Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?

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.


Filed under Modernist fiction

31 responses to “Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?

  1. Great piece Max. Makes me want to do a rereading. (From my first reading, I’d entirely agree with your opinion of the book. It’s cracking. And yes, that first sentence is a masterful kick off…)

  2. I’m really glad you liked it though I’m not surprised because the book is more than excellent and that’s the kind of book you usually like.

    I totally agree with you: I want to re-read it too.

    After writing my billet about it, another thought crossed my mind. Do you think that John, who’s all Super-Ego, is drawn to Edward for being the Id part of his being?

    I don’t think there’s homosexual feelings between the two. I felt John was attracted to Edward because he was living vicariously through him.

  3. Thanks Sam. It is great, and yes, a masterful kickoff.

    Emma, more than excellent, absolutely.

    Super-ego and id, could you explain a bit? My Freudianism is a bit weak these days.

    I suspect you’re right about the vicarious living bit, and at one point that’s near explicit. Still, the gay interpretation did occur to me at one point, so I included it in part as an illustration of the range of meanings you can put on the book.

  4. Agree with your point about this being an ideal contender for rereading. I read it eight months ago, enjoyed the story and yet now can remember little beyond the broadest impression. I love unreliable narrators and the tension they offer a narrative.

  5. Good piece max I’ve parades end waiting to be read then this

  6. Ford has been on my list for ages. The Good Soldier seems like a solid choice.

  7. Sounds good Max – bit of a blind spot when it comes to FMF, although I’ve for a couple of old Penguin editions in the house (No More Parades & Some do Not). I’ll stick this on the to read list.

    Didn’t he write about 80 books though?

  8. Great post, really enjoyed reading it. I first read The Good Solider a couple of years ago and I completely agree with you about it needing to be reread. One thing (among many) that I found really interesting about the novel is how the story is constantly unfolding and evolving, with Dowell always changing his perspective on what has come before.

  9. My impression is that Dowell is fundamentally asexual but with some homosexual leanings that he does not recognize.

    This is a favorite of mine, a great puzzle book. You cover a lot of the ground here; well done.

  10. Brilliant review, Max. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book too, and I really like the way you’ve articulated all the questions it raised for you. I completely agree with you when you say John’s account bears multiple readings. My impressions of each of the main characters shifted as I continued to read, and even though I came away with a particular view of events I wonder whether these perceptions might change again on a second reading. As you say, this is a novel packed full of possibilities: psychologically complex and all the more fascinating for it.

    It’s interesting how John is the hardest character to get a fix on; I felt the same way. The question of his sexuality crossed my mind (albeit briefly) as there were times when he seemed to worship Edward…I agree it’s a possible reading of John’s feelings. Your sociopath hypothesis is interesting too; it hadn’t occurred to me at all. I’d read John as a rather passive, naive and confused individual, but now I’m wondering what I’d think after a reread. You’re onto something when you mention his underlying lack of interest in the tragedies of other people, I think that’s evident in the novel’s final scene.

    Fascinating stuff, great quotes and I’m glad the minuet passage caught your eye too. I definitely want to revisit this book at some point – perhaps there’s scope for Emma to convene a rereadalong in a few years’ time…

  11. Alastair Savage

    I absolutely agree with you that “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.”
    It’s a problem many biographers have as well in that they simplify their subject and make all sorts of pronouncements about what kind of person he or she is. Only the very best are prepared to wrestle with the inconsistent and confused reality of many people as they change during their lives. William Taubman mastered this best in Khrushchev, the best biography I’ve ever read.

  12. Max: This is one of my all-time favourite books. I’ve read it three times I think. I’ve always been tempted to read more by this author but I think this is regarded as his masterpiece. The film version, btw, isn’t much good at all.

  13. Guy, read Parade’s End! Totally different books – 3rd person, not 1st; in the moment, not retrospective. I wouldn’t guess at first that they were written by the same person. Or perhaps second or third. A different kind of masterpiece.

  14. This is quite high in my queue, and your review and others are spurring me to get to it post-haste. Dreiser’s criticism is pretty funny – and perhaps not surprising – coming from a writer who can seem to spend pages describing the location of furniture in a room.

  15. Great stuff. I remember reading a piece by Julian Barnes about this book, in which he said that whenever he spoke to writer friends about the fact he was writing on it, very many of them said how brilliant it was – and then asked not to be named in the piece. To a certain extent it has been as influential on late Twentieth Century mainstream English literary fiction as Hemingway.

    And then you read a book like The Sense of an Ending and you think, oh man, how could you have learned *nothing*!

  16. Apologies all for the slow reply. I’ve been suddenly buried in work as happens from time to time.

    Tom – ” fundamentally asexual but with some homosexual leanings that he does not recognize” is where I was tending, though as I said to Emma I think there are other interpretations (there always are in this book), but that makes a lot of sense to me.

    Jacqui, I avoided the ending as many reading this may not yet have read the book, but like every other part of the book it casts doubt on what has gone before. It’s a slippery text. Also:

    “My impressions of each of the main characters shifted as I continued to read, and even though I came away with a particular view of events I wonder whether these perceptions might change again on a second reading. ”

    Exactly, that was very much my experience.

    Alistair, nice point on biography. I think Jeanette Winterson once said that all autobiography is fiction (which I agree with), to a degree the same is often true of biography too, or biography made narrative anyway. Really, narrative is fiction, so when we impose narrative on reality we create fiction even if the facts may be true (which can itself be subjective, depending on the facts).

