Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford (1915)

This is the book Ford regarded as his best: it is certainly his most famous. He wrote it when he was forty and had a few problems of his own, "an intensely lived history of unhappy marriages, agonized love affairs, and troubled male friendships" according to the introductory note to the Oxford World's Classics edition. This is the very stuff of the novel. The more I think about, the gladder I am that I have finally read it, as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Ford employed what was then an unusual technique, but one which actually makes a lot of sense in terms of realism in story-telling. Rather than a faithful rendition, starting at the beginning and working through chronologically, Ford took on the task of giving an Impressionist account (James and Conrad are vital influences in this). As Ford says, a problem with the English novel is that it goes "straight forward, whereas in your gradual making acquaintanceship with your fellows you never do go straight forward." Instead, you form an initial impression, you discover various things about him as you go along. So "to get such a man in fiction you could not begin at the beginning and work his life through to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past."

So, in this way, things that might well be spoilers in a more conventional novel are given to the reader in the first chapter, with the novel then providing an idea of how such things come about, as well as details of the narrator's present predicament, why he
starts the novel with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard". Of course, the technique could simply lead to a lot of muddle and repetition - at one point, his narrator apologises for telling the story in a very rambling way but, really, it doesn't matter. In fact, it adds to the story, because events can be seen in a new light when we the reader have learnt more about the characters and their situation.

The novel involves two couples - the Ashburnhams (Captain Ashburnham is supposedly the "good soldier" of the title, and he is certainly kind to his men) and the Dowells. John Dowell, an American, is the narrator. They become acquainted by going to the same spa resort at Nauheim in Germany for nine seasons in a row. Florence Dowell and Captain Ashburnham both had "a heart" and were thus sent there under doctors orders: both are now dead. For the four of them their
intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose; and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us...
So close, and yet so much beneath the surface; "poor dear Florence" (Dowell) and Edward Ashburnham were having an affair, despite saying little to each other in public and having very little opportunity to be just the two of them. At the same time, the Ashburnhams "never spoke a word to each other in private". Poor old John Dowell wails
No, by God, it is false! It wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison - a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels as we went along...
But then he thinks - for nine years, things went along apparently smoothly, even if he had no clue as to what was really happening
If for nine years I have possessed a goodly apple that is rotten at the core and discover its rottenness only in nine years and six months less four days, isn't it true that for nine years I possessed a goodly apple?
Um, I don't think so. Anyway, he spends the subsequent chapters telling the story of the previous nine years and six months. Key components are that Edward Ashburnham is a womaniser who has no passion for his wife, but she is in lockstep with him, both because she is in love with him and because she is a strict Catholic - at one point, there is a suggestion that she must stick with him as some form of duty to all women. He accepts it because, really, its for his own good; he's a soft touch, to women, to loan sharks, and to those in need. So, he's had various affairs but all has been fairly quiet for the last nine years, ever since his last squeeze died. Yes, he's been carrying on with Leonara, but there's no passion involved.

But his final big thing, wow, that's the biggest ever in a way. He and Leonara have this semi-adopted daughter, Nancy Rufford - she kind of slips into the narrative under the guise of the "poor girl" and it takes a while for it to become clear who she is. One night, however, "something happened" to Edward, that took him completely by surprise - he sees the poor girl in a new light, as a woman rather than as someone in his charge, and discovers her to be the only woman he ever loved.

Now, the thing that makes this novel different to most is that, having discovered this sudden passion, he makes no declaration, is careful to take no action of any sort towards "possession". He recognises the tabu, recognises his position as her stand-in father and also recognises that to say anything would be a "final outrage" against his wife. And so, he goes mad. The thing is, so does she, once she finds the cause of his behaviour, such is her utter devotion to him.

As for John and Florence, he, as soon as he saw her he "determined with all the obstinacy of a possibly weak nature, if not to make her mine, at least to marry her." As it happens, he never made her his, just married her
I do not know that my courtship of Florence made much progress at first. Perhaps that was because it took place almost entirely during the daytime, on hot afternoons, when the clouds of dust hung like fog, right up as high as the tops of the thin-leaved elms. The night, I believe, is the proper season, for the gentle feats of love, not a Connecticut July afternoon, when any sort of proximity is an almost appalling thought. But, if I never so much as kissed Florence, she let me discover very easily, in the course of a fortnight, her simple wants.
All it took was for him to have lots of money, to be a gentleman of leisure and to enable her to enter English society. "And - she faintly hinted - she did not want much physical passion in the affair. Americans, you know, can envisage such unions without blinking." He must have been referring to himself, as she had her own sources of amusement which did not involve him, poor dupe. I felt for him when, two hours after Florence has died, Leonara chose to talk openly to him, to suggest he might marry Nancy and to thank him for being a brother to her in her troubles
'You are all the consolation I have in the world. And isn't it odd to think that if your wife hadn't been my husband's mistress, you would probably never been here at all?'

That was how I got the news, full in the face, like that.
But the poor girl cannot be married, as she has lost her reason, something needed by the Anglican church to marry. So, John Dowell, who might also be called a good soldier, finds himself very much where he started, "as attendant, not the husband of a beautiful girl, who pays no attention to me."



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home