lthough Thomas Hardy's career as a short-story writer at 35 years is longer than his career as a novelist — beginning in 1865 with the whimsical "How I Built My House" (Chamber's Journal, 18 March) and concluding in 1900 with "Enter A Dragoon" (Harper's Monthly, December), he wrote the majority of his short fiction over the years 1888 through 1891, at precisely the point when he began to apply the term "Wessex" uniformly to his literary landscape. And with the increasingly hostile reception of his final novels, Hardy actually "preferred to write short stories rather than novels, at least for a brief period in the 1890s" (Orel 112). Hardy wrote a total of fifty-three short stories, thirty-seven of which he collected into four volumes: 1888's Wessex Tales (six short stories written between 1879 and 1888), 1891's A Group of Noble Dames (ten short stories written between 1882 and 1888), 1894's Life's Little Ironies (nine short stories written between 1882 and 1893), and 1913's "A Changed Man" and Other Stories (twelve short stories written between 1881 and 1900).
As well as being the last of the stories in the 1912 edition of Wessex Tales to be written, "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" was among the last of the stories added to the collection when it became Volume IX of the authoritative Wessex Edition. F. B. Pinion in A Hardy Companion speculates that Hardy had had the subject of the deserters shot at Bincombe Down (as reported in the Morning Chronicle for 4 July 1801) on his mind for a number of years. First published in two successive numbers of the weekly Bristol Times and Mirror (Sections I through III on 4 January; the remaining sections on 11 January 1890), the extended short story probably had begun as an offshoot of Thomas Hardy's extensive research into the historical background of The Trumpet Major (published serially with illustrations in the monthly magazine Good Words, January through December, 1880).
Hardy had nearly finished it in July 1888 for a new journal, the Universal Review, when he wrote to its editor, Harry Quilter, to suggest that he might prefer instead a more modern story . . . . "The Melancholy Hussar" was then laid aside for more than a year until, on 25 September 1889, Tillotson's rejected Tess and returned the manuscript. As a sign of their continuing good will, however, Tillotson's solicited a short story for early syndication, and Hardy's response was to complete "The Melancholy Hussar" and send it to them on 22 October. (Ray 22)
In June 1890, it appeared in the volume Three Notable Stories (London: Spencer Blackett); four years later, it re-appeared in the volume Life's Little Ironies (New York: Harper & Brothers; London: Osgood, McIlvaine), and shortly thereafter in Osgood, McIlvaine's Volume XIV of the Wessex Novels, "reprinted from the same plates as the first edition of 1894" (Ray 25). The original two-volume edition of Wessex Tales, published on 4 May 1888, contained neither of the Napoleonic war stories "The Melancholy Hussar" and "A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred Four."
Orel, Harold. "Thomas Hardy: An Older Tradition of Narrative." The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre. Cambridge, London, and New York: Cambridge U. P., 1986.
Purdy, Richard Little. Thomas Hardy: A Bibliographical Study. Oxford: Clarendon, 1954, rpt. 1978.
Ray, Martin. "Part One: Wessex Tales." Thomas Hardy: A Textual Study of the Short Stories. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997. Pp. 22-34.
Valeo, Thomas Jr. "Thomas Hardy and the Victorian Short Story." Gettysburg College. Web. 2003.
- Reading Questions
- Necessary Vocabulary
- The Scarlet Tunic: A Television Adaptation of Hardy's "The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion" — A Sensationalist's Transformation of a Minor Classic
Entered the Victorian Web 20 August 2003; last modified 9 June 2014