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The saddest story
Ford Madox Ford’s personal life was deeply complicated, made worse by his own indecision and economy with the truth. No wonder unreliability, shifting identities and the turmoils of love and sex are the hallmarks of his greatest novel. Julian Barnes admires The Good Soldier
In 1927, The Good Soldier was reissued as the first volume of a uniform edition of Ford Madox Ford’s works. In a dedicatory letter to Stella Ford, the novelist explained that his “tale of passion” was a true story heard a decade previously from the character he calls Edward Ashburnham, but that he’d needed to wait until all the originals were dead before he could write it. He claimed it as his best book, and asked, uxoriously, that Stella accept not just this work, but “the general dedication of the edition”.
Like all statements by Ford, and many about him, this needs a dose of annotation and clarification. Thus:
Ford Madox Ford was two-thirds an assumed name. He started life, in Surrey in 1873, as Ford Hermann Hueffer, and published his first books as Ford Hueffer. He inserted the Madox as a tribute to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, and subsequent books, including The Good Soldier of 1915, were the work of Ford Madox Hueffer. Finally, he changed the Hueffer to Ford in 1919 (two years after the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas had transformed themselves into Windsors). So his time as a goodish soldier in the British army – from a deeply unfit 41-year-old volunteer in 1915 to a shellshocked invalid in 1917 – was spent fighting the Germans under a German name.
The title of his greatest novel was also changed after birth. He originally called it “The Saddest Story”, but given the state of European history in the year it came out, his publisher John Lane thought the title inappropriate. In his dedicatory letter, Ford explains how he was on parade one day when he received a pleading telegram from the publisher, and since the reply was pre-paid, “I seized the reply-form and wrote in hasty irony: ‘Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?’ . . . To my horror six months later the book appeared under that title.” This account is directly – and typically – contradicted by none other than Ford himself, in a letter he wrote to Lane from his home, rather than the parade ground, in December 1914: “I make it a principle never to interfere with my publisher, but I take it out in calling him names. Why not call the book ‘The Roaring Joke’? Or call it anything you like, or perhaps it would be better to call it ‘A Good Soldier’ – that might do. At any rate it is all I can think of.”
Stella Ford may have sounded like Ford’s wife – which was certainly his intention – but she was not. She was Stella Bowen, the Australian painter. They met in 1918, and had a daughter in 1920. Ford’s only wife, Elsie Martindale, whom he had married in 1894, always refused him a divorce and eventually, in 1939, became his widow. Ford must have been one of the few husbands subject to a court order at the start of his marriage forbidding him from having conjugal relations, and also to a court order at the end of it insisting that he perform them. His emotional life was deeply complicated and overlapping, and made worse for all concerned by his indecisiveness, self-indulgence and economy with the truth. Stella “Ford” had been preceded by Violet “Hueffer”, the novelist Violet Hunt, with whom Ford seems to have gone through a religious ceremony in Germany; whether he was legally, or only psychologically, a bigamist is unclear.
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Nor should Ford’s uxoriousness in print be taken as a reliable indicator of the state of his “marriage” to Stella. By the time of the dedicatory letter, he had been through his seismic affair with Jean Rhys in Paris. This was an event of literary as well as emotional consequence, producing in quick succession three novels – Rhys’s Quartet, Ford’s When the Wicked Man, and Sous les Verrous by Rhys’s Dutch husband Jean Lenglet. The most clear-minded of the quartet was Bowen, whose description of Ford in her autobiography, Drawn from Life (1941), is both affectionate and (rare in this company) truth-telling. Ford, she writes there, had “a genius for creating confusion and a nervous horror of dealing with the results”. She also notes wisely – wisely, at least, for anyone who had any emotional dealings with Ford – that “falling out of love is as delicate and important a business, and as necessary to the attainment of wisdom, as the reverse experience . . . I think that the exhilaration of falling out of love is not sufficiently extolled.” She realised that the affair with Rhys meant the end; Ford preferred to continue in emotional dreamland.
The best efforts of biographers have been unable to identify the original “Edward Ashburnham”, and by extension the other major participants in the novel. Some evidence points to a parallel story Ford had summarised eight years previously in The Spirit of the People (1907). But since this is Ford, he could have been fibbing there as well. Any final chance of authentification disappeared in a moment of exquisite biographical frustration. Max Sanders, Ford’s most recent and fullest biographer, interviewed Ford’s last companion, Janice Biali, in 1987 – 80 years after the events Ford claimed had really happened. Sanders asked her if she had any idea who the originals in the famous tale of passion had been. She replied that “Ford once told her the names of the people, but she could no longer remember them.”
As for the “uniform edition”, whose “general dedication” the novelist was offering to “Stella Ford”, it collapsed after only three volumes.
