The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford
Where to start with a book this good? This is the first book I finished in 2015, and I’ll be amazed if it isn’t on my 2015 end of year list (it would have topped my 2014 list if I’d finished it a couple of days earlier).
It opens with a stark sentence:
THIS IS THE saddest story I have ever heard.
It’s a remarkable claim, an immediate warning that the narrator may be overselling their case. Zoë Heller’s (excellent) foreword to the Vintage edition quotes a 1915 review by American novelist Theodore Dreiser, who picks out that sentence for special scorn. Dreiser saw it as ludicrously overblown, which of course it is, but he also mistook it for an authorial assertion. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the narrator might not be reliable. That makes Dreiser sound like an idiot, but perhaps it’s better seen as a mark of quite how radical this book was when it came out and how familiar readers have since become with what were once highly innovative techniques.
The narrator is John Dowell, on his account a straightforward American gentleman married to rich Connecticut Heiress Florence Dowell. John and Florence were friends for nine years with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an upper middle-class English couple. As the book opens that friendship is past tense – Edward and Florence are both dead and the group’s lives were shown to be a lie. John can unravel what happened, but not why. “It is all a darkness.”
You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For 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; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.
The sack of a city, the falling of a people, again the comparisons John makes are extraordinary. Still, who wouldn’t sympathise with a man who has suffered a personal tragedy and who is now just trying to get it all straight in his head? Is it so incredible that in his grief and confusion his private sorrows seem like the end of the world? Even so, does he perhaps protest too much? Could his account be not so much an attempt to understand as to justify?
What follows is a rambling account of the time the Dowells and Ashburnhams had together. They met at a private sanatorium in Germany for heart patients (early 20th Century literature would be lost without its sanatoria). Florence and Edward though both in seeming good health are each being treated for heart conditions. John and Leonora are their apparently loving and supportive spouses. The four had an:
… intimacy 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, always to the music of the Kur orchestra, always in the temperate sunshine, or if it rained, in discreet shelter.
Good form is everything to John. He constantly refers to where people are from, to their family background and the traits one can assign to the English or to Americans or to this group or that. He is a man who lives by categories, expecting everyone to behave according to his perceptions of their class and nationality. He places huge importance on what he considers “good people”.
The given proposition was, that we were all ‘good people.’ We took for granted that we all liked beef underdone but not too underdone; that both men preferred a good liqueur brandy after lunch; that both women drank a very light Rhine wine qualified with Fachingen water – that sort of thing.
Mind, I am not saying that this is not the most desirable type of life in the world; that it is not an almost unreasonably high standard. For it is really nauseating, when you detest it, to have to eat every day several slices of thin, tepid, pink india rubber, and it is disagreeable to have to drink brandy when you would prefer to be cheered up by warm, sweet Kümmel. And it is nasty to have to take a cold bath in the morning when what you want is really a hot one at night. And it stirs a little of the faith of your fathers that is deep down within you to have to have it taken for granted that you are an Episcopalian when really you are an old-fashioned Philadelphia Quaker.
The minuet then wasn’t all it seems, was in fact “a prison full of screaming hysterics”, and yet still he looks back on it as an idyll. He goes back and forth, torn. Was what they had good and true or was it rotten? If it was rotten and he didn’t know does that not mean anyway that it was good and true until he knew? He’s writing partly to answer that question, and yet is it credible that he could be quite so clueless for quite so long?
What he was clueless of was that for most of their time together Florence was having an affair with Edward, and Leonora knew. For nine years they stepped together as one, ate at the same tables, went to the same concerts, and through it all his closest friend was sleeping with his wife. Both marriages were a sham.
As he tries to unpick it all John follows associations rather than the simple order of events. He refers to things he hasn’t yet explained, and puts weight on incidents the reader has no context for. He knows he’s doing it, but he says he’s telling it as it comes to him, and that it’s perhaps a more faithful account of his thoughts and experiences precisely because it’s jumbled. Life is jumbled.
It may be that John rambles through his history because he just can’t face certain facts until he’s deep enough into the telling of it all. Alternatively, it may be that he’s manipulating the listener (reader) and ordering events to his best advantage. It’s hard to say; John’s account bears multiple interpretations.
