Sentimentalist; ‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford [1915]

To say Parade’s End altered my appreciation of literature would be an understatement; it has given me a passion for classics and a love of books which force me to think as well as feel. Ford created characters that transcended the time in which they were set, their thought patterns are as understandable now as when published.

Initially, I was nervous about reading The Good Soldier; it is easy to dislike an author’s other novels when you hold one particular story in high esteem, however, I was far from disappointed.

“A Tale of Passion,” as its subtitle declares, The Good Soldier relates the complex social and sexual relationships between two couples, one English, one American, and the growing awareness by the American narrator John Dowell of the intrigues and passions behind their orderly Edwardian facade. It is the attitude of Dowell, his puzzlement, uncertainty, and the seemingly haphazard manner of his narration that make the book so powerful and mysterious. Despite its catalogue of death, insanity, and despair, the novel has many comic moments, and has inspired the work of several distinguished writers, including Graham Greene.Synopsis from GoodReads

“We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.”

The Good Solider is a story of two couples, one American the other English, over a period of 10 years. Narrated in its entirety by John Dowell, one half of the American couple, it masterfully unravels a story of affairs through stages of grief, realisation, anger and acceptance. Dowell irritated me during beginning of the novel, so I had some difficulty in settling into a pattern of reading, however, persevere and the novel suddenly clicks. We never discover if Edward Ashburnham, the character for which the novel is titled, is a good soldier or not; everyone says he is, which baffles Dowell. Edward’s title is a positive trait to the negative of his philandering; yes he has had affairs, but he was a good soldier. Ultimately, however, it feels irrelevant (or indecipherable), as Dowell’s unreliable narrative is the only version of Edward Ashburnham we are given.

Told out of sequence, we begin with John writing after Florenece’s death – he has recently discovered his ill wife, whom he has dedicatedly cared for, had never been ill at all. Florence had been having a nine year affair with Captain Edward Ashburnham, husband of Leonora Ashburnham, the couple with which they travelled. Florence has never been faithful to Dowell, he was a means to an end, an escape from her family and into Europe.

The story could be difficult to follow at times; Dowell begins before key events come to light. His narration travels an emotional path; beginning having just discovered Florence’s affairs he is shocked, unable to be truly disgusted with her. Returning to write the narration Dowell is more aware; he is angry at Florence (never at Edward, who he has an irrational respect for) and considerably fond of Leonora, who he sees as an ally. Finally, as he concludes the story, Dowell is contemplative and accepting, having been once again manipulated into a position of carer to an invalid companion.

This emotional flux in our narrator makes for a fascinating unreliability in how we understand the other characters. Leonora, who for most of the novel appears highly sympathetic, is at the end a different character. Florence is condemned, soiled by her affairs and Edward is a constant source of pity despite his philandering. Dowell’s admiration for him never falters, Edward is never to blame, even though Edward clearly does not hold Dowell in the same esteem: “You see, I suppose he regarded me not so much as a man. I had to be regarded as a woman or a solicitor.” Dowell is an understanding, but often oblivious character, his lack of anger at Edward is at times infuriating. When Dowell finally discovers exactly what happened over the nine years with the Ashburnhams, he cannot help but place a portion of the blame on himself for being so easily lead. Yet, with only having Dowell’s fluctuating point of view we are constantly left wondering if Florence and Leonora were as manipulative as they appeared, or if Edward was as respectable.

Dowell often sentimentalises, recounting stories that closely relate to his own situation without him realising. In the first section of the novel he discusses how, while travelling on a train, he witnesses one cow push over another and how funny he found this. “I suppose I ought to have pitied the poor animal; but I just didn’t. I was out for enjoyment. And I just enjoyed myself.” In discovering Florence’s indiscretion he has suddenly been toppled over, something he did not expect to happen – instead of getting angry he is laughing because it is so unexpected, he has no other way to react.

“Well, there you have the position, as clear as I can make it – the husband an ignorant fool, the wife a cold sensualist with imbecile fears – for I was such a fool that I should never have known what she was or was not – and the blackmailing lover. And then another lover came along….”

No More Parades; Parade’s End: ‘Last Post’ by Ford Madox Ford [1928]

I am sitting here in the rain (in my flat, not literally in the rain)Yes, I am talking about the weather again, I can’t help it. enjoying the wonders of Classical FM, which I always prefer on miserable weather days.Even the Spanish guitar that has suddenly commenced. Advert mentioning poo not applicable, I was not ready for that.

However, tangent aside – is it a tangent when you begin with it? – this is the last of my blogs on Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford. Last Post is the epilogue to Ford’s series, focusing predominantly on Mark Tietjens; Christopher is mentioned but never heard. A reflective novel, this was not my favourite of the four, however, where this novel really shines is in Ford’s depiction of post war life; how England changed and how our protagonists fit into it.

