Ford Madox Ford on Daniel Defoe

Someday, probably some winter, I will sit down and actually read Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature, and take the full eclectic journey through Ford’s brain. But until that day arrives, the best I can do is hope for a few pages here and there when I look up a recently read author in the index and see what Ford might have to say. Thus, him on Daniel Defoe:

…[I]t would be unreasonable not to consider that Defoe, looking for new avenues by which to make a living by his pen, saw that there would undoubtedly be a market for English picaresque fiction—and supplied it. …

It is difficult to write at all dogmatically about Defoe, in part because his historical position and his untiring personal activities in public fields obscure a little the critical vision. As in the case of Goethe, one hesitates to write down that in ninety per cent of his writings outside Moll Flanders Defoe is an insufferable bore.

Of Moll Flanders:

It will be observed that the writing, if not very trig or distinguished, is yet worthy of respect for a certain quality of balance and rhythm calculated to show off very skilfully the sense of the content. It is as if Defoe in beginning a paragraph saw at once its end, its convlutions, and its whole shape. And that is very high praise which could be accorded to few enough of his later successors.

But as he went on his his career of outpourings of words, the life, very naturally, faded from his prose—the last traces of the seventeenth century prose tradition died out of it and the form of the paragraph went. Consider this from Captain John Gow: [excerpt omitted]

Sheer backboneless could not go much further.

Ford is pretty much will to give Defoe a break on this, since he’s getting old at this point and “though a man in those years may still write good prose, the odds are that he will not be able to do it incessantly, untiringly and to earn a scanty living.”

Of Robinson Crusoe, unfortunately, Ford does not have too much to say, because “since we have all of us read it in our first childhoods, hardly any of us could form any exact estimation of its technical, literary value.” Having not read it in my first childhood, I would have appreciated a more sustantive discussion—though certainly the case to pick up Moll Flanders (Norton Critical Edition already on the shelf, naturally) has been made. And I think I would agree about the skillfully rhythmic language in much of Robinson Crusoe, which Ford does admit “may pass for a masterpiece almost marmoreal and universally esteemed.”

His final word on Defoe is probably his best: “we shall have to produce yet many masterpieces, indeed, before his figure shall pass from the consciousness of posterity. He may have died a mere Grub Street hack but he shall be a hard, angular pebble indeed for oblivion to swallow.”

The Shifting of the Fire by Ford Madox Ford

When Almayer’s Folly was but a twinkle in Joseph Conrad’s eye, his future collaborator was cranking out some rather different work. Ford Madox Ford’s first novel, The Shifting of the Fire, was published in 1892 (when he was still publishing under the name H. Ford Hueffer).

The basic story is a bit hard to give; a broad outline won’t give a good idea of what the novel is really like. But let’s see what I can do. It’s a comedy of errors that begins with the heroine, Edith Ryland, waiting for her fiancé to show up with her birthday present, and ends with the two of them finally getting married. In between, Ford crams in a lot of errors: the fiancé, Clem, is ruined and sends an unfeeling letter to Edie letting her know; next thing, Edie is engaged to a rich old man, hoping to wait until he dies and then use his millions to support a life with Clem; hilariously, Clem has no idea what has become of his ex, and proceeds to strike up a friendship with her new husband; said husband believes, both correctly and mistakenly, that his wife’s affections are engaged elsewhere, and decides to drive her to her death so she can never be with her lover; he’s in for a surprise when this plan brings up the horrors of his own past; there’s a whole other couple that gets together, and an almost-wife for Clem; and finally wedding bells ring out.

It’s fun. It’s a romp, it’s funny, it’s silly, it’s infuriating (but in a good way), it’s absurd. It’s everything you could want in a novel where the whole point is for the likeable-but-flawed heroine to get married to the likeable-but-flawed hero. Almost the whole point, at least. Is it a spoiler to give you the final paragraph after giving away the ending anyway? (And no, that was not a spoiler—anyone who doesn’t know what will happen by the end of the first chapter is fooling only themselves.)

The Past, with its struggles and heart burnings, was dead—only the good that adversity had brought out in their characters remained. This was what it had taught them: ‘How you must have loved me!’

