Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (1915)

My taste for literary Modernism has always been fluid, at best, so I have always had some reluctance in approaching the work of Ford Maddox Ford (1873-1939).  A man of formidable and varied talents – novelist, poet, critic, editor – Ford was also a literary Impressionist; employing out-of-sequence storytelling, unreliable narrators, and conflicting recollections.  Not my literary line of country at all, but when The Good Solider (1915) was given to me as a gift this Christmas, I knew it was time to take the plunge.

This was a fortuitous present indeed!  Ford considered The Good Soldier to be his masterpiece, and it is certainly one of the finest novels I’ve read in years.  It is available at Project Gutenberg and, as well as in a handsome Barnes & Noble edition.

In other hands, The Good Solider would descent into simple melodrama.  But Ford carefully structures his tale as a series of reminiscences told by John Dowell; a rambling narrative told to an imaginary audience beside an imaginary fireplace.  It concerns Dowell and his wife, Florence, and their friends, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham.  The tale ends with two suicides and one descent into madness – and yet, our narrator says it’s the saddest tale he’s ever heard, as if he, himself, were not a player in the events.

In short, Edward Ashburnham is a career solider during the waning days of Empire.  He is in a marriage of convenience with Leonora; while spending their winters abroad they meet American couple John and Florence Dowell.  Florence and Edward become lovers, while Leonora struggles to maintain some stability in their lives and John slowly falls in love with Nancy Rufford, the young ward of the Ashburnhams.

Because the novel is nonlinear, both the story and the true nature of its characters are gradually revealed.  This structure does not allow for surprises in the plot – but it is wonderful for surprises in character.  Ford is the master of the gradual reveal, and by the midpoint of The Good Solider, we have to rethink our opinions of all the major characters.

Take Edward, for instance.  Dowell repeatedly calls him a “sentimentalist,” but what he really means is that Ashburnham is a Romantic.  He is a heroic soldier, a charitable landlord, a stolid friend, life-saving sailor, capable horseman and a considerate squire.  He is a figure out of Sabatini or Dumas, and if he was a character in a film, he would be all Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  But – and this is the overall point of the novel, and perhaps Ford’s overarching worldview, as well – the world is not a Romantic place. 

Ashburnham is quite a bad husband, and in a world of bland and mundane reality, that is enough to ruin him.  In the construct of a realist novel (and in the real world), a figure like Ashburnham could not, must not, function successfully, and therefore ceases to exist.  This tension is the fulcrum upon which the novel rests – Ford is writing about the antagonism between romance and stark reality, or, perhaps more pointedly, the encroaching modern world.

The Good Solider is a prototypical Modern novel in that it is about the triumph of Anti-Romantic sentiment.  By offering Edmund (and, later, Nancy) as a sacrifice on the alter of middle-class respectability, it distinctly draws the line between two conflicting worldviews.

The Good Solider is also a profoundly “Catholic” novel: it deals with guilt, expiation and penance.  Ford was a convert to Catholicism, but it seems as if inwardly he remained doubtful and unconvinced.

Ford also has a very interesting view of women – one that is perhaps more true, though less politically correct, to posit today.  To Ford, form and function are more important than passion and love; and all the women in this novel are ultimately calculating.  Here is Ford writing on Leonora after the death of Edward and her subsequent remarriage:  They were like judges debating over the sentence upon a criminal; they were like ghouls with an immobile corpse in a tomb beside them. I don't think that Leonora was any more to blame than the girl—though Leonora was the more active of the two. Leonora, as I have said, was the perfectly normal woman. I mean to say that in normal circumstances her desires were those of the woman who is needed by society. She desired children, decorum, an establishment; she desired to avoid waste, she desired to keep up appearances. She was utterly and entirely normal even in her utterly undeniable beauty. But I don't mean to say that she acted perfectly normally in this perfectly abnormal situation. All the world was mad around her and she herself, agonized, took on the complexion of a mad woman; of a woman very wicked; of the villain of the piece. What would you have? Steel is a normal, hard, polished substance. But, if you put it in a hot fire it will become red, soft, and not to be handled. If you put it in a fire still more hot it will drip away. It was like that with Leonora. She was made for normal circumstances—for Mr Rodney Bayham, who will keep a separate establishment, secretly, in Portsmouth, and make occasional trips to Paris and to Budapest.

It was difficult for your correspondent not to sympathize with Edward – and I found myself often uncomfortably nodding in self-recognition.  (Sadly, though, not at the parts of his effortless heroism.)  Edward is a displaced person in time.  His tragedy is that dull reality was allowed to kill his sense of romance, and this this sense of romance gave him no alternative other than suicide.

The Good Solider is gripping, chilling and profoundly moving.  Ford’s genius is that the final line of the novel puts the entire story in perspective, and provides the final insight into the characters that we need.  It is a tour de force and highly recommended.

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