The Last Post is the concluding chapter in Ford’s Parade End’s series. The critics were divided on whether Ford should even have written this novel as it gives short shrift to the main character, Christopher Tietjens, from the earlier books. However, others believe it had redeeming qualities, mainly to do with the symbolic nature of the Tietjens family, and that Ford’s writing from the perspective of two characters is what makes this a highly readable book.Synopsis from GoodReads

Mark, Christopher, Marie-Léonie and Valentine now live a tight existence in West Sussex. Christopher is stubborn, due Mark (initially) and their father believing Sylvia’s lies he refuses to take any money offered from them. Mark mentions in his monologue that when soldiers returned from The First World War they were regarded as lazy, Christopher would not have been able to reclaim his role in the Statistics Office due to this erroneous reputation. Therefore, Christopher is left to make a living in antiques, which is not without risk.

“Well, this was his, Mark’s, last post… He could have smiled at his grim joke.”Mark Tietjen’s Senior

Mark’s observations in Last Post are insightful and refreshing, finally the reader has an idea of what has been happening through another party observing the chaos, but understanding the reality behind it. Mark completes the readers knowledge of events and recalls the events leading to their current living arrangements.

In his astute assessment of Sylvia, Mark is rather funny. He sees through Sylvia, had she played the situation differently she may have had an ally in Mark, unfortunately her scheming aggravated him to the point where he appreciated Valentine’s homeliness and simplicity. Sylvia’s actions, “just to see what would happen”, lead to her downfall.

“Indeed her bitterness had by now given way almost entirely to a mere spirit of tormentingness – she wanted to torture that girl out of her mind.”Sylvia Tietjens

Sylvia meanwhile is resident of the Tietjens ancestral home, Groby; threatening to cause trouble she decides to let the house out to Americans and uproot the great Groby tree. If she cannot have Christopher she will ruin him, just to have a way of still being in his life, so he will not forget her. One of Sylvia’s worst traits is her temper, if she held back from acting so rashly she would probably still have Christopher beside her.

“Sylvia Tietjens had had reason to believe that for many years, for better of for worse – and mostly for worse – she had been the dominating influence over Christopher Tietjens. Now, except for extraneous annoyances, she was aware that she could no longer influence him either for evil or for good. He was a solid, four-square lump of a meal-sacks too heavy for her hauling about.””Sylvia Tietjens

Throughout Parade’s End Sylvia is constantly screaming for someone to control her, so she can end her cycle of destruction. Christopher is incapable, and resistant, of doing so as it goes against who he is. Sylvia needs the kindness Christopher kills her with, however, she also needs him to be passionate, to display affection. Valentine and Christopher are passionate intellectually, Sylvia cannot match that.

“It had occurred to her for a long time that God would one day step in and intervene for the protection of Christopher. After all Christopher was a good man – a rather sickeningly good man.”Sylvia Tietjens

Sylvia loves Christopher, Christopher certainly once desired her, however, her games killed his love for her. Rather than adopting new tactics and growing up, Sylvia tries anything to keep him, slowly pushing him away until he falls in love with someone else. Christopher, had he acted differently could have controlled Sylvia, but he was not that man. Christopher was not Drake, and Sylvia needed a combination of the two; ultimately Sylvia needed kindness, she just could not cope with it – it was not what she knew or could control.

“If only Christopher had thrashed her within an inch of her life… Or yes – there had been Drake… He had half killed her on the night before her wedding to Christopher. She had feared for the child within her! That emotion had been unbearable.”Sylvia Tietjens

While Sylvia enjoys life at Groby, a scorned wife, Valentine is painfully aware of her unmarried status and lack of money, which causes tension between her and Christopher. Unfortunately, Valentine did not appeal to me in this book, she made her own bed and she needs to lie in it. Yes, Christopher can be a bit useless, but she knew this. They chose love, love is not easy.

Michael ‘Mark’ Tietjens was a wonder to encounter in Last Post, so very different from his mother and father. I was expecting Sylvia’s poison to have seeped through to him, but he is a very liberal chap. It did make me giggle that Tietjens, the last Tory, had produced a Liberal. Having Michael accept and insist on using the name Mark, the name of every first born who inherits Groby was a wonderful nod to his father and his family. Michael is a level headed boy who loves his mother but takes her with a pinch of salt; he has inherited his father’s intelligence, and perhaps unfortunately, his temperament. His worry over wanting to see his father, but not Valentine in fear of upsetting his mother was valiant.

Parade’s End has been the best thing I have read in a very long time, it has moved me to anxiety I could not shift until I knew Christopher and Valentine were together. I cannot recommend reading this tetralogy enough, it is truly magnificent, a remarkable piece of modernism.

Eternal Hours; Parade’s End: ‘A Man Could Stand Up’ by Ford Madox Ford [1926]

By the time I began reading A Man Could Stand Up I was feeling fairly heartbroken by Parade’s End; the angst I was experiencing was weaving its way through my day to day existence. Most noticeably my musical habits changed as my mood dropped; Fleetwood Mac made way for System of a Down.Luckily I have good friends who very kindly created an uplifting punk-rock playlist to to assist in shifting me from my gloom. By this book, if anything worse had happened I am not sure I would have been able to finish the series.