See, all that silliness that came in between, from bankruptcy to, uh, marrying another man, was only to bring them closer together and prove their love for each other! It’s adorable really, and it actually does give Ford a fairish amount of work to do, plot- and character development-wise. And it’s true—these two crazy kids never would have made it if they had gotten hitched right off. What chances we must take in life, all based on the shifting of the fire and yet somehow adding up to the right good thing.

Ford himself described his work prior to The Good Soldier as “desultorily” written, “all…in the nature of pastiches, of pieces of rather precious writing, or of tours de force.” In my handy Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier, John A. Meixner informs me that “Robin Macauley…writing in The Kenyon Review…classifies [The Good Soldier] was a ‘miniature’ performance and suggests that, were it not for the fact of the Tietjens books, it might be thought of as ‘the lucky try of a gifted and fortunate minor novelist.'” I don’t know that this is true—it would be an awfully lucky try—but certainly Ford’s early work is not on the same level. It’s darling, don’t get me wrong, but could “darling” be any more different from The Good Soldier or Parade’s End? I suppose it could; Ford is still recognizable as himself, and the things he says are recognizable as things he would say, wit recognizable as his wit. But so light and fluffy! I’ve got two more light pieces of fluff from Ford to get to this week before getting decidedly nonfluffy with Jarry.

Ford and the torture of talking

Yesterday’s post mentioned the “shift into talk” that happens among the characters of The Good Soldier as the affair of the novel progresses. This shift is a very Fordian concern, at least if Parade’s End is anything to go by. Both novels place an emphasis on the lack of communication characteristic (according to Ford) of the English, and what this means for their relationships.

In The Good Soldier, right from the beginning Dowell starts in on the trouble of knowing English people, and how you can know them and not know them at all, “a state of things only possible with English people.” Florence is the first talker. She insists on a horrible sort of friendship with Leonora even as she is sleeping with her husband.

She cut out poor dear Edward from sheer vanity; she meddled between him and Leonora from a sheer, imbecile spirit of district visiting. Do you understand that, whilst she was Edward’s mistress, she was perpetually trying to reunite him to his wife? She would gabble on to Leonora about forgiveness—treating the subject from the bright, American point of view. And Leonora would treat her like the whore she was. Once she said to Florence in the early morning:

“You come to me straight out of his bed to tell me that that is my proper place. I know it, thank you.”

But even that could not stop Florence.

She babbles and babbles, until talk ends her. She comes upon Edward talking to Nancy Rufford—confessing his feelings for her, of course—and runs back to the hotel, where she finds Dowell in conversation with a man who knows about Florence’s past. His talking, she knows, can completely undo her, and just moments later she has swallowed the prussic acid she’s kept on her for years as insurance.

That talk Edward has with Nancy is also the undoing of the rest of them. Bringing “the girl” into the affair breaks them all, and it only gets worse after the talking starts in at Bramshaw Teleragh, the Ashburnhams’ home in England, as well. Now Leonora lashes out at Nancy and Edward, Nancy begins to lose her footing, and Edward decides she must be sent away to her father in India. Edward forbids anyone talking about any of it. Leonora, instead, begins to insist Nancy must stay and become Edward’s mistress to save his sanity.

[Nancy] said nothing; Leonora went on talking….

God knows what Leonora said. She repeated that the girl must belong to her husband. She said that she used that phrase because, though she might have a divorce, or even a dissolution of the marriage by the Church, it would still be adultery that the girl and Edward would be committing. But she said that that was necessary; it was the price the girl must pay for the sin of having made Edward love her, for the sin of loving her husband. She talked on and on, beside the fire. The girl must become an adulteress; she had wronged Edward by being so beautiful, so gracious, so good. It was sinful to be so good. She must pay the price so as to save the man she had wronged.

In between her pauses the girl could hear the voice of Edward droning on, indistinguishably, with jerky pauses for replies [on a telephone call in the next room]. …Leonora talked on with her eyes boring into Nancy’s. The girl hardly looked at her and hardly heard her. After a long time Nancy said—after hours and hours:

“I shall go to India as soon as Edward hears from my father. I cannot talk about these things because Edward does not wish it.”

At that Leonora screamed out and wavered swiftly towards the closed door. And Nancy found that she was springing out of her chair with her white arms stretched wide. She was clasping the other woman to her breast; she was saying:

“Oh, my poor dear, oh, my poor dear.” And they sat, crouching together in each other’s arms, and crying and crying; and they lay down in the same bed, talking and talking, all through the night. And all through the night Edward could hear their voices through the wall. That was how it went….