What does become clear though is that John’s marriage was loveless from the beginning, and he was comfortable with that. He says he saw himself as a nursemaid to a sick wife, one too ill to let him into her bed, yet he seems to have been not too unhappy with the arrangement. He says her money never interested him, but he seems to have made use of it all the same. He portrays himself as a largely passionless man, unimaginative and conventional, an easy gull for “three hardened gamblers, who were all in league to conceal their hands from me”. It may be true, or he could be as good a gambler as any or even the best of them all.
As the book progresses, hints emerge that John may not be all he claims. His description of his relationship with his wife for example:
Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed.
Is she then a hardened adulteress as he portrays her for much of the book; a manipulative flirt? Or is she married to a passive-aggressive (there are hints he may even be outright aggressive at times) man who has her trapped and enjoys a lifestyle that relies in part on her money? As he continues, John describes more of each of Florence, Edward and Leonora and each time he does the perspectives shift and what seemed clearly one thing becomes possibly quite another.
Edward is a deeply handsome man, attractive to women, who on the surface is a good landlord, skilled and courageous soldier and above all honourable. Privately though John describes him as a shallow sentimentalist, a spendthrift womaniser and an utter romantic too easily influenced by cheap novels. The portrait though isn’t always entirely consistent, and at times another image of Edward comes through where he seems cleverer, better read and more thoughtful.
John is in fact highly ambivalent about Edward, which is perhaps fair enough given Edward was sleeping with his wife. I started to wonder though if perhaps it wasn’t just women who were attracted to Edward or if John was too (he is after all is quite happy to be in a sexless marriage). If it’s implied it’s certainly never made explicit; it would be questionable if John himself were even aware of it. The irony is that of all the characters in this book it’s John who’s hardest to get a grip on, even though it’s him of course you spend every page with.
Leonora seems at first to be a stoic woman faithfully standing by her man, despite his many failings and the pain he causes her. She’s an English Catholic who seeks marriage advice from priests and nuns, with predictably bad results. Later she seems more controlling and Edward’s striving to break free of her becomes perhaps more sympathetic, but is that right either? Perhaps she and Edward were just terribly mismatched. Perhaps they were good people after all, not in the snobbish sense John uses the term but more fundamentally.
Perhaps the answer is that there isn’t an answer; Florence, Edward and Leonora were just people and things happened and they were all just doing the best they could. If that’s the case though that doesn’t fit well with John’s description of them as “three hardened gamblers”. Could it be that it’s not even that there were four gamblers, but in fact only one? It’s hard to know, because everything here comes through John and the more he explained the less I trusted him.
The key here is that John isn’t the neutral observer and narrator he claims to be; he was a participant in everything he describes and sometimes the only witness which increasingly makes The Good Soldier a murky read. John emphasises surface tranquility, proper behaviour and good form; everything around him though seems to be passion, confusion, fear, and of course love (the emotion he seems to most struggle with). On another reading, John is in modern terms a sociopath and as the book progresses that becomes more persuasive. Lives are ruined here, people die, and John’s bafflement could be genuine but could also be a mix of front and underlying lack of interest in the tragedies of other people.
If ever a book merited rereading it’s The Good Soldier. It’s short, but packed with possibilities. It’s beautifully written, psychologically complex and in its impressionistic approach to narrative feels much closer to portraying real human beings than most books I’ve read. Real people aren’t entirely consistent, even those we know best surprise us from time to time. Ford captures that, while most authors a century later still write characters who make sense and who therefore aren’t really entirely human.
I could have written many different reviews of this book picking up different facets or interpretations of it. It’s a masterpiece, to use a word I’ve used on this blog before but only very rarely. I plan to reread it, and to read more Ford. The word masterpiece of course can be offputting, and so too can comments about psychological complexity and unreliable narratives and modernism and so on. I’ll end then by also saying that it’s a novel that’s exceptionally rewarding yet at the same time isn’t a particularly challenging read. Quite an achievement.
The prompt to read this now came about due to a readalong between Emma of Book Around The Corner (her review is here), and Jacqui of JacquiWine’sjournal (her review is here). Both their reviews are well worth reading, not least as with a book as subtle as this more than one perspective is very valuable.