Parade’s End, Downton Abbey and Dumbasses: A Study in Fandom

Disclaimer: mean comments about Downton Abbey are only directed at fans that unfairly criticise Parade’s End. The rest of Downton fandom who allow people to have their own preferences are accorded this same right by the author of this post.

The genesis of this post lies in a comment made by a certain individual on the Wall of the Parade’s End Facebook page. While its author will remain unnamed, the post will be reproduced in its entirety:

‘Absolutely no match for Downton Abbey. The actors are acting as if it were still the year 2000. Doning (sic) period costumes and using today’s speech patterns, language and words that were never used in those times is off putting. Hell some of the words were never used in my childhood so why use them for the early 1900s? When I look back to the 50s people were slower than these bods let alone the type of citizens they are “trying” to portray here. Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’

Attempting to decipher many of these remarks can be migraine-inducing.

The Dowager Countess is confused. So am I.

The Dowager Countess is confused. So am I.

Is he talking about swearing? What does all that blabbing about the 1950s actually mean? And why does the author have such a high regard for the language used during his childhood that he’s convinced it couldn’t be used in the early 1900s? Fortunately for us, we’re not obliged to attempt to see light in the fogginess; what ultimately concerns us is the last line: ‘Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’

That got me thinking. Ever since Parade’s End was announced, the comparison with Downton Abbey has existed, which is understandable, since both shows take place in the Edwardian era. Downton had done a terrific job of robbing the period drama of the elitist mantel it sometimes carries, and many Downton fans were thrilled that a new Edwardian costume drama was coming; the combined appeal of having both Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Stoppard on board creating considerable excitement. Fans of Edwardian literature and of BBC period drama were also thrilled that Ford Madox Ford’s practically unknown masterpiece was getting such glorious treatment, and that it had been decided to adapt such a rampagingly modernist tetralogy. The first episode opened to record ratings (for BBC2), and it’s at this point that the considerable divide between reviews started. On one side, there were the Downton fans: but we can’t follow what’s going on, but it’s not in chronological order, but we don’t understand what the characters are saying. And of course, infinite variations on ‘cheap, trashy and badly done.’ On the other side, there were the Edwardian literature and period drama fans: the series gets the same brilliant modernist treatment as the books; it’s unashamedly intellectual, with complex characters, and bursting with symbolism and subtlety. Episode two arrived, ratings dropped. From that point on, it became acceptable for Downton fans to sling mud unashamedly, some of it very funny and done in the spirit of good fun (there was one terrific meme circulating featuring a confused Dowager Countess and the caption ‘What is a Parade’s End?’). With the might of ratings and of majority opinion behind them, they were met (and are still met) with very little opposition. Parade’s End fans usually ignored them, or felt indignation and simply kept their mouths shut. Let me explain why. Parade’s End fans are literature fans and period drama fans. They’re intellectuals. They’re used to being called elitist snobs; they’re tired of it; so why entertain it again?

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Attempting to explain the merits of Parade’s End to a Downton fan is exhausting and often hurtful. People hear the word ‘intellectual’ or ‘literary’ and a snide comment like ‘Well then I understand why you would like it’ (that once happened to me) is sure to follow. Well, this particular Parade’s End fan was on Facebook, lazily browsing all the glowing comments and praises of all the other intelligent people who love the show in the one environment designed for us to be able to sing its praises unmolested, and the delightful comment cited above popped up. And something snapped.

My fellow intellectuals, I regret that today, I do not possess your self-control or your admirable ability to ignore this idiotic comment and the millions of idiotic people who share similar views. So today, just once, I am hitting back, I’m fulfilling people’s prejudices, and I don’t care if people call me a snob or a nerd or any of the usual ignorant, hurtful things they say.

