The best thing about pretty much anything set in the World War I period, be it books, movies or TV programs, is what you might call ‘the set’, or ‘the world’ the characters inhabit. Breakfast rooms and drawing rooms and dining rooms with shiny wooden paneling, fashionable wallpaper, chandeliers and gilt mirrors, Chippendale armchairs, fresh lilies, trips to the theatre, trips to the Opera, trips to the country, servants answering doors, servants bringing the car out, servants serving three different varieties of tea at breakfast. Yet it’s in these surroundings that the most brutal human drama is played out; people so frustrated and angry and hopeless that they feel like their emotions are going to burst out of their chest at any moment, people being slowly suffocated and sometimes killed by their most basic feelings being unable to escape through buttoned-up, meticulously starched shirt fronts, high collars, cravats, corsets. On the rare occasions that hate, or love, or anger is conveyed, it’s through a single glance, or a politely-spoken word: no noise, no fuss. It’s a world populated by people who want to scream, but can’t. It’s a recipe for great storytelling.
Hence my decision to embark on a readathon of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy after being utterly seduced by the epic BBC adaptation that nobody, most recently the Hollywood Foreign Press, seems to be paying the slightest attention to.
Many sources credit Ford Madox Ford with being one of the pioneers of the Modern novel. Apart from its somewhat hilarious insistence on censoring the word ‘bloody’, Some Do Not… is a very modern novel indeed, not just in its themes but in the way the story is told. Ford loves starting a chapter at the end and telling it backwards; his characters are frequently struck by powerful flashbacks in the middle of a conversation and some of the book’s most intense emotional moments are played out in a beautifully disorienting stream of consciousness narrative in which it is not just the immediate past and the present that intermingle, but various concrete, yet uncertain, dimensions of a single moment in time that are conveyed to us. Even from the first page, one can’t help feeling that Ford was seriously anti-Romanticism, and nothing makes this clearer than his protagonist, a tall, thick-set, rather overweight employee of the Imperial Department of Statistics called Christopher Tietjens who thinks Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s language resembles congealed bacon fat. Let’s start with him, and see where else we end up.
Christopher can be reasonably confident of being the smartest person in whichever room he walks into and is consequently incapable of tolerating any form of idiocy that might present itself: he’s not afraid to be rude, and often finds himself not much caring whether he is or not. Christopher cleaves to an idealistic form of Toryism that stresses a stringent sense of duty to society and to family life: ‘monogamy’, ‘chastity’ and above all, ‘not talking about it’, these latter characteristics all being grouped under the broad heading of what he calls ‘Parade.’ This admirable if old-fashioned philosophy being incompatible with a changing world is a central theme in the novel and leads to the first of many disasters in Christopher’s life, namely his wife Sylvia, whom he finds himself chained to for life after a rather uncharacteristic (for him, not her) sexual encounter on a train leads to a pregnancy. Thanks to his persistent belief in Parade, Christopher is quite content to act the gentleman and marry Sylvia despite the possibility (well, probability) of the child not being his at all, not to mention her vindictiveness, lack of education, neuroticism and worst of all, Catholicism (gasp!). Each makes the other absolutely miserable, Sylvia with her screaming, Christopher with his steadfast belief that screaming back would constitute ungentlemanly conduct. Sylvia leaves him, he refuses to divorce her. She gets bored, she asks him to take her back, he does. It’s one big misery business from start to finish.
It’s at this point that young suffragette Valentine Wannop enters the fray. The daughter of Professor Wannop (Christopher’s father’s late friend) and his wife, a novelist that Christopher credits with having written the only novel since the eighteenth century he hasn’t had to correct in the margins, she marches up to Christopher at a golf course and asks his help in rescuing a fellow demonstrator from some golfers intent on beating her up, before making an impressive escape based on her proficiency in long jump. Once the connection between them is established, she proves herself to be his intellectual equal and it is on this level that most of the affinity they feel for each other flourishes. Valentine is good in a fight and is not afraid to contradict Christopher or question his arguments: in his turn he gradually realises that while he finds many of her opinions to be indicative of her age, she is probably the only truly intelligent person he knows and does not automatically find himself talking down to. Valentine’s passion for Christopher is impregnated with Romanticism of a rather medieval kind. Having spent a year as a domestic servant in order to support her mother following the death of her father, and having witnessed first-hand all the unsavoury occurrences that often accompanied such a position at that time, she’s come to regard sex as being a rather repulsive occurrence and sees chastity, waiting and longing as an integral part of love. Her views on the matter fluctuate as her opinion of Christopher fluctuates: when she suspects he has a mistress, she can see no objection to sleeping with him, when she finds out that he doesn’t, she resumes her former views with relief. Christopher and Valentine seem to wax and wane with each other like opposite sides of the same coin, and a key image in the book is that of their relationship resembling a carpenter’s vice: they are pushed together by an invincible force.
And then there’s the role society has to play in all this, a cruel and hypocritical beast hiding behind crystal champagne glasses and polite conversation that can, in the eyes of the public, transform a good, faithful man into a debauched maniac through the planting of a few good rumours by people with agendas as pitiful as mild jealousy or boredom. Christopher doesn’t need to be debauched for this to happen: it suffices for enough people to think he is to bring about his ruin. Yet out in the country, old, agricultural England still exists and it’s there that Christopher finds it easiest to delude himself that change hasn’t happened and probably never will. Then the war comes along, and peoples’ class or reputation doesn’t stop them from being blown to smithereens, and the beastliness continues: men sent home due to shellshock are suspected of being cowards, the symptoms of shellshock being easy to fake, and previously decent people become hard, selfish and uncompassionate. The novel is populated by an impressive cast of supporting characters that seem to stand for each kind of person you could meet during your life, but are well-constructed enough so that they don’t automatically stand out as types (though those that are meant to, do). There’s Christopher’s best (only?) friend MacMaster who’s life’s ambition is to welcome all the geniuses of the world into his home through a series of fashionable tea parties, and his beautiful mistress (later wife) Edith, who is so bent on helping him accomplish that goal that she makes an alarming but entirely realistic metamorphosis from being a modest, good sort of woman to a society bitch reminiscent of Mrs Merdle. Valentine’s mother Mrs Wannop is absolutely charming, and Christopher’s brother Mark reminds you of a spindly spider scurrying about trying to be quintessentially English.
Ford weaves his narrative against the background of all this contrasting, contradictory mess that is just as indicative of his society as it is of ours, and I believe that it’s the effect of this, all this external nonsense, that is responsible for the stream of consciousness character of his character’s thoughts. People sink deeper into their minds and into their emotions, and therefore don’t concentrate so much on externals, when they can’t express themselves, but then it’s also the other way round: when the externals force their way through, the character’s distress is increased. It is Ford’s knowledge of this kind of response on the part of human nature, and his ability to convey it in all its devastating complexity, that makes him a great writer and that makes this a phenomenal book. I did feel, however, that we spent rather too much time in Christopher and Valentine’s heads and not enough in Sylvia’s, so that when it came to the mention of Sylvia being soppily in love with her husband, I laughed till I cried. Fortunately, we’ve got three books left to go, so plenty of time. Secondly, having seen the miniseries, I think we’ll see a lot more of Sylvia in the future and come to understand, if not to sympathise with, her bullshit.
Everything is here for someone who loves books: beautiful, challenging writing, characters that actually engage with you, and above all, act like human beings, which is the highest compliment one can pay to any writer.