The Good Soldier
Ford Madox Ford
368 pages • The Bodley Head • 1915 [HB]
With the renewed interest in Ford Madox Ford sparked by the BBC serialisation of Parade’s End, Tim Bennett-Goodman looks at one of Ford’s earlier works, The Good Soldier.
“It was a most amazing business, and I think that it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge out each other’s eyes with carving knives. But they were ‘good people’.”
Ford Madox Ford reports that a friend remarked of his novel The Good Soldier that it was “the finest French novel in the English language”. It is certainly a most extraordinarily un-English work of fiction, especially for its time – shockingly, almost brutally honest and unsentimental in its view of the irredeemability of human nature.
Published in 1915 but opening in 1904, Ford originally intended the novel to be titled The Saddest Story but he was persuaded that this was an error of judgment given all the sad stories emerging from the Great War raging in Europe at the time. Ford flippantly suggested an alternative title, The Good Soldier, and was allegedly rather chagrined when he was taken at his word and it was published under that title; a fait-accompli which he very much regretted as his preferred title was designed to reflect the opening sentence of the novel, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
The story is a bleakly cold-hearted dance of death, cloaked in the stiff propriety and hypocrisy of High Edwardian society, and particularly of the wealthy leisured classes of belle epoque Europe and America who spent their summer months taking ‘the cure’ in the spas of Europe – the better, it seems, to conduct their illicit affairs behind a façade of polite, genteel respectability.
This languidly enervating regime was thought to be conducive to good health, and particularly beneficial for those with ‘hearts’. But this by no means refers to the kindliness or generosity of spirit of the partakers of the cure but rather to their physical afflictions of the cardiac variety – many of them almost entirely hypochondriacal. As we soon discover, many of the protagonists have, as it were, hardened their hearts and are not in the least sentimental, although they like to be thought so.
Nor is the reference to ‘good people’ to be taken as a sign of their honesty and decency, merely as a statement of their class status. They are not ‘good’ in the moral sense but come of ‘good’ stock, which makes whatever they do appear respectable in the eyes of their society, even when it is corrupt and vicious, provided it doesn’t cause a scandal.
The only one we are given to believe has honest intentions is the first-person narrator, wealthy New Englander, John Dowell, but as we piece together the fragmented story he tells we begin to suspect that he is either a monumental booby or a monstrous villain.
The story revolves around the relationship of two married couples, the American Dowells (John and Florence) and the English Ashburnhams (Edward and Leonora), who suck into their dark orbit various other doomed characters that they systematically destroy. The leading couples themselves are trapped in the rigid conventions of their time, like flies in amber, so that it is difficult to determine whether they are in fact villains or victims. My impression is that they are both.
The Ashburnhams are really the focal point of the novel. Their charismatic but flawed characters project the mesmeric power that draws the other lesser, weaker mortals into their baleful circle. Ford has Dowell say of Edward and Leonora, “…here then were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind, and death.” Definitely dangerous people with whom to share a table on a cruise ship …
Ford tells the sorry tale in a discursive and ‘cut-up’ fashion that was extremely radical for its time. He was actually advised not to do so but to present the story in conventional chronological order, starting at the beginning and finishing at the end. His chosen style is almost filmic as we are pitched back and forth in time and place, gradually piecing together a story which becomes darker and more starkly amoral as the novel progresses until it reaches its tragically pre-figured ending in an almost bathetic dying fall.
Ford’s masterstroke is to make no secret of the shocking ending but rather to make the shock the gradual piecing together of how the end came about, which is a disturbing revelation of human cruelty, egocentricity and selfishness amounting almost to old-fashioned wickedness. Indeed, the interplay, if not clash, of the respective couples’ Protestant and Roman Catholic faiths and sensibilities is very much at the centre of this novel (as it is, for example, in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, published exactly thirty years later, or the novels of Graham Greene). The Catholicism portrayed here appears to have very little kindness or compassion in it, but perhaps that is because, theologically, it is seeking to be cruel in this life in order to be kind in the next.
The apparently inexorable descent of Ford’s characters into madness, suicide or despair seems to suggest that they are emblematic of a degenerate society destined to be purged in the refiner’s fire of the Great War – and good riddance one might say. However, Leonora appears to escape this fate and, as Dowell observes of her remarriage after a brief widowhood, “The heroine – the perfectly normal, virtuous and slightly deceitful heroine – has become the happy wife of a perfectly normal, virtuous and slightly deceitful husband. She will shortly become a mother of a perfectly normal, virtuous, slightly deceitful son or daughter. A happy ending, that is what it works out at.”
Having completed his compellingly dark psychological novel, I very much doubt that Ford himself believed in this “happy ending”, or that he expected any of his readers to do so either.