And it’s through talking that Dowell finds out about any of this, blissfully ignorant as he is until the whole affair is virtually over. That talk ruins his life and compels him to write the novel. His whole world is shattered by talk brought on by talk brought on by talk. And Edward, who couldn’t keep himself from talking to Nancy, couldn’t stop what he once started.

I’ve spent a week now, pretty much, on The Good Soldier and of course I’ve barely even addressed it. It’s not the last you’ll hear of it; my journey into Conrad and lots more Ford assures that.

The cause of “the eternal damnation of you and me and them”

I feel a bit like I am strip-mining the Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier, but guess what peoples, it’s really good. This time I’m just going to look at one essay, Carol Jacobs’s “The Passion for Talk,” originally published as part of “The (too) Good Soldier, ‘a real story,'” in Glyph.

Jacobs focuses here on a critical scene of The Good Soldier, and a really difficult one. She has kind of a wild theory, and a lot of it has really helped my understanding, but I’m refusing to buy into the whole thing. Here’s the scene: In the first year the two couples, the Dowells and the Ashburnhams, spent together at Nauheim, Florence, who “was singularly expert as a guide to archaeological exceptions,” had the four of them go on a trip to Marburg, where there’s a castle. While three of them were simply game for an excursion, “Florence, of course, had a motive of her own. She was at that time engaged in educating Captain Ashburnham—oh, of course, quite pour le bon motif!” Martin Luther had stayed at the castle at one time, and there is a particular document Florence is interested in pointing out to the group.

“And there,” she exclaimed with an accent of gaiety, of triumph and of audacity. She was pointing at a piece of paper, like the half-sheet of a letter with some faint pencil scrawls that might have been a jotting of the amounts we were spending during the day. And I was extremely happy at her gaiety, in her triumph, in her audacity. Captain Ashburnham had his hands upon the glass case. “There is it—the Protest.” And then, as we all properly stage-managed our bewilderment, she continued: “Don’t you know that this is why we were all called Protestants? That is the pencil draft of the Protest they drew up. You can see the signatures of Martin Luther, and Martin Bucer, and Zwingli, and Ludwig the Courageous….”

I may have got some of the names wrong, but I know that Luther and Bucer were there. And her animation continued and I was glad. She was better and she was out of mischief. She continued looking up into Captain Ashburnham’s eyes: “It’s because of that piece of paper that you’re honest, sober, industrious, provident, and clean-lived. If it weren’t for that piece of paper you’d be like the Irish or the Italians or the Poles, but particularly the Irish….”

And she laid one finger upon Captain Ashburnham’s wrist.

Upon which Leonora Ashburnham flips out and runs out of the castle, followed by Dowell, who is extremely relieved when she finally says, “Don’t you know that I’m an Irish Catholic?”

Of course, Dowell is missing the point here entirely, and begins to understand it at least slightly more deeply when he realizes the importance of Florence’s touch on Ashburnham’s wrist. Now, let’s see what Jacobs has to say about it all.

Her main claim is that the whole story of the trip to Marburg “operates as an inexorably precise, almost mechanical, if ultimately problematic, allegory.” Some of her argument for this is very persuasive. In the castle, “the Reformer and his friends met for the first time under the protection of the gentleman that had three wives at once and formed an alliance with the gentleman that had six wives, one after the other.” As Jacobs points out, Edward Ashburnham, with the number of his mistresses at this point, has had six wives one after the other. Whereas Dowell himself “admits to having loved Leonora, Maisie Maidan, and Nancy Rufford at one and the same time. And who is the Reformer, if not Florence, who, we have just been told, ‘was at that time engaged in educating Captain Ashburnham.”

This is good, this is good. The Protest itself, with its “faint pencil scrawls,” “forewarns us that the shift into talk will not fulfill a promise of revelation but will produce a text all the more demanding of interpretation.” (The shift into talk here refers to the way that a “desire for communicativeness” develops as the affair of the book develops and is a primary reason for much of the characters’ suffering.) And Leonora suffers not just because Florence is impossibly rude, or because she is in love with Ashburnham, but also because the Protest “makes possible polygamy and divorce” and “challenges the law of the church which insists on the indissoluble one-to-one relationship between man and wife and implicitly between sacramental text and meaning”—a major source of Leonora’s suffering and unhappiness throughout the affair. This is, for her, “the cause of the whole miserable affair; of the whole sorrow of the world.”

