The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

December 23, 2014 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. December 23, 2014 at 7:15 pm

    This book is a great favorite of mine, and a formative book from long ago. It was one of the first puzzle novels that I took seriously, where I broke it apart and worked on the puzzle. Really fun and ingenious.


    • December 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      It’s a brilliant book. I don’t have time to dig further, but I’d like to.

      I loved the construction, how he spread information here and there, slowing building the picture.

      What do you think about John Dowell?


  2. December 23, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    I’d come across the book several times but never imagined that that kind of story hid behind the title. Definitely goes on my list, thanks. Too bad it’s now too late to borrow a copy for my Christmas reading pile!
    Have you ever read Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove? I’m reminded very faintly of it (manipulative women, health problems, and certainly complex writing – though this more a question of style than of structure).


    • December 24, 2014 at 11:50 am

      Edward acts as a bon soldat. You know how we say that from someone in French. He plays by the rules.

      I haven’t read The Wings of the Dove yet but I want to. I think Ford Madox Ford and Henry James were friends.

      If you haven’t read The Custom of the Country, rush to it. It’s brilliant.


      • December 27, 2014 at 7:19 pm

        Thanks for the advice! I will rush to it – at my own slow pace! Belated merry Christmas, enjoy the papillotes and the cookies!


  3. December 24, 2014 at 4:42 am

    One of my favourite novels of all time, and IMO the narrator is unreliable.


    • December 24, 2014 at 11:52 am

      I think he is unreliable too. It’s hard to imagine him being so blind. And as the same time, we all know people whose spouse cheated and they never suspected it.
      The Good Soldier is also about how the mind only sees what it wants to and how good we are at rationalizing things that by instinct seem odd.


      • December 25, 2014 at 12:42 am

        I wonder if that’s one of the reasons that The Good Soldier is such a wonderful book–we’ve all seen/known people like the narrator.
        BTW I saw the film version of this and it was very bland compared to the book.
        I have many other books by this author and I’ve always hesitated to take the plunge as I have the feeling that this one is his best.


  4. December 24, 2014 at 10:45 am

    At last, I have some time to read your Good Soldier billet! It’s terrific.

    That first quote seems to capture something fundamental about the feel of this novel, and I’m glad you’ve included it in your review. It’s funny how we’ve both homed in on that passage!

    I love how you’ve described the way Florence inserts herself between Edward and Leonora like a disease – that’s a great description of the source of decay and deception. Like you, I thought Florence and Edward were terribly mismatched as a couple, both in terms of their characters/personalities and religious beliefs.

    I questioned Dowell’s reliability too, although I could have done more to interrogate his narrative and look behind his words. I ended up thinking that he was trying to make sense of it all himself, as if his unreliability wasn’t a deliberate attempt to deceive. He was naive and confused (but that’s just my reading of the situation).

    Your comparison with Madame Bovary and Wharton’s Custom of the County leave me keen to read those novels (I’ve yet to read Bovary would you believe). Luckily I have both, but Custom will have to wait as I’m committed to an Age of Innocence readalong in early 2015.

    I’m sure you’ll have a great discussion at your book group. Will you update us on how it goes? I’d love to hear. I’m also looking forward to reading Max’s review and Caroline’s if she joins. Thanks for adding a link to mine – I’ll do the same.


    • December 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks Jacqui.

      This quote is like the essence of the book. I have tons of quotes and I refrained because I felt the whole book would end up between brackets.

      Edward and Leonora are mistmached from the start except for their sense of propriety and of grandeur. They have this deep sense of tradition.
      Florence is like a disease and uses a disease to reach her goals. John is rather harsh with her. He calls her a harlot.

      I think that Dowell is weak and lacks a backbone as the ending shows it. Could you imagine he would write the story from that place and in that situation? Why doesn’t he rebel?! He’s very repressed too. How can he be so naive? They all seem to have had a sheltered education, except Florence.

      I can only encourage you to read Madame Bovary. I’m curious about what Max will think about my comparison. I know Madame Bovary is one of his favourite books and he will have read The Good Soldier too.

      I’ll leave a comment about the discussion in our Book Club. (if I have time)


      • December 24, 2014 at 12:39 pm

        I will read Madame Bovary (and I have the Lydia Davis translation which bodes well), it’s just a question of when. While I’m keen to read it, I feel the need to put a bit of space between these stories of ruinous marriages. Speaking of which, I think you might find the Jakob Wassermann (My First Wife) quite interesting. It’s very intense though, and we only see things from the husband’s perspective.

        I’m looking forward to reading Max’s take on The Good Soldier. Fascinating stuff.

        ******SPOILER ALERT*******

        Yes, that’s a good point on Dowell’s lack of backbone, and he doesn’t intervene in the end (in that final scene).