Parade’s End wipes the floor with Downton Abbey. Once the excellent first series of Downton ended, there seems to have been some kind of agreement between the show’s producers that ‘Okay. We know we’ve got a money maker here. So we can compromise on quality.’ And boy, did they. Overnight, Downton changed from a soaring period drama into a soap opera with pretty costumes. The terribly-written script released an epidemic of ridiculous plots (i.e. Patrick Crawley escapes drowning on the Titanic, loses his memory, acquires a Canadian accent and reappears in the middle of the First World War with his head covered in bandages and Edith is the only one who believes him and oh no one else does and he leaves and she’s so sad and oh!) and positively alarming changes in character (i.e. Lord Grantham and his sort-of affair with that stupid housemaid, something that is so out of character that it would have been laughed out of production had it been proposed by a novice screenwriter). It’s always the same empty-headed nonsense: Thomas and O’Brien plotting to take somebody down; Mr. Bates wrongfully accused of murder, chucked in jail, getting the death penalty, not getting the death penalty; some nasty guy disguised as Iain Glen threatening to publish Mary’s secret in his newspaper (gasp!) and Matthew and Mary dancing around each other like a pair of schizophrenic canaries, of course with a charming and totally innocent Lavinia threatening their happiness. It sounds like an episode of Days of Our Lives! This goes round and round in a whirlwind of appalling script and mediocre acting (and of course, of pretty costumes), with only Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery saving us from the complete collapse of our mental faculties after watching only one episode.

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In comparison, Parade’s End is War and Peace, but with one notable difference. Parade’s End can actually compete with War and Peace. It can compete with any of the world’s great classics.  Unlike Downton, it doesn’t give us a cute, idealised version of old England, the version that Downton manages to deliver even at the height of the War. Parade’s End gives us old England at its most excruciating and its most cruel. The pretty costumes and the gorgeous drawing rooms hide the blackest human depression and most brutal acts of evil and human selfishness. People are strangled alive by social convention that no one seems to like, but that everyone clings to, because embracing the new would be too frightening. People choose to suffer out of a sense of duty. Its protagonist, brilliant statistician Christopher Tietjens, is rigorously committed to this old world sense of duty, which he calls ‘Parade.’ Married to Sylvia, a scathingly evil woman (yes, evil) who trapped him into marriage through a child who may not be his in the first place, he gladly endures all the misery of being bound to an intelligent but utterly uneducated woman with whom he has nothing in common and who seems determined to hurt him as much as possible for ‘tormenting her’ with his honourable behavior.

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Where honour is concerned (well, perhaps where all things are concerned), Christopher is stubborn as a mule, refusing the entreaties of his friends that he divorce Sylvia after she runs away to France with another man, declaring that ‘only a blackguard would subject his wife to that.’ He even conceals her infidelity from the general public by saying she’s gone to Germany to nurse her mother at a spa. At all costs, even that of his own happiness, he is determined to act in a way that he considers decent and gentlemanly: ‘For a gentleman there is such a thing as…call it Parade.’ Christopher’s sense of honour and duty is rendered all the more excruciating when he literally runs into (well, almost literally runs into) a young suffragette on a golf course who has been demonstrating with a friend, and helps them to escape by chucking a bag of golf clubs between a policeman’s ankles. Some investigation, and fate, reveals her to be Valentine Wannop, the daughter of old Tietjens family friend Professor Wannop. A superbly well-read and brilliant Latinist, Valentine is Christopher’s perfect intellectual match, and they fall in love in an extremely intellectual, almost spiritual way. Christopher’s own honour and loyalty to a woman who hates him keep them apart, Valentine loving him all the more for his scruples. Christopher begins to see the world around him in an increasingly critical way, despairing at the way honour, goodness and service to one’s people have been swept under the carpet in the name of incompetent bureaucracy and money. At one point, Valentine even accuses him of hating England, to which he replies, ‘Don’t believe that. I love every field and hedgerow. The land is England, and once, it was the foundation of order. Before money took over and handed the country over to the swindlers and schemers; the Toryism of the pig’s trough.’ He resigns his post and leaves for the trenches, where he is met with even more misery, lack of organization and a mental hysteria that routinely possesses him, causing a split in his consciousness that almost drives him mad. In Christopher’s struggle, both in his personal life and in the psychological terror and madness of the War, is embodied the madness of the age: what do duty and honour matter when men devote years and years to murdering each other in the most horrible ways for the most horrendous reasons; what exactly is it that all these people with their own lives and loves die for; what are the true consequences of our actions; how far do they reach out, and above all, what is life, war, dying, madness, all for, and why do we continue when we don’t even know? All the sense and reason is drained out of the world, so why have any other goal than to simply love someone and hope you don’t get shot?