Now, for where we part. Jacobs argues—no, she simply claims—that

If Florence inverts each of [Ashburnham’s] characteristics [in her speech on the Protest], she does so, it would seem, out of ignorance. What she means by saying that Edward is clean-lived is that she wishes he weren’t, for the reformer wishes to go to bed with the “gentleman that had six wives one after another.” She lays her hand on Edward’s wrist then by way of saying—“This is my body.”

This leads to the obviously fraught question, “What does it mean to say ‘This is my body’ in the Castle of Marburg while pointing at a manuscript signed, we are told, by Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and Zwingli?” As you can imagine, it means a bunch of stuff about transsubstantiation, symbolism, &tc. Only…is that what Florence said when she laid her hand on Edward’s wrist? Is that even what she meant when she said he was clean-lived? I simply cannot find any evidence of either in the text, and while the first may be a fine enough reading of her actions, the second seems like a leap to me, or at least a much tougher sell. How could the wishfulness implied by the first then mean the affirmative claim implied by the second? Well I just will not go so far down this road. But the six wives, three wives thing, now that is good.

First impressions

A point Ford repeatedly makes is the need for an author to properly establish each character right from the first appearance. This first impression is critical; if you don’t get it quite right, nothing you say later will really budge the reader from that initial wrong idea.

Always consider the impressions that you are making upon the mind of the reader, and always consider that the first impression with which you present him will be so strong that it will be all that you can ever do to efface it, to alter it or even quite slightly to modify it. Maupassant’s gentleman with red whiskers, who always pushed in front of people when it was a matter of going throug h a doorway, will remain, for the mind of the reader, that man and no other.[*] The impressoin is as hard and as definite as a tin-tack. And I rather doubt whether, supposing MAupassant represented him afterwards as kneeling on the ground to wipe the tears away from a small child who had lost a penny down a drain—I doubt whether such a definite statement of fact would ever efface the first impression from the reader’s mind. They would think that the gentleman with the red whiskers was perpetrating that act of benevolence with ulterior motives—to impress the bystanders, perhaps.

So, what are the first impressions of the major players in The Good Soldier? No, wait. Does it actually matter what these first impressions are, how accurate, or, better, how much Dowell would have us change them as he tells his story? Because Dowell’s narration meta-izes the problem of the first impression; it’s him trying to get us to modify those impressions, not Ford, and he’s doing it as he modifies those impressions himself. Time passes in the telling of this story, and while Dowell never comes to a real enlightenment, he does learn and process and build his personal, internal narrative of the tragedy of his life.

Meanwhile, the first first impression we get of a character is of Dowell himself. The very famous first line of the novel, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” is in fact an almost perfect encapsulation of Dowell in one sentence. (I will leave this wild claim completely unjustified; read the novel and disagree with me.) The entire opening passage, as it purports to introduce all the characters (well, except one, one very important one, but that’s Dowell all over too), says much more about the narrator:

We had known the Ashburnhams for nine seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy—or rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove’s with your hand. My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs. Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them. This is, I believe, a state of things only possible with English people of whom till today, when I sit down to puzzle out what I know of this sad affair. I knew nothing whatever. Six months ago I had never been to England and, certainly, I had never sounded the depths of an English heart. I had known the shallows.

Here is Dowell. Obsessed with knowing. Unable to leave a statement lie uncontradicted—”an extreme intimacy” or “an acquaintanceship…loose and easy”? Or, by qualifying things with “in another sense,” Dowell embraces the problem of the unknowability of reality: they did know the Ashburnhams as well as possible, which is to say, not at all. Puzzling things out. Dealing with a sad affair. Ignorant of hearts. Unsure, but sure that he is unsure. Taking back half his statements as soon as he’s given them. This is your first impression of the man who will tell you his sad story.

Literary impressionism relies on suggestion; a sympathetic link between author and reader is needed, and, as Arthur Mizener notes in “Ford, Dowell, and the Sex Instinct,” “[w]e can know how to take a dramatized narrator only if we share the author’s values. The author cannot tell the reader what these are; each reader must guess; and what each reader usually guesses is that the author has the same values he has.” So while I have a certain idea of Dowell, and how right or wrong or in which direction unreliable, yours is a little different, and Mizener’s is a little different. And some people’s are quite a lot different.

