John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
A Very Short Story
“A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” was one of the stories published by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) under the title “Wessex Tales”. Although most of the stories had appeared in a collection dated 1888, the final set of seven tales was published in 1912. Of these, “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four”, at seven pages long, is easily the shortest. Hardy wrote the date “Christmas 1882” at the end of the story, which was when it first appeared in print (under a slightly different title, with “Legend” for “Tradition”) in an American Christmas annual.
A Summary of the Story
The narrator of the story, following an introductory couple of paragraphs in the author’s voice, is “old Solomon Selby”, who retells an experience from when he was a child. After the story has been told, Hardy tells the reader that Solomon has been dead for ten years, so the time gap of about 70 years from then back to the events of the story makes perfect sense.
Solomon says that his father had been a shepherd all his life and lived “out by the Cove”. This can be understood to be Lulworth Cove, on the Dorset coast about midway between Weymouth and Swanage. It is a small, almost circular cove with a narrow entrance that is today a noted feature of the “Jurassic Coast”. As a child, Solomon had lived in a remote shepherd’s cottage, and the years he remembers best were 1803-5, because he was then of an age “when a child’s eyes and ears take in and note down everything about him” and also because those years were at the heart of the Napoleonic Wars between Great Britain and France.
People in England, and especially along the south coast, were particularly worried about the threat of invasion from France. They knew that Napoleon Bonaparte, having conquered most of the continent of Western Europe, was intent on defeating Britain. Solomon relates that his father, when droving a flock of ewes to Sussex, had been able to see the French coast and caught sight of the sun glinting on the accoutrements of the vast army that Napoleon had assembled on the beaches and which he was preparing for the invasion. It was believed that some 160,000 men and 15,000 horses would make the crossing on a fleet of 2,000 flat-bottomed boats, which were being built as part of the preparations.
Solomon introduces his Uncle Job, a sergeant at foot, who reckoned that the invasion would take place on a calm night, using oars rather than sails. Napoleon’s problem was where he should land his troops, and, according to uncle Job, there was a lot of speculation about where this was likely to be. Most people agreed that the shortest crossing, towards Dover, was the least likely, given that that part of the coast would be the most heavily guarded, but there were plenty of other possibilities. Napoleon’s knowledge of potential landing places and troop concentrations was known to be slight, so people were wary about French spies coming ashore to “case the joint”.
The story then focuses on a night early in the year when the sheep flock needed to be tended right round the clock because the ewes were lambing. Young Solomon was called upon to help his father at such times, standing in for him when the latter needed to rest. On the night in question Uncle Job had paid a visit to the house and, when it was Solomon’s turn to go out to the sheep-fold on the hill above the Cove, offered to accompany him. They settled down to rest in some straw with Uncle Job telling the boy stories about his past adventures until Solomon fell asleep.
When he woke up, Uncle Job had himself fallen asleep and Solomon became aware that there were two men, in military uniform, standing about twenty yards away. He watched by the light of the Moon as they looked at a roll of paper, pointed at various features, and spoke in a language which Solomon could not understand.
He woke Uncle Job and pointed the men out to him, having suspected that they were two French generals come to spy out the lie of the land. However, when Uncle Job saw them he soon realised that one of the men was Napoleon Bonaparte himself, which was soon obvious to Solomon when the light from the Frenchmens’ lantern fell on the famous face that the boy had seen so often in pictures.
Uncle Job cursed that he did not have his flintlock pistol with him, and so Napoleon and his companion were able to slip back to their boat and escape, watched by Solomon and his uncle, to a larger boat waiting outside the Cove. Solomon ends his story by simply stating that, having reported the incident, Uncle Job heard no more about it, and also saying that the expected invasion never took place. However, he remained convinced that Lulworth Cove was where the French army would have landed had it ever done so.
Could It Have Happened?
Hardy concludes with a paragraph that states, as mentioned earlier, that Solomon has been dead for ten years, and that his account was not generally believed “due to the incredulity of the age”.
In his preface to the 1919 edition of “Wessex Tales” Hardy added a note to the effect that this story was purely fictional and that he had always thought it highly improbable, but that he had since been told that the tradition was a real one and that some people believed that Napoleon had actually visited the English coast on a spying mission. It is possible that this legend was not well known in Dorset, where it is hard to imagine that Hardy would not have been aware of it, because Hardy had originally set his story in Sussex and only moved it to Dorset between the different editions of the “Tales”. On the face of it, Sussex, with its long stretches of deserted low-lying coast, seems a more likely location for such an event, and the idea of Napoleon Bonaparte considering the prospect of sending 2,000 boats into Lulworth Cove, which is relatively small, seems little short of bizarre!
As a story, “A Tradition of Eighteen Hundred and Four” is not particularly memorable. It contains only one surprise, no characterisation worth mentioning, and little in the way of plot. It is simply a “what if” kind of story that poses a question that is interesting as far as it goes, and it is well written in that it keeps the reader’s interest, but that is probably the most that can be said about it.
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on March 28, 2020:
Thank you for an article about Thomas Hardy - as an English teacher, it's useful to me.