Such annotations, extensive and at times seemingly pedantic, are necessary whenever a critic or biographer approaches Ford Madox Ford. At the same time, what they throw up – the unreliability of fact, the shiftiness of identity, the vast emotional confusions, the driving power of sex and love, the grand hopes and frequent disappointments – serve as a good introduction to his nature and his work. Ford once said that he had a great contempt for fact, while guaranteeing his accuracy as to impressions. This was a perpetual frustration to those attempting to make their lives alongside him (and those subsquently writing about him), but it was one of the motor forces of his art.
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” What could be more simple and declaratory, a statement of such high plangency and enormous claim that the reader assumes it must be not just an impression, or even a powerful opinion, but a “fact”? Yet it is one of the most misleading first sentences in all fiction. This isn’t – it cannot be – apparent at first reading, though if you were to go back and reread that line after finishing the first chapter, you would instantly see the falsity, instantly feel the floorboard creak beneath your foot on that “heard”. The narrator, an American called Dowell (he forgets to tell us his Christian name until nearly the end of the novel) has not “heard” the story at all. It’s a story in which he has actively – and passively – participated, been in up to his ears, eyes, neck, heart and guts. We’re the ones “hearing” it; he’s the one telling it, despite this initial, hopeless attempt to deflect attention from his own presence and complicity. And if the second verb of the first sentence cannot be trusted, we must be prepared to treat every sentence with the same care and suspicion. We must prowl soft-footed through this text, alive for every board’s moan and plaint.
Dowell is an American – except that he comes from Philadelphia, where “there are more old English families than you would find in any six English counties taken together”. His wife Florence comes from Stamford, Connecticut, where “they are more old-fashioned than even the inhabitants of Cranford, England, could have been”. The Dowells have been living in continental Europe – “imprisoned” there by Florence’s delicate health – as “leisured Americans, which is as much to say that we were un-American”. They meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, he on leave from service in India, she “so extraordinarily the real thing that she seemed too good to be true”. The Ashburnhams are what the English call (or what Dowell thinks the English call) “quite good people”. Yet they prove to be no more “good” or “the real thing” than the Dowells are “American”. For almost 10 years the two couples have known one another, though never in either of their home countries: the Dowells move between Paris, Nice, Bordighera and, in the summer months, the German spa town of Nauheim. The Ashburnhams join them there. They take tea and watch the miniature golf, they listen to the Kur orchestra; Dowell does his Swedish exercises while his wife takes the waters. Together the couples dance a social “minuet”, they make a “four-square coterie”, an “extraordinarily safe castle”, they are a “tall ship” on a blue sea, proud and safe. Except – has your foot gone through the floorboards yet? – they are none of these things. They are “a prison full of screaming hysterics”. But it is also true that they are footing that polite minuet at the same time – for nine years and six weeks before “four crashing days” end it all.
Dowell (does the name deliberately suggest something wooden?) presents himself as a narrator sitting “at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me”. This is a desperate attempt at social and narrative ordinariness. It is not so much that we don’t believe the ploy; more that Dowell doesn’t have the skill, or the insight, to reduce his tale to a mere fireside yarn. The storyteller isn’t up to the level of his own story; he is a bumbler obliged to convey an intrigue of operatic passion which he himself only partially understands. Identity, geography, psychology, narrative: all are riven, all in flux. Here is the third sentence of the novel: “My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, in another sense, we knew nothing at all about them.” Here is another: “I don’t know; I don’t know; was that last remark of hers the remark of a harlot, or is it what every decent woman, county family or not county family, thinks in the bottom of her heart?” And here is another: “Is all this digression or isn’t it digression? Again, I don’t know.” Dowell’s attempts to burble out his saddest story – to make sense of it for himself as well as for us – end, as often as not, in ignorance or a question mark, sometimes both. This is literary impressionism of Jamesian subtlety yet with a crisper delivery; it is also the most perfectly deployed example of the unreliable narrator. But what it absolutely is not is muddle; all is utterly under the novelist’s control. As VS Pritchett wrote of Ford: “Confusion was the mainspring of his art as a novelist. He confused to make clear.”
What to hold on to as the floor shifts and creaks beneath you? I suggest the most weighted, and therefore the most dangerous, words of the opening pages: “know”, “good”, “heart”. These words repeat, and each time prod us into questioning: what can we know about any emotional situation, what does goodness consist of, and what is really in the hearts of men and women? “If one doesn’t know . . . about the first thing in the world, what does one know and why is one here?” This is to be a novel about the human heart: it says so on the first page. Yet the word is set differently on its first two appearances, once plainly, once between quotes. When is a heart not a heart? Answer: when it’s a medical condition, a “heart”. Edward, as well as Florence, has a condition that requires his presence at Nauheim. You might expect that having a “heart” would mean that “matters of the heart” were off-limits. But this would be false logic: it is the two with “hearts” who are indulging their un-quotemarked hearts at Nauheim; while the other two, the pair with technically healthy internal organs, have a different sort of heart trouble – theirs are either cold or killed.