For example, Mark Schorer, whose “The Good Soldier as Comedy” is the first critical essay focused on the novel’s interpretation in the Norton Critical Edition. Schorer argues that The Good Soldier is “a comedy of humor, and the humor is phlegm,” based largely on a conception of Dowell as a “failure,” “bitter and paltry,” “simple, infatuated,” full of “the dull hysteria of sloth…the sluggish insanity of defective love.”

This reading seemed so limiting to me, or do I mean limited? It feels like we are laughing at Dowell—what kind of man is so pathetic as to not have sex with his wife for their whole marriage? nyah nyah!—as if his story isn’t a tragedy. Samuel Hynes argues against this reading in “The Epistemology of The Good Soldier“:

First, Dowell’s failures—his failure to act, his failure to understand the people around him, his failure to ‘connect’—are shared by all the other characters in the novel, and thus would seem to constitute a generalization about the human condition rather than a moral state peculiar to him. Alienation, silence, loneliness, repression—these describe Ashburnham and Leonora and Nancy, and even ‘poor Florence’ as well as they describe Dowell….

Second, Dowell does have certain positive qualities which perhaps, in the light of recent criticism of the novel, require some rehabilitation. For instance, if his moral doubt prevents positive action, it also restrains him from passing judgment, even on those who have most wronged him.

Really, I think we can put it much more simply than this: the whole novel is about Dowell coming to grips with his inadequacies, as Schorer would have them. He spends time writing us this account so he can work through his knowledge problem and give real consideration to the moral issues at stake. Moral doubt does not make him a nonentity. Of course, Dowell is foolish, he is ridiculous, he is gullible, he is out of touch with the people around him. Are you so sure you are not? My point is: Dowell’s unreliability does not point to a hidden truth for us to discover and bang over his dense head. This novel is not that easy. There isn’t an answer. The novel is the answer.

Mizener gives lots of other reasons why Schorer is wrong about Dowell. Some of them are pretty fun, with tidbits like the fact that “Ford believed with some reason that he was making this dramatic detail [the ‘white marriage’ of Dowell and Florence] more plausible by making Dowell an American.”

*Ford says these “words of Maupassant” are a “working model” for characterization: “C’était un monsieur à favoris rouges qui entrait toujours le premier.” (That is, “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a door,” in Ford’s rendering.)

“I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us.”

“Literary impressionism.” After the contemporary reviews, that’s what the Norton Critical Edition of The Good Soldier has a whole section on. Several later essays by academics precede one Ford wrote himself while at work on Parade’s End and a selection from his Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, and they don’t do nearly as much to illuminate the topic. Here is Ford in the latter, writing on the “general effect” that should be aimed at in literature, that is to say, impressionist literature:

We agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect that life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report. Life does not say to you: In 1914 my next door neighbour, Mr. Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminum paint….If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr. Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the city of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr. Slack—then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him!

(See how easy it is to understand when Ford explains it in the very style itself? Because it’s general effect is so good!)

After lots more of the same, Ford ends, “And, if that is how the building of your neighbour’s greenhouse comes back to you, just imagine how it will be with your love-affairs that are so much more complicated….”

Unlike in Parade’s End (or, as he refers to them, “the Tietjens novels”), which he was writing much later, around when he wrote these opinions on literary impressionism, a third-person narrator does not carry off this general effect in The Good Soldier. Instead, Ford uses a first-person narrator, John Dowell, to tell his story in the most realistic way possible.

Dowell is a main player in the action that would make up the novel if it weren’t a piece of literary impressionism. In fact, the action that makes up the novel is Dowell’s telling of the action—the story of two couples, two love triangles, five lives destroyed. Writing for the same reason “it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote,” he constantly justifies the form his tale takes—a rambling, fractured, evolving narration.

I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down—whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself.

So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of the country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.


I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I have stuck to my idea of being in a country cottage with a silent listener, hearing between the gusts of the wind and amidst the noises of the distant sea, the story as it comes. And, when one discusses an affair—a long, sad affair—one goes back, one goes forward. One remembers points one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognizes that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. I console myself with thinking that this is a real story and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real.

Dowell is almost amazingly clear about Ford’s literary philosophy. Never leave a false impression through an unrealistic level of organization! It would be so much easier that way, though.