Parades End. Call Sheet #11

Tom Stoppard’s twenty year labour of love on the script of Parade’s End captures Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy in all its glorious complexity, and flawlessly conveys the highly psychological, internalized worlds of the characters and how they relate to the outside by maintaining Ford’s flexible modernist chronology, as well as his heady, striking and sometimes incomprehensible imagery. He has a deep understanding of the characters and of their motivations, and he uses those motivations to guide us through their development with as much mastery as Ford himself, only enlightening us of certain facts of plot or chronology as far as Ford himself enlightens us in the books. The star-studded cast is laden with career-defining, deep method acting performances of unimaginable complexity from Benedict Cumberbatch (Christopher), Rebecca Hall (Sylvia) and Adelaide Clemens (Valentine), the chemistry between the three set at perfect pitch. The psychological nature of many of the scenes is evoked through gorgeous cinematography heavily influenced by early twentieth century art, particularly Picasso, giving the entire series an unashamedly artistic, intellectual atmosphere. Parade’s End is a perfectly-made, flawless masterpiece, and people who don’t see that are idiots.

Here’s the truth of the matter. Parade’s End is for people who possess a brain. Downton Abbey is for those who do not. The latter is for people who only need to see a cute girl, or some beautiful dresses, or a big English country house, to think they’re dealing with a masterpiece of human accomplishment. In their tiny, badly-read, usually brainless, uneducated lives, it may very well be. Following Downton is not challenging or interesting. It doesn’t require any thinking or engagement from its audience: what happens in each episode is shoved down your throats like chocolate ice cream down the throat of a five year old. Watching Parade’s End requires the audience to think. It requires the audience to engage with what they’re seeing. When you watch it, there is a lot to think about, because there’s a lot to take in and a lot to admire. There’s a script you actually need to pay attention to in order to know what’s going on. You need to pay attention to the out-of-sequence chronology because the meaning of certain events being out of sequence may pop up later. If you don’t possess a brain, you can’t do it. If you’re just plain thick, you can’t do it. This may indeed be disconcerting for you. So change channels and move on. Why lambast a series and throw endless, completely unjustified criticism at it just because you don’t understand it? This insecurity would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. The inability to provide concrete, detailed criticism of a series doesn’t make it bad television. It doesn’t give you the right to have a bad opinion of it. It doesn’t give you the right to have any opinion of it. All it does is make you look indescribably stupid. I don’t care if loads of people do the same thing. Ten million stupid, wrong people are still stupid and wrong.

So. Parade’s End isn’t cheap, trashy and very badly done. It is a masterpiece. It is approximately 10 million times better than Downton Abbey. And the somewhat hellish criticism of it by Downton fans is unjustified, unjustifiable, laughable and rather like E.L. James telling Margaret Atwood she sucks.

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Parade’s End Book 4 Review: The Last Post

Cover of the Vintage edition.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…

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In the BBC adaptation, Rebecca Hall is glorious as Sylvia Tietjens, the most fucked-up character in literary history.

In the BBC adaptation, Rebecca Hall is glorious as Sylvia Tietjens, the most fucked-up character in literary history.

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.

Parade’s End Book 3 Review: A Man Could Stand Up –

Cover of the Vintage edition.A Man Could Stand Up – resembles a slight but moving intermezzo leading up to a grand conclusion. Ford Madox Ford thankfully relieves us of spending more time with the exhausting Sylvia Tietjens in constructing a book in three parts in which Christopher and Valentine gradually move so much closer together, intellectually and spiritually, that they become like threads embroidered at opposite ends of the same, slowly closing fan, only coming face to face right at the very end. In part one and part three, our minds are touched and relieved by seeing things mostly from Valentine’s perspective, her innocence and her readiness to sacrifice it somehow calming us, great as her doubts might be. In part two, we follow Christopher to the trenches in Belgium, a place that pries his clinging fingers away from who he was and helps him to embrace who he knows he has become.

1780758-low_res-parades-endAs absurd as it sounds, trench life is good for Christopher. Having arrived as a second in command with nothing to do but sit around all day, he’s now taken over command of the unit due to its colonel’s being an administrative nightmare, in constant dispute with the M.O. over the taking of a pill and quite possibly mad as well. The trenches transform Christopher – he’s much healthier than the last time we saw him at the base depot in Rouen, and though he still cultivates an intense inner life, he no longer suffers that agonizing split between his upper and lower consciousness. He also discovers a deep desire within himself to command his men and to lead them, a wish that is completely new to him, but one that he relishes – he knows he is capable of command and does not deny to himself that that is what he wants. Despite his own belief to the contrary, he also maintains a superb camaraderie with the men under his command, despite that idiot McKechnie’s constant attempts to waste his time with insults and general lunacy.

