Phyllis, a solitary young woman who lives in the English countryside, and Matthäus Tina, a German Hussar camped near Phyllis’s home, both find themselves in situations of captivity that cause them to resent and resist their circumstances, to unhappy or even disastrous ends. Phyllis lives in the countryside with her father, Dr. Grove, as his tendency towards solitary meditation has reduced their financial means, and living in a town is no longer within their budget. Her life with her father, particularly after she meets Matthäus Tina, has become “irksome and painful in the extreme” and she receives very little affection from him. Phyllis’s reluctant engagement to a young man named Humphrey becomes another restriction, compounded by her father’s insistence that the engagement remain intact, and his efforts to keep her from seeing Matthäus Tina, whom she meets and befriends while Humphrey is away. To separate the lovers, Phyllis’s father plans to send her to stay at her aunt’s home, a place Phyllis feels is “a prison.” Meanwhile, Matthäus Tina, bound by his military status, longs to be back in his homeland and near his mother in the German town of Saarbrück. He hates England, yet leaving without permission would mean becoming a deserter.
Neither character is able to make a decision that results in their freedom. Matthäus Tina attempts to escape England, which ends in execution for himself and his fellow soldier; Phyllis, bound by the restrictions of her father and the expectations of society, decides to honor her engagement to Humphrey—an engagement, it turns out, he has secretly disregarded in order to marry another, exerting the freedom granted by his gender and slightly higher social status. Both Phyllis and Matthäus Tina, forced to remain in situations that cause them great sadness, are eventually buried near each other in the part of the world they have attempted to leave, suggesting that the restrictions of money, family, and wartime are inescapable, and that trying to escape them is futile.
Captivity, Restriction, and Escape ThemeTracker
Captivity, Restriction, and Escape Quotes in The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion
The daughter’s seclusion was great, but beyond the seclusion of the girl lay the seclusion of the father. If her social condition was twilight, his was darkness. Yet he enjoyed his darkness, while her twilight oppressed her.
Ever since her childhood it had been Phyllis’s pleasure to clamber up this fence and sit on the top—a feat not so difficult as it may seem, the walls in this district being built of rubble, without mortar, so that there were plenty of crevices for small toes.
This account—though only a piece of hearsay, and as such entitled to no absolute credit—tallied so well with the infrequency of his letters and their lack of warmth, that Phyllis did not doubt its truth for one moment; and from that hour she felt herself free to bestow her heart as she should choose. Not so her father; he declared the whole story to be a fabrication.
Phyllis had not the smallest intention of disobeying him in her actions, but she assumed herself to be independent with respect to her feelings. She no longer checked her fancy for the Hussar, though she was far from regarding him as her lover in the serious sense in which an Englishman might have been regarded as such. The young foreign soldier was almost an ideal being to her, with none of the appurtenances of an ordinary house-dweller; one who had descended she knew not whither; the subject of a fascinating dream—no more.
Without him her life seemed a dreary prospect, yet the more she looked at his proposal the more she feared to accept it—so wild as it was, so vague, so venturesome. She had promised Humphrey Gould, and it was only his assumed faithlessness which had led her to treat that promise as nought. His solicitude in bringing her these gifts touched her; her promise must be kept, and esteem must take the place of love. She would preserve her self-respect. She would stay at home, and marry him, and suffer.
She looked into it, saw how heavy her eyes were, and endeavoured to brighten them. She was in that wretched state of mind which leads a woman to move mechanically onward in what she conceives to be her allotted path. Mr Humphrey had, in his undemonstrative way, been adhering all along to the old understanding; it was for her to do the same, and to say not a word of her own lapse.
The spot at the bottom of the garden where she had been accustomed to climb the wall to meet Matthäus, was the only inch of English ground in which she took any interest; and in spite of the disagreeable haze prevailing she walked out there till she reached the well-known corner. […] She observed that her frequent visits to this corner had quite trodden down the grass in the angle of the wall, and left marks of garden soil on the stepping-stones by which she had mounted to look over the top. Seldom having gone there till dusk, she had not considered that her traces might be visible by day.
Their graves were dug at the back of the little church, near the wall. There is no memorial to mark the spot, but Phyllis pointed it out to me. While she lived she used to keep their mounds neat; but now they are overgrown with nettles, and sunk nearly flat. The older villagers, however, who know of the episode from their parents, still recollect the place where the soldiers lie. Phyllis lies near.