Introduction by the Translator
In the list of contents of Thomas Hardy's “Life's Little Ironies (Macmillan, 1925)”, a peculiar title “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” (written in 1882) caught my eye. Having scanned the first few pages I realised that this novel wrote about an episode during the Napoleonic War (1799-1814) when the English coast along the English Channel was threatened by invasion from the French. The story was written as though narrated by a retired old English soldier.
In the curriculum of my high school in Japan (1954-57), the subject, World History, was placed in the third year (1956) and the textbook used began with the Four Major Civilizations, as common elsewhere. The teacher enthusiastically lectured about Ancient Egypt that he himself had majored at university, and spent almost all of the first semester (April to July) on this topic. Thus, in the second semester (September to December) and the early part of the third semester (January to March), the other parts of the textbook had to be skimmed very fast focusing on topics that would be likely to appear in the entrance examinations for universities due in March.
With regard to the Anglo-French relationship during the Napoleonic War, the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) and the Battle of Waterloo (1815) were highlighted with the names of Admiral Nelson and Duke of Wellington respectively, leaving aside all other details.
Ten years after my high school education during a stay at Colchester on the Southeast Coast of England as a post-doctoral research fellow at Essex University (1969-71), I learnt about the British concern of the possible invasion from the continent at the time of the World War II (1939-45). It was on the occasion when a friend took me to the Essex coastal town of Clacton-on-Sea and showed me circular defensive towers, called Martello Towers, but at that time he did not tell me that those towers were originally constructed during the Napoleonic War. It was only recently that I realised that the exotic word, Martello, was etymologically derived from a tower at Cape Mortella in Corsica, which had proved difficult for the English to capture in 1794.
Having read the whole pages of “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four”, I gained an impression that this novel was quite unique and interesting amongst Hardy's works. The characters were few, Uncle Job represented by “I” and Old Solomon Selby (Uncle Job’s uncle), Napoleon Bonaparte and his officer, and the story was written in a style of narration of what "I" saw, heard and thought. This was in stark contrast to Hardy's other works, including for example his “To please his wife” and “Tess of the d'Urbervilles”, in which the delicate feelings of characters, namely of women, were truly portrayed.
Apart from the plot of the story, it is interesting to note that the possibility to dig a tunnel under the English Channel had been discussed in the late eighteen century, as written in the opening paragraph of this novel. The idea seems to have been envisaged during the Napoleonic War as shown in a cartoon, Divers Projets sur la descente en Angleterre (A project for invading England by means of a tunnel and balloons) , dated 1803, by an anonymous cartoonist (See Figure 7 in the “View reference images”). It was almost two hundred years earlier before the plan was realised by the construction of Euro Tunnel in 1994.
Although a Japanese translation of this novel already exists in: Yutaka Morimura and Kentaro Oomiya, Hardy’s Short Novels - Volume 1, Morita Bookstore 1926, the translation in this article is a new version carried out by myself.