You are to remember that all this happened a month before Leonora went into the girl’s room at night. I have been casting back again; but I cannot help it. It is so difficult to keep all these people going. I tell you about Leonora and bring her up to date; then about Edward who has fallen behind. And then the girl gets hopelessly left behind. I wish I could put it down in diary form. Thus: On the 1st September they returned from Nauheim. Leonora at once took to her bed. By the 1st of October they were all going to meets together….

No, that’s no way to tell a story at all.

Have I actually explained what Dowell does for Ford? So: Ford’s object is not to tell you what to think, but to relate perceptions—impressions. An author shouldn’t do the judgmental work of analyzing and explaining those facts, just of presenting them. Dowell is the perceiver, the medium for the perceptions Ford needs to get to us. Dowell is sitting in a room by the sea telling us the whole story as he perceives it, and actively working to make sense of it, and questioning the sense he makes of it, and dealing with a major problem of literary impressionism, the unknowability of reality.

I mentioned that the Tietjens novels pull this off in the third-person, which is pretty awesome when you think about how many of these books don’t work that way. In the two works of Conrad’s I just read, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, he uses his narrator Marlow to similar purpose. Marlow is quite a contrast to Dowell, though, a fit subject I think for a future post.

Uprooting Groby Great Tree

Christopher Tietjens, with his brilliant mind, predicted long before the war that America would come out on top soon enough, and that that’s where the money would be. After he’s done soldiering, he goes into the antique furniture business, fixing up old pieces and selling them for a bundle to rich Americans. This is of course not terribly respectable, but it’s smart.

Who are these Americans on the cusp of taking over the world? Mark muses in his tent before the unexpected arrival of one such: “Nearly all he knew of Americans came from a book he had once read—about a woman like a hedge-sparrow, creeping furtive in hedgerows and getting into trouble with a priest….But no doubt there were other types.”

No doubt. The one who shows up is Mrs. de Bray Pape, a horribly vulgar (and wealthy) woman who is letting Groby, furnished. She believes she is “descended spiritually from the Maintenon,” lord knows why, but she certainly won’t shut up about it:

‘You are probably too haughtily aristocratic to speak to me, Sir Mark Tietjens. But I have in me the soul of the Maintenon; you are only the fleshly descendent of a line of chartered libertines. That is what Time and the New World have done to redress the balance of the old. It is we who are keeping up the status of the grands seigneurs of old in your so-called ancestral homes.’

She expects the children of Mark’s tenant farmers to bow to her as she passes in the street, as if she could rent his family name and history along with his house. It’s tragic what she does to Groby, but it turns out to be on some level their saving grace. Obsessed as she is with the Maintenon, Mrs. de Bray Pape has no sense of history—which mean she isn’t hobbled by it as Tietjens is. She can go into a place and throw out and tear down and rip up and clear out. Just as Christopher knew it would be the vulgar Americans without the burden of history on a cramped continent who would eventually come into England with their money and change just about everything. His eighteenth century—no, seventeenth century—no, sixteenth century Toryism can only be shaken up and shaken off with the help of this awful woman, who convinces Mark that the curse on their house has been lifted and brings him—impossibly as it seems—peace.

I could write about this book without saying anything for ages, and there are more beautiful passages than I could possibly quote in any kind of structured posts. Don’t worry, there will be re-reads someday. I would like to thank once more Mel U of The Reading Life for organizing an unstructured group read of Parade’s End, without which I would surely have waited years more to experience this amazing work.

Sylvia gets her comeuppance

It had been obvious 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. It is, in the end, she reluctantly admitted, the function of God and the invisible powers to see that a good man shall eventually be permitted to settle down to a stuffy domestic life…even to chaffering over old furniture.

Ah, Sylvia, how the mighty have fallen! By The Last Post Sylvia’s schemes are hanging on by a thread; she’s still obsessed with tormenting Christopher of course but knows she is pushing her luck by this time. Her stories about him are no longer as easy to believe, though she still hopes to convince the Earl of Fittleworth with her charms to push Tietjens and his brother out of the county: “Beauty and truth have a way of appearing to be akin; and it is true that no man knows what another man is doing when he is out of sight.”

