The Last Post is Ford Madox Ford’s Titus Alone: the final book that most readers forget about and that most editors don’t want them to read anyway. It’s very different from its predecessors, and it’s also ‘disappointing’ (please note inverted commas) in that it risks spoiling everything the reader has been through with Christopher and Valentine and makes one realise that happily ever after is a complicated business. The entire fabric of the story is totally transformed: Christopher takes a back seat and hardly features at all, Valentine finds herself fighting off wave after wave of inner hysteria, Sylvia is back, and much of the book is told from the perspective of Christopher’s dying brother Mark, whose presence impregnates the narrative with the same death-saturated clarity and confusion as the masterful final chapter of Giuseppe di Lampidusa’s The Leopard. All this in the same stream of consciousness, impressionistic style that has so vividly defined this remarkable tetralogy.
Poor Mark’s previous actions are catching up with him, and his behavior to Christopher and to his father is slowly breaking his heart. Mute, he lies day and night on a bed in the orchard on the property of the cottage that he and his mistress Marie-Léonie now share with Christopher and Valentine, speculating about the past and torturing himself about his family and about the world. Christopher is absent: he’s gone to Yorkshire to stop Groby Great Tree, the centuries-old symbol of the Yorkshire Tietjens’, from being cut down by Groby’s new tenant, who is firmly in Sylvia’s pocket. Speaking of the odious Mrs. Tietjens, she’s riding just above Christopher and Valentine’s cottage with some horrid pals of hers, trying to think of the most effective way to torment Christopher further now that she’s lost him for good.
One of the things that risks making this book a ‘disappointment’ to the more conventional reader is that you actually see what happens after the happily ever after, and it’s not exactly pretty. Yes, Valentine and Christopher are together at last, and each is 100% percent assured of the other’s eternal love and devotion. BUT: things are so damned hard. The weight of the world has settled uncomfortably onto poor, young, bright and now pregnant Valentine’s slender shoulders, and that weight is causing a disjointedness and hysteria in her thought patterns that is usually characteristic of Christopher or Sylvia. Living with Christopher after the war has put her into the position of something like a carer, except that Christopher doesn’t seem to realise that he needs caring for, and that someone has to keep a constant eye on him to save him from himself. Thanks (directly and indirectly) to Sylvia, Christopher is now ruined socially and financially, and his only source of income is a little furniture business he’s started with an American ex-prisoner of war who may or may not have swindled him. You’d think he’d devote most of his attention to this venture, but he seems to find it impossible to do so: he’s almost pathologically absent-minded, and would almost certainly have been diagnosed with PTSD if he had lived today. He wants the business to work, but has lost the organisational precision necessary to do so. Needless to say, this drives Valentine half-mad with worry: she loves Christopher, but has no idea if they’ll be able to support a child in their present circumstances. She wonders, in her darker moments, if Christopher might take off with someone else, or what her social position might be once the child is born, leading her to into twisting mental labyrinths that she can’t seem to escape from. The only thing that really keeps her sane is the thought of her child and the joy she feels at the prospect of being a mother. The way that Christopher and Valentine live is the cherry on top of the brutal realism that characterises Parade’s End: the world is unjust and cruel. Bad things happen to good people. Love isn’t enough to make you happy. And bad people seem to do nothing but thrive…
Ford takes ample advantage of this being our last opportunity to get more insight into Sylvia and to determine precisely why she is so fucked up. This she most definitely is: she’s determined to speak to Mark in the hope that the sight of her will kill him, she’s started divorce proceedings against Christopher simply for the public shame this will cause him (she has no intention of divorcing him), she’s cut down Groby Great Tree to cause his sentimental and traditionalist soul as much agony as possible, and she enjoys the thought of tormenting Valentine into a miscarriage (she is later justifiably ashamed of herself for this last one). Who is this woman and what in God’s name is wrong with her? I’ve never before seen a character so inexplicably sadistic and destructive: she’s someone you can actually find yourself mustering genuine hatred for, because her feelings and her desires are so absolutely appalling. She’s boiling over with anger and vindictiveness and seems satisfied with nothing less than smiting her enemies like a Celtic warrior goddess. Fortunately, Ford does (very subtly) provide us with one very simple explanation for all this that does him oodles of credit as a connoisseur of human folly: sex. Sylvia’s sexual appeal has been responsible for her getting her own way for years. It’s how she trapped Christopher into marrying her, amongst other things, and she enjoys dangling it in front of each man she meets when she knows that she’ll cleave to her vow of chastity: it’s just another facet of her charming sadomasochistic personality. Yet the only person she’s interested in having in her bed at all is Christopher, and he’s having none of it: they’re too estranged, they’ve hurt each other too much, he’s fallen in love with someone that’s good for him and Sylvia has hammered each scheming, destructive nail into her own coffin by acting like such a…such a complete psychopath. This state of affairs has triggered a vast escalation in the rage and hatred that she’s treated Christopher with since the commencement of their marriage. By now, the only way that Sylvia can express what she’s feeling is to use that inner tension and frustration to hurt people, and I mean really hurt people. She’s turned misery and hatred into a kind of art, both as concerns herself and as concerns her undeserving victims. Perhaps this is Ford’s way of personifying the concept that sex makes the world go round, but whatever his intentions might have been, Sylvia is right up there with Christopher as one of Ford’s greatest creations, the sheer emotional effect she has on the reader a testament to his genius.
The horrible thing is that none of this really matters anymore. The world has changed. Old England is crumbling to bits around the characters, all the things that have caused so much hurt and grief for Christopher are slowly turning to dust. Yes, many people do still act like arseholes to Christopher because they’re still cleaving, desperately, to pre-war society and all the agonising pretending and hypocrisy that went with it, but as I said, the world has changed. Millions of people are dead. Cities are empty shells. There are still dozens of bombs in every field in Belgium that could explode at any second. People just don’t care anymore. ‘There will be no more parades.’ Does that bode well or badly for Christopher and Valentine’s future? I can’t really decide.
Parade’s End is a masterpiece. It’s hard-going. And, as in the case of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which is equally hard-going, you often find yourself shaking your head and wondering at the fact that the all-seeing, godlike creature who produced this beautiful thing is actually a human being. It’s not just a mirror of its times, it’s a mirror of everything; of who people are; of togetherness; of separation; of loneliness; of what love is; of what the mind is and of what can happen to it. One could argue that it’s worth reading for its remarkable style of writing alone, but as we’ve so amply observed over the course of these three and a bit weeks, Ford will inevitably show you that there’s so much more to it than that.