Christopher Tietjens, the Yorkshire youngest son who takes center stage in Some Do Not, the first volume of the Parade’s End tetralogy, is a man outside his own time. His Toryism is out of step with the politics of the day and his sense of honor out of step with its mores.
For Tietjens, the glory of England is in “a man and a maid walk[ing] through Kentish grass fields:”
the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous; he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest. …
Each knew the names of birds that piped and grasses that bowed….
He is so impossibly upright that he takes back his unfaithful wife, because it is wrong for a man to divorce a woman. He insists on taking scandal upon himself to deflect it from virtuous (and less so) women. He refuses, not to fake statistics for the government, but to massage the data and ignore his conscience, even though he could be knighted for it. He loans money to his friend Macmaster and won’t take repayment from Macmaster’s mistress when she’s in control of her lunatic husband’s estate.
And as scandal and dirt pile up on Tietjens, practically disgraced by the middle of the war and suspected even of being a French spy, he knows it all and doesn’t care. His friends get wind of the rumors about him and feel afraid to tell him, they are so awful, but Tietjens already knows. Just before his return to France, where he rather hopes to be killed, his older brother Mark confronts him about his assumed debauchery. On Tietjens’s rebuff, Mark explains the problem:
‘Because,’ Mark said with emphasis, ‘you treat these south country swine with the contempt that they deserve. They’re incapable of understanding the motives of a gentleman. If you live among the dogs they’ll think you’ve the motives of a dog. What other motives can they give you?’ He added: ‘I thought you’d been buried so long under their muck that you were as mucky as they!’
The dogs give Tietjens their own motives, misreading his actions and intentions. They superimpose themselves on his situation; imagining themselves in his place, they can only believe he is base. “It is, in fact, asking for trouble if you are more altruist than the society that surrounds you,” the narrator tells us, and Tietjens gets plenty of trouble. Struck from visiting lists, pushed out of the lives of former friends, ridiculed by people certainly beneath him, Tietjens has been materially affected by all these false impressions and misreadings.
The content goes well with the form of Parade’s End. Ford is tricky; his narrator is tricky. Every scene and fact must be triangulated as the narrative shifts through time and pivots from one character’s point of view to another, seamlessly, creating an impressionistic picture of events and personalities. Ford’s technique is masterful, each word exactly chosen, but that doesn’t mean you can trust any of it. Don’t read your motives into anything, or you risk grave misunderstanding and horrible consequences—but what other motives can you give?