She has after all successfully convinced many people that Tietjens’s older brother Mark is suffering not the effects of a stroke but of late-stage syphilis. But convincing other people is not really her game&dmash;she is obsessed with her husband and must know for her own satisfaction that he is miserable. She is determined to find even the tiniest detail to support her, and goes to the cottage he and Valentine now live in hoping to find her housekeeping poor and to bring back some nice nasty detail to scandalize the neighbors. But she’s mostly scandalizing herself, drifting out of her own social circle to try to get dirt on the Tietjens’s and making her desperation more and more apparent. Even her own son sees her as a sex-obsessed bitch when it comes to his father, though he does seem to be a mama’s boy all the same.

In The Last Post we spend some more solid time with Mark, and also with his wife, and they are really of the right sort: “He was the English Milor with le Spleen. She had read of him in the novels of Alexander Dumas, Paul de Kock, Eugene Sue and Ponson du Terrail. He represented the England that the Continent applauded—the only England that the Continent applauded. Silent, obstinate, inscrutable, insolent, but immensely wealthy and uncontrollably generous.” He has never spoken since hearing the terms of the Armistice, whether from a stroke or from his obstinacy. His mind is amazingly sharp though, and he has Sylvia’s number:

Obviously it taxed her mind to invent what she invented. You could not invent that sort of sex-cruelty stuff without having your mind a little affected. She could not, for instance, have invented the tale that he, Mark, was suffering for the sins of his youth without its taking it out of her. That is the ultimate retribution of Providence on those who invent gossip frequently.

Sylvia’s mind is affected, but she hasn’t lost it or anything like that. Rather she is haunted by the things she’s done and what she’s become. It’s not so much that society is turning on her, because it isn’t really, not yet anyway, but that she has seen herself and doesn’t like what she sees. One of her more recent shower-bath-string-pulling episodes was initiating divorce proceedings, only to drag Tietjens’s name through the papers.

Anyhow the case had been a fiasco and for the first time in her life Sylvia had felt mortification; in addition she had felt a great deal of religious fear. It had come into her mind in Court—and it came with additional vividness there above that house, that, years ago in her mother’s sitting-room in a place called Lobscheid, Father Consett had predicted that if Christopher fell in love with another woman, she, Sylvia, would perpetrate acts of vulgarity. And there she had been, not only toying with the temporal courts in a matter of marriage, which is a sacrament, but led undoubtedly into a position that she had to acknowledge was vulgar.

More mistakes, and for the same reasons as before—Sylvia is not as good at controlling things as she needs to be. It’s her own lawyer who turned the case into a fiasco, in a way she wouldn’t have wanted. But she can only set things in motion, unable to direct them with any exactitude once they’ve begun. And by the end of her scene at the cottage it’s clear she didn’t direct that last afternoon very well at all. She helped perpetrate what Christopher would consider the worst offense possible against him, but she’s absolutely defeated by the presence and uncontrollable actions of the people she’s brought to the cottage to hurt him and Valentine.

This whole volume is really one great scene like yesterday’s. Half a dozen swirling perspectives building to a surprisingly affecting (because how could it be more affecting than everything else, after so much?) close to the whole thing.

Armistice Day

Writing about Robert Louis Stevenson the other day, Amateur Reader described the way he would build to scenes and compared it to Ford Madox Ford’s technique in Parade’s End. Parade’s End is full of this, but the scene that came to mind immediately was the first one of the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up–.

The novel begins with Valentine Wannop, back in England teaching physical education in a girls’ school, on Armistice Day. The school has her make the girls run around all morning to tire them out, so when news of the armistice comes through the blaring sirens there won’t be too much chaos. Just as the chaos starts, Valentine gets a phone call from Edith Ethel Macmaster, her former friend and the wife of Tietjens’s former protegé.

Valentine has no idea who she’s talking to, nor does she care—her thoughts are racing because everything in her world has suddenly changed. She thinks of what she’ll do now the war is over, how she’ll act, how everything is different and now that the war is over you can’t use profanity, how she’d been ordered to keep the girls in line, whether her brother is safe—everything but the phone call. When she finally realizes who she’s talking to her thoughts change, responding often indirectly to Edith Ethel and her offensiveness. After she hangs up, she sits and thinks, then goes to her headmistress, who’s also spoken to Edith Ethel, and makes quite a scene about her father, her family situation, her relationship to Tietjens, Edith Ethel’s untrustworthiness, and finally her plans to leave the school and be with her man.