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This is one book for which an introduction can do little damage in terms of giving away the plot, because Dowell gives it away himself, even if half-unaware that he is doing so. Everything I have quoted comes from the very beginning of the novel when – as it seems to Dowell – he hasn’t even decided on a stratagem for telling his story: “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down.” Yet he has already revealed large chunks of the smash that lies ahead in his prelude: a rushing, contradictory, time-jumping, place-jumping stream of lostness, bafflement, ignorance and horror. It is like coming upon a hysteric who insists that everything is normal and he himself is fine, thank you very much. Dowell goes backwards, forwards, sideways, switching times and tenses. He even comes up with an “impossible tense”, beginning a sentence like this: “Supposing that you should come upon us sitting together . . .” – as if such a coming-upon were still possible. Yet he has already explained that two of the quartet are dead, and as if suddenly realising this himself, he readjusts and the sentence resolves itself in a “possible tense”, the past conditional: “. . . you would have said that, as human affairs go, we were an extraordinarily safe castle.” Time and again a seemingly ordinary sentence will have contradicted itself by its end; the conjunction “and” is as likely to lead to a denial as to a continuation of meaning; there are false abuttings and leaky grammatical joints. This is a novel which proceeds, both at phrase-level and in terms of plot and character, by moments of disorienting readjustment, some sly and secretive, others dazzlingly brazen. Facts yield and deliquesce before impressions; impressions are crushed by subsequent facts. What can we know?
In his 1927 preface, Ford stated that “I have always been mad about writing” (though given the nature of the novel he is introducing, the words might read equally as “intensely sane about writing”); and later in his life he described himself as “an old man mad about writing”. His literary lunacy, devotion to high art, association with the modernists, rackety personal life, expatriation and over-production – of novels, memoirs, poems, children’s books, art monographs, criticism, literary history and travel books – always made him an awkward writer for the general British reader to appreciate. “It is just that the public will not read me,” he complained in 1929. Trying to explain it further – to himself, as much as to his correspondent Gerald Bullett – he wrote from Toulon in 1933:
“Why should a London public like my work? My constatations of life have dubious international backgrounds; they contain nothing about British birds’ nests, wild-flowers or rock gardens; they are ‘machined’ with a Franco-American modernity that must be disagreeable to the inhabitants of, say, Cheltenham. To them, on account of the ‘time-shift’ and projection instead of description, they must be quite incomprehensible and inexpressibly boring. Between the Middle West and the Eastern seaboard of the United States as well as round the Pantheon where those devices saw the light they are already regarded as vieux jeu, accepted as classics which you must know of, and used for Manuals in University English Classes. So I go on writing in the hope that, 150 years from today, what I turn out may be used as an alternative study in, say, Durham University. And at any rate I have the comfortable feeling that none of our entrants for the Davis Cup will have been kept off the playing fields of Eton by a reprehensible engrossment in my novels.”
Were Ford – a keen tennis fan – to have survived until our day, he would have been unsurprised to hear Tim Henman complacently describe books as “boring”. But he might be surprised, and pleased, to see that The Good Soldier and his other masterpiece, Parade’s End, have (more or less) stayed in print. Back in the 50s there was a Vintage paperback of The Good Soldier with a statement on the back from 15 writers and critics claiming it as one of the major novels of the century. I am not sure whether calling a novelist “undervalued” helps or not. Perhaps it would do more good just to assume and assert Ford’s value, and to point to those fellow-writers who have been vocal in his cause, from Graham Greene to William Carlos Williams to Anthony Burgess.
And among the living? Well, here are two examples. About 10 years ago, while writing about Ford, I ran into one of our better-known literary novelists, whose use of indirection and the bumbling narrator seemed to me to derive absolutely from Ford. I mentioned this (a little more tactfully than I have stated it here), and asked if he had read Ford. Yes, indeed he had. Would he mind if I mentioned this fact in my piece? There was a pause (actually of a couple of days) before the reply: “Please pretend I haven’t read The Good Soldier. I’d prefer it that way.”
More recently, I was talking to Ian McEwan, who told me that a few years ago he’d been staying in a house with a well-stocked library. There he found a copy of The Good Soldier, which he read and admired greatly. A while later, he wrote On Chesil Beach, that brilliant novella in which passion, and Englishness, and misunderstanding, lead to emotional catastrophe. Only after publishing the book did he realise that he had unconsciously given his two main characters the names Edward (as in Ashburnham) and Florence (as in Dowell). He is quite happy for me to pass this on.
So Ford’s presence, and subterranean influence, continue. He is not so much a writer’s writer (which can suggest hermeticism) as a proper reader’s writer. The Good Soldier needs The Good Reader. It’s true that he isn’t yet being taught to students at Durham University, but there are still 75 years of the allotted 150 for them to get up to speed. And after that, we can start working on Cheltenham, Eton College, and the nation’s tennis-players . . .http://www.guardian.co.uk
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