  17. Guy, thanks re the film. It’s interesting, by filming you surely have to choose a version of events, you’d reduce a great novel I’d have thought to a fairly dull entry in the “Faber Book of Adultery” – the endless middle class dramas in other words featuring relatively uninteresting marital affairs.

    Tom, Parade’s End is my next by him, though not for a while yet.

    Scott, I don’t know Dreiser’s work, but he does miss the point in a fairly epic way. Read it! I’s short and unlike Jacob’s Room (which I loved) is actually a fairly quick read. I think you’d find it rewarding.

    Jonathan, I actually rather liked Ending, which incidentally is absolutely a blog traffic magnet. I assume because of all the book clubs reading it. Still, I know what you mean. It deserves to be influential, so I’m glad to hear that in a way.

    Do you think Hemingway has gone perhaps a bit out of fashion? Still influential, but perhaps more indirectly now than directly.

  18. The enthusiasm (yours and others’) for The Good Soldier and for FMF in general is making me feel pressured; I keep putting off reading it/him, and then everybody who writes about the novel raves about it. One of these days I’ll get my act together and get to it! That Dreiser critique, as Scott and others have mentioned, is quite humorous; however, since many bloggers frequently conflate characters’ comments for an “authorial assertion” in all sorts of reviews I come across, maybe Dreiser was more influential than anyone ever gave him credit for as far as bad reading and criticism practices go.

  19. Ah, but think how many great books there are out there. We can’t read them all. I’d read it if it takes your fancy one day, otherwise not. Too much expectation can crush a book.

    Good point on how people often confuse character views with author views, but it’s a very silly error to make. Then again, in a different field one of Orson Welles’ most famous quotes (the one about Switzerland and cuckoo clocks) is always attributed to him, but it’s a line in a film that he spoke.He said it, sure, but it was part of the script for his character which makes it a very odd sentiment to ascribe to him personally.

  20. I recall reading “The Saddest Story” is what Ford originally wanted to call the novel. But then, the sad part of the story wasn’t his role in the tale but that of the others. Nice post…thanks!

  21. Thanks Dwight. The foreword talks about that and how he didn’t want this title, but the title works and the book’s the same beneath it so it all worked out in the end.

  22. Max, a great review and this on top of the others is moving me towards a reread, although after thirty years or so it will be sort of like a first read, too.

  23. Thanks Seamus, it’s sometimes easier in a way when it’s a great book. There’s more to say.

    Your memory’s better than mine. Rereading a book after three years is often like a first read for me.

  24. Excellent post on a most excellent novel. I can tell you will re-read this eventually; I can only encourage you. Over and over. And now I have something to focus on my next time around:

    “he is after all is quite happy to be in a sexless marriage”

    This take from you surprised me–and I see in the comments that Tom basically shares it. How interesting! I always had an impression of bitterness from Dowell toward Florence for her duping of him in this way. I wonder why!

  25. Thanks Nicole. It’s perhaps easier to write about a book with this much in it, as there’s so much to say about it.

    On that line, you’re right he expresses bitterness over the marriage, but he does nothing to test the strictures Florence puts him under. As he describes it it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t have had the slightest idea of her infidelity, or that she might be using infirmity as an excuse. If so though, why did he accept it? One explanation that suggests itself is money, but we’re starting to go beyond the text which is of course tricky territory. The truth is we don’t know.

    So yes, he resents her, but not so much he ever actually challenges her, and it’s that which makes me see him as happy to be in a sexless marriage. Sexless, but highly lucrative.

  26. Pingback: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford | JacquiWine's Journal

  27. For reasons I can’t really remember, I did not care for Parade’s End at all. I could read it again to see if I thought more highly of it (particularly after reading Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy), but I probably won’t. I have far too much on my reading list.

    But I deeply admire The Good Soldier. I probably think about the novel at least once a month, and it is one of my all-time favourites. I think I’ll be able to get around to rereading it towards the end of 2016 or early 2017.

  28. Hm, well, I hope I like it more given it’s fairly long as I recall. This is amazing, and one of my all-time favourites now too. It should get much more attention than it does.

    I got interrupted in Sword of Honour years back and never got back to it for reasons unrelated to the book. I liked a fair bit of other Waugh I then read, is it worth making another stab at?

  29. Pingback: Reflections on a reading year | Pechorin's Journal

  30. Not sure how I missed this when you put it up originally Max, but I saw it in your end of year piece.

    It’s a very fine book, and indeed I’ve just reread it. I mentioned in your Gatsby blog how I always feel these two books are linked, and I tend to read them in proximity (I reread Gatsby end of last year). Interesting to compare the different presentations of narrative and unreliability.

    Dowell is an endlessly fascinating puzzle. I noticed this time around that he catches himself out a couple of times, at least in how he tells us he’s telling the story. Makes you wonder about some of the other apparatus (of conformity, of wealth, of naiveté) that he constructs around the situation.

    The other thing I noticed is how Ford manages to have these episodes that are at such a pitch and characters who are so highly strung without the book itself descending into melodrama or emotional grand guignol. Not sure quite how he achieves it, but it’s admirable.

  31. I’ve found a lot of posts I’d missed in people’s end of year lists. I suppose though if you miss a post and it isn’t in the end of year list it probably wasn’t an essential post (not that there is such a thing) anyway.

    Nice thought on Gatsby, which I reread I think in 2013 and remain massively impressed by. Agreed on Dowell.

    Good point re tone. It is remarkable that a book with such events as occur in it can avoid even a hint of absurdity or excess. He’s like Rhys there, you can see what they’ve done but certainly I can’t never quite see how they did it. Serious craft.

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