That’s not to say that Christopher becomes a happy chappy – he is in a constant, near-obsessive struggle to keep control of his mind and not go mad; the conflict puts the trench he commands into a permanent state of destruction and disarray, and he has to ensure that he puts men to repairing the damage without getting them killed at the same time. There is constant dread of German snipers, and a hideous improvised statue in the middle of No Man’s Land consisting of three men torn to shreds inside a cage of barbed wire that our unfortunate hero has to contemplate each day. Christopher thinks of Valentine constantly, even taking a liking to a young corporal because he reminds him of her. He agonises over whether or not he should write her a letter, considers that she must think him a swine for not having done so in over two years, and comes to realise that his sole aim in life has become ‘to stand up on a hill with Valentine Wannop’ without getting shot, in the trenches by the Germans, later on by society. Christopher finds himself turning away from the convictions that have so profoundly defined him before – after all he has endured, all he wants is simply to be able to finish his conversations with Valentine, a prominent theme in the novel that is explored in depth by Valentine, who feels the same way. Both of them want to spend their lives together, to be with each other all the time, because they don’t know when both of them will be ready to have the ultimate conversation. This reminds us of the intense intellectual attachment that characterized their relationship in Some Do Not… and tells us that their intellectual life remains an important part of the love they share. It is truly incredible that it takes a war to make people realise that conversation and togetherness are more important than anything to do with what society might think – for someone like Christopher, it’s a true revelation.

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Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time after the war.

Christopher and Valentine meet for the first time after the war.

It’s in this book that we come to realise what a truly great creation Christopher Tietjens is. He’s not merely brilliant, bumbling and old-fashioned in a truly selfless way, traits that earn him both the respect and the affection of the reader and contribute substantially to his originality as a character: he is also capable of changing, of becoming a leader, of all things, and of choosing love over a life of miserable duty and principle that, two books ago, he would have chosen without hesitation. He’s the unlikeliest person for these things to happen to, but they do and we understand why.

Christopher and Valentine have their first conversation that they're allowed to finish. Instead of talking, they dance.

Christopher and Valentine have their first conversation that they’re allowed to finish. Instead of talking, they dance.

Ford’s brilliant skill with character doesn’t stop with Christopher, however, and in part one and part three, we are genuinely conscious of being inside the mind of a very young woman that flits about from one emotion to the other like a little bird: the jubilation Valentine feels at Christopher’s return seems to amplify everything else she feels; her willingness to drop everything and be his mistress, her fear of being rejected, her fear that Christopher has come back mad, and her determination to nurse him if that is the case. And then of course there’s the masterful third part of the book, in which we see things mostly from her perspective, but Ford arranges it so that we see everything Christopher is feeling too, so that their emotions are linked together, as in the beautiful moment when both realise that now, they can look at each other, and the conversation can begin.

Most of the book being told from Valentine’s perspective has the literary effect of opening a window and letting in the light, and this is indeed what this book appears to be: a turning towards the light and away from the past. The intermezzo feel of it is, however, rendered somewhat disturbing by the finality of the part three, when we know there is still one more book to go, plunging the reader into an uncomfortable sort of limbo that is reinforced by the very structure of the book resembling a romance cut in half by conflict.

One of the most memorable statements Ford makes in this book is that the First World War was a war of mental illness more than anything else, and this is particularly clear in his writing. We don’t sit through pages and pages of ‘this one did this, this one did that’ battles: the engagement with the fighting that takes place does so inside Christopher’s head and is written in a reflective rather than a descriptive style. Ford engages more with the mental than with the physical, embodying the very nature of the war in the way he writes. This is yet another example of an originality that makes him different from other war writers and is something that has made the tetralogy so consistently good, both in terms of style and characterization. I’m looking forward to seeing how it ends!

Parade’s End Book 1 Review: Some Do Not…

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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.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher Tietjens in the 2012 BBC miniseries. (http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbnalpfE0Z1qb2jedo5_1280.jpg)

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.

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

Adelaide Clemens as Valentine Wannop. (http://www.benedictcumberbatch.co.uk/_Media/15965.jpg)

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.