    • December 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      “Like you, I thought Florence and Edward were terribly mismatched as a couple, both in terms of their characters/personalities and religious beliefs.” Just realised I mentioned Florence there. I meant to say “Leonora and Edward”


      • December 24, 2014 at 12:34 pm

        I guessed that. But I think Florence and Edward are mismatched too.


  5. December 24, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    I’ve slightly skimmed for now, as I’m still reading it (I haven’t had much chance for reading the past few days, and it’s a novel that demands close attention). It’s tremendous though isn’t it? Good choice of quotes, I suspect I may have some of the same.

    Anyway, I’ll comment more once I’ve finished it and written my own piece.


    • December 24, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      It’s a tremendous book, sitting in my masterpiece mental pile.

      I’m looking forward to reading your review.


  6. December 30, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    It does sound so good and I wish i could have read it with you but I ran out of time.
    I’ve never heard the puzzle aspect mentioned it makes it sound so much more interesting. It sounds very complex. I’ve never seen you comparing a book to so many others. I suppose that’s another sign for how complex it is. Now I’m really keen to get to it.


    • December 30, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      I’m sorry you didn’t have time to read it. I would love to read your thoughts about this one. It’s so rich. It’s going to stay with me.


  7. January 18, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    The Bovary comparison is fascinating. I think it’s sometimes difficult to tell how fair the description of Edward is, since occasionally he doesn’t seem to act as John is generally telling us he should act (at times he seems smarter than John generally says he is), but even so I think there may be something in it. You have to adjust for gender of course, Edward has position and authority and independence all of which gives him much greater freedom than Emma ever had, but then in a different world it’s easy to imagine Emma as a dashing cavalry officer, but never say an accountant or a lawyer.

    Edward, whether smart or foolish or both, is a romantic and someone for whom how things should be is perhaps more important than how they are.

    It’s funny, it’s easy to sympathise with the Edwards and the Emmas, much harder with the Leonoras and the Charles’s, but which of them deserve sympathy more?

    No idea re the word chap by the way. It does sound to me quintessentially English, but Americans of John’s class and aspirations at that time? It’s so specific I couldn’t say, it wouldn’t surprise me though if they were in some ways more English than the English. Wharton gives that impression sometimes.


    • January 20, 2015 at 11:35 pm

      I’m glad you came back to my billet after writing your review.

      I wondered what you’d think about the comparison between Edward and Emma Bovary. Interesting thought: what kind of job Emma Bovary would have if she had one? It’s hard to say, I can’t imagine having a job that allows all the romantic stuff that goes through her head. Maybe she’d write romance novels?
      In appearance, Edward has more freedom than Emma but when you think about it: he has to keep up appearances, in his social class, a divorce is unthinkable. He’s as trapped with Leonora as Emma with Charles.
      I have more sympathy for Edward and Charles than for Emma and Leonora. Not that I’m for the men against the women. It’s just that Edward sounds less vapid than Emma (I have a hard time sympathising with nitwits full of sappy dreams) and Charles is stupid but good whereas Leonora isn’t really a good person. (I don’t feel much sympathy for manipulators)

      I think I got the idea that “chap” was mostly English because Erik corrected me when I used it in a translation. He told me it sounded English. (I was translating a quote by Romain Gary. And I have no idea if he spoke English like an Englishman –after all, his first wife was British or like an American)
      You’re probably on something though with the idea that John could use British words on purpose in a snobish attempt at sounding more English. It’s consistent with the character and Florence’s ambition.

      I’m still wondering about the Freudian interpretation. I’m far from being a specialist but John sounds like the Super-Ego part of a personality (According to Wikipedia: The super-ego aims for perfection.[23] It forms the organized part of the personality structure, mainly but not entirely unconscious, that includes the individual’s ego ideals, spiritual goals, and the psychic agency (commonly called “conscience”) that criticizes and prohibits his or her drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions. John is repressed by rules, what “good people” can or cannot do. He never acts on impulse.

      Edward sounds like the Id part of a personality. According to Wikipedia: The id (Latin for “it”)[3] is the unorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives. Id is the only component of personality that is present from birth.[4] It is the source of our bodily needs, wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id contains the libido, which is the primary source of instinctual force that is unresponsive to the demands of reality.[5] The id acts according to the “pleasure principle”—the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse[6]—defined as, seeking to avoid pain or unpleasure (not ‘displeasure’) aroused by increases in instinctual tension. He’s governed by his instincts, his feelings.
      Florence is his counterpart and Leonora is John’s counterpart.

      I wonder if these couples were so dyfunctional because there was no place for a balanced Ego in their personalities.
      