The stream of consciousness Ford writes is just as it should be: all but impossible to understand for several pages, especially being as it is at the absolute beginning of the novel (there is enough separation between the volumes in Parade’s End that a reader of No More Parades would have no real idea of where the next book would be starting up), then slowly coming together until the passage makes complete sense and brings an understanding of the novel’s events and Valentine’s feelings that would have been all but impossible to achieve otherwise. Valentine’s highly fragmented mind is like a glass being un-shattered; the bits and pieces fit one by one until all the breakages have disappeared and the reader can look through it—not quite clearly, but close enough.

Perhaps ultimately this boils down to saying “the scene worked for me,” and there’s not much to do but tell you to read it, but you’d have to read all of it, and you should certainly do that anyway. But I also find it somewhat tragic. This kind of technique certainly turns people off, and I won’t say it’s not difficult to some extent. The rewards are so great, but I know people who would love this novel if they could get past the formal difficulty and who wouldn’t ever attempt it, who would be completely turned off. I want to evangelize this book far and wide but honestly, how many people are going to be sold on 900 pages of some seriously dense Modernism?

Back to the point, those great rewards and AR’s “true realism.” When I began Parade’s End, and I did read part of the introduction to my Everyman’s Library edition, I thought about the commonplace that the Great War changed everything. I was discussing what that “really” meant with the consumption partner, and how I had certainly read of this fact and knew of it and knew many things about the actual changes, the before versus the after, but that that didn’t give me much sense of why it struck people that way at the time, or what it actually struck them like. The usual questions of how a cultural narrative is constructed, I suppose. But now I feel like I know, rather than just knowing about. Again, what am I saying other than “this worked for me”? Probably nothing, but damnit it worked and it worked amazingly well. The awareness of the war and England before and after that Ford imparted in Parade’s End has crept into everything I’ve been reading since I started it—into my whole life, to some extent—and I don’t expect that to stop.

Christopher and Sylvia, sad sad sad

Thus far I have neglected Sylvia Tietjens, certainly the juiciest character in Parade’s End, in favor of her boring meal-sack of a husband. But as strange as it sounds, I believe Sylvia is not unlike the War Office.

I mentioned yesterday that the British bureaucracy had a knowledge problem: they cannot know all the information they need to know to make the decisions necessary to central planning on this scale. Sylvia has the same problem, but applied to her machinations against Christopher.

Motivations aside, Sylvia’s mission in life is to hurt her husband. She directs all her energies outward, towards other people, attempting to manipulate them into doing what she wants—anything from having affairs with her to hurting her husband’s career—to accomplish this goal. And in Some Do Not, she appears spectacularly successful. No More Parades reveals how much trouble Sylvia actually has at her sinister game.

For example, when we get her version of running off with Perowne years before, it turns out it was anything but an enjoyable fling with the side benefit of hurting Christopher. Sylvia actually shows how awful she is at planning anything. She can’t predict that Perowne will turn out to be a terrible bore, she fails to foresee that he might attempt to keep her or do violence to her, she hadn’t realized that if she wasn’t very particular scandal might land at her own doorstep, and she did not anticipate Christopher’s reaction to any of it. Just about all of her cunning plans turn out not to be very cunning, and it’s usually because Sylvia has no ability to predict the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of the other players.

Christopher sometimes struggles to counter her moves, especially when his thoughts are impaired. He faces the knowledge problem too, but his job is easier. Where all Sylvia’s energy is directed outward, trying to elicit some kind of action from others, Christopher’s efforts point inward. He absorbs, using himself as a cushion for any shock that would hurt his wife, his family, Miss Wannop, Macmaster, or anyone else he respects. He never attempts to stir a situation himself, to set in motion something that will evoke particular reactions from other, independent players. He works on the fly, just like with his army orders, countering the moves of Sylvia and her friends one by one, by being personally upstanding and by not depending on missing information about the minds of his acquaintances.

His desire to protect the hearth is much more easily accomplished than hers to orchestrate a complicated campaign against him. But Christopher is also more adept in general. He is often able to understand the motives of others, while Sylvia can only grasp such things after the fact, with the benefit of hindsight. She didn’t even know her own husband spoke fluent, if bizarre, French—but as soon as she finds out her does, she’s able to put the pieces together in reverse and understand why it all makes sense. But as she can never manage that ahead of time, her schemes seem doomed to fail.