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The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

December 23, 2014 25 comments

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) French title: Le bon soldat.

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than the ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all darkness.

In 1904, John Dowell and his wife Florence are 36 and 30 when they meet Edward and Leonora Ashburnham who are 33 and 31. They’re in Nauheim as Edward and Florence are both taking baths for their health. They strike an acquaintance and will spend nine years travelling together in Europe. They become a close set before tragedy unfolds. Now John is writing their story like the narrator of a classic English novel:

So I shall imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. (p32)

Ford_Good_SoldierI thought of Wuthering Heights and later of Frankenstein. When John starts to write, Edward and Florence are dead and John has just discovered that they had a long lasting affair and that Leonora knew all about it. He then endeavours to desiccate what happened, to put in the open everything that was brewing under the surface of their proper lives. The knowledge of all this dirty business came after Edward had an outburst and told him everything and after Leonora did the same.

John and Florence are American, from Philadelphia. They come from old money in Philly and initially came to Europe to travel. On the boat, Florence got sick and she made John believe that her heart was weak. The doctors confirmed that another journey on a boat could be fatal to her. So they’ve stayed in Europe and had been there for three years when they meet the Ashburnhams.

It is a story of deception, as Florence made John believe she was sick to protect a secret and as the three of them kept him in the dark regarding the affair between Florence and Edward. John retraces the Ashburnham marriage from the start, depicts the protagonists’ characters to understand what happened.

Florence started the whole sordid affair. Before marrying John, she explained what she wanted:

She wanted to marry a gentleman of leisure; she wanted a European establishment. She wanted her husband to have an English accent, an income of fifty thousand dollars a year from real estate and no ambition to increase that income. And – she faintly hinted – she did not want much physical passion in the affair. Americans, you know, can envisage such unions without blinking. P72

John had all the qualifications but wasn’t English. Edward was and Florence wanted him. She inserts herself like a disease between Edward and Leonora. Their marriage was then on the mend.

In addition to his enviable status, Edward is described as a handsome and striking man.

That chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. p42

(Btw, would an American use the word chap? I thought this one was pure English) Edward is from an old English family; he owns land and farms in the old fashioned way. He’s also a soldier. John portrays him as a raging stallion but not a libertine because he was a sentimentalist. He doesn’t like his wife and falls genuinely and successively in love in a courtesan, a prime and proper Mrs Basil, a Mrs Maidan, Florence and later for another girl. He goes from one mistress to the other, driven by a candid passion. John tells us he’s a romantic, he reads sentimental novels, he’s full of old-fashioned ideas about honour, propriety and his role as a landlord. He cannot manage his money and he once drove his household almost to ruin for a mistress. According to Leonora, he’s too extravagant in his expenses. He seems as naïve and emotional as a young girl out of convent. For example, John says:

It will give you some idea of the extraordinary naivete of Edward Ashburnham that, at the time of his marriage and for perhaps a couple of years after, he did not really know how children are produced. Neither did Leonora. I don’t mean to say that this state of things continued, but there it was. P112

Does it remind you of someone? Someone who’s silly, fed with novels, romantic, genuinely passionate. Someone with a hearty sexual appetite and no qualms about adultery? Someone who’s mismanaging money and sowing misery in her wake? Emma Bovary.

And Leonora, who is a lot more sensible than poor Charles Bovary is in a similar position. She wants her husband back, a bit because she loves him and a lot to preserve appearances. She manages their estate in his place, she controls his expenses and manages his mistresses. She’s a total control-freak. She’s a Catholic from Ireland, educated in a convent. She’s quite inexperienced with the world and religion drives her actions. She takes advice from her religious advisors. But what do Catholic priests and nuns know about matters of the heart?

So when a serial monogamist is married to a Catholic control-freak, it leads to disaster. They cannot communicate directly to each other, use other people as intermediaries. The have a love-hate relationship alternating between admiration and disdain. Florence comes between them as a rotten skittle inserted in an already rotten skittle game. And poor John is not part of the game but will be the one bowled over by the revelations.

The Good Soldier is a study of character, of how passion brings devastation and of how sticking to propriety for society’s sake kills people. It was published in 1915. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton was published in 1913. Both are about terrible marriages and the clash between American and European cultures. Undine is an awful character and Florence seems made of the same wood. But at least, Undine acts in the open. Here, we see people who play the role of good people, who are convincing enough for others to believe they are a happy couple when they aren’t. Divorce is not an option for Catholic Leonora.

This is a tale of passion where the men are weak and the women manipulative. It reminded me of The Dangerous Liaisons for Leonora’s manipulations, of the Deuxième Sexe by Simone de Beauvoir for the passages where she describes how ignorant about sex bourgeois girls were. The unhealthy relationships in the group reminded me of Autumn by Philippe Delerm. This novel by Delerm is about the pre-Raphaelites and since Ford Madox Ford had previously written the biography of his grand-father Ford Madox Brown, I wonder if the dynamics of this group of painters influenced his writing of The Good Soldier.

The Good Soldier sounds like a French novel written by an Englishman. I didn’t like much his generalisation about Catholicism when John spoke about Leonora’s motivations. I wonder why he used an American narrator. Perhaps it’s a convenient device to have a character unable to decipher the Ashburnhams’ behaviour and the English ways. I also wondered about John. Is he a reliable narrator? He pretends he saw nothing of what was happening under his nose because he assumed that Florence was sick and weak. When he speaks about himself, he uses words that deprive him of his manhood. He says he’s a eunuch, a male sick-nurse, a trained poodle. He envies Edward for his appetites, his courage to go and grab what he wants. He envied him his success with women and here’s how he imagines Leonora saw him:

Buy God, she looked at me as if I were an invalid – as any kind woman may look at a poo chap in a bath chair. And, yes, from that day forward she always treated me and not Florence as if I were the invalid. p45

Friend-zoned from the start and sexless, that’s how he perceives himself. He regrets to have sacrificed twelve years to Florence’s well-being. This admiration for Edward prevents him from hating him. He speaks of him fondly despite his deception. He doesn’t dislike Leonora but he does blame Florence. A psychoanalyst would have a lot of fun analysing the sexual tensions and repressions in this novel. The previous quote about Edward’s naivete regarding sex also shows that John isn’t seeing things clearly. How could a man like Edward, brought up on an estate in the country be so ignorant about reproduction? Didn’t he have the birds & bees explanation in the stables? I’m sure he saw animals even he had no formal sex education.

As you imagine, there’s a lot to say about The Good Soldier. Despite its classical device of a narrator telling the story, John’s narration is unusual. It’s not linear. He goes back and forth in time, changing of point of view, coming back to link the events. In the introduction in my Wordsworth Classics copy, Sara Haslam says it’s like an impressionist painting. Small touches are added here and there and in the end the reader has a good picture of the protagonists and the events. I thought it was more like Picasso, seeing on the same painting a face from different angles because John reports several points of view. His, Leonora’s and Edward’s.

I hope I conveyed how much I loved this tortured book despite my dislike of the characters. I barely revealed the complexity of this study of characters and criticism of the traditional English society. The Good Soldier is our Book Club read for December. The meeting is up-coming so I can’t tell you anything about the others’ vision of this marvellous novel. Jacqui from JacquiWine’s Journal joined us this month and her review is here. Max from Pechorin’s Journal is also reading it, so we can expect a review in the future. And Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat may join us too.

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