The penultimate novel of Ford’s series, A Man Could Stand Up details Christopher’s experience at the front line, shell shocked and damaged by Sylvia’s scheming. Meanwhile this story is encased by the events of Armistice Day – Valentine and Christopher’s eventual reuniting.

Against the backdrop of a world at war, Ford recounts the complex sexual warfare between Tietjens and his faithless wife, Sylvia. A work of truly amazing subtlety and profundity, Parade’s End affirms Graham Greene’s prediction: “There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.”Synopsis from GoodReads

If No More Parades was Sylvia’s novel, A Man Could Stand Up is Valentine’s. Older and wiser, Valentine has developed from being besotted with Christopher to, in his absence, angry at his rejection of her. Valentine finally realises how trapped she is in her love for Christopher, frustratedly she acknowledges the experiences it has lead her to miss. Finally Valentine wants to live her life, but she cannot, she is trapped both by love and where society has placed her. It is an interesting contrast to Sylvia, who is just as trapped as Valentine by social decorum, however, wants to preserve the traditions. I could not help but smile when Valentine notes that she does not want to be like Sylvia, she has no desire to lead a life based on looks (not that she really has any to rely on), she prizes her learned mind.

Valentine appears as annoyed as Sylvia at Christopher’s internalising of emotion, however, she transcends Sylvia in her knowledge and acceptance of his reasons for doing so. Valentine, more than Sylvia, understands how his duty gets him in horrendous messes, but that it has been to protect her. It was refreshing to finally see Valentine out of lust, living in the bitter reality of the real world. However, Valentine is also angry with herself, she doubts Christopher’s interest in her, concerned she reads more into their few moments together than Christopher actually expressed. Valentine is no longer the naive girl who saw him off in 1916.

After visiting Valentine on Armistice Day we are pulled back to Christopher on the Front Line, where Ford once again amazed me with his description of the boredom and horror of war. (He also made me giggle.)

“The man’s shoulders had come heavily on him as he had re-bounded from the parados-face. He felt outraged. Watching that performing Hun he held the knife pointed and tried to think of the German for Hands Up. He imagined it to be Hoch Die Haende! He looked for a nice spot on the Hun’s side.”Christopher Tietjens

As a child of older parents, I was brought up on television programmes a little different than most of my friends. For anyone unaware of the brilliance that is Dad’s Army, it is a British Sitcom about the Home Guard during The Second World War. One of its lead characters, Lance-Corporal ‘Jonesy’ Jones, has some of the best lines, one of which is a rather eccentric, “Hände Hoch, Hände Hoch!”. Because of this recollection, I could not help but giggle at the quote above, it brought back many childhood memories. Dad’s Army aside, Christopher is hilarious in himself; “He felt outraged”, you can almost see his chest swell in fury at this German soldier.

Ford gives us an interesting and realistic vision of war, one which rings true today. The majority of the news reports on death, bombings or shootings, but war is more than this. It is administration and waiting, waiting for the worst. Young men and women are drawn into the Army etc… by exciting and interesting propaganda, but it is not all exhilarating and challenging, it is about control and discipline too, managing boredom and fear.

“That damned truck had stayed under that bridge for two hours and a half… in the process of the eternal waiting that is war. You hung about and you hung about, and you kicked your heals and you kicked your heals: waiting for mills bombs to come, or for jam, or for generals, or for the tanks, or transport, of the clearance of the road ahead. You waited in offices under the eyes of somnolent orderlies, under fire on the banks of canals, you waited in hotels, dug outs, in sheds, ruined houses. There will be no man who survives of His Majesty’s Armed Forces that shall not remember those eternal hours where Time itself stayed still as the true image of the bloody War!…”Christopher Tietjens

Once again Ford’s representation of the prosaic nature of war and the sheer risk these men were facing is fantastic, you get a striking sense of realism from his writing.

“They were alone now in the hall, he on a level with her. He looked into her eyes. He Smiled. He had never smiled at her before. They had always been such serious people.”Valentine Wannop

Christopher and Valentine’s union was something I had been waiting for since their first meeting, and I was surprised that this climactic event occurred prior to the end of the series. It was amusing that while Christopher was at war believing Valentine would be worried for him, she is back in England angry at him. Even as his memory of her fades, she is still the only person he wants to talk to, “The only clear intelligence!” Valentine is not superficial or bogged down by propriety, she upholds a sort of innocence he finds attractive. Their minds march to the beat of an odd drum, which makes them so perfect for each other. Christopher and Valentine are less about passion because passion fades, they wish to build a life-long companionship.

“The beastly Huns! They stood between him and Valentine Wannop. If they would go home he could be sitting talking to her for whole afternoons. That was what a young woman was for. You seduce a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can’t otherwise talk. You can’t finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing-rooms. You mayn’t be in the mood when she is in the mood – for the intimate conversation that mean the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together – for a week, for a year, for a life time, for the final intimate conversation may be attained… and exhausted. So that….. That in effect was love.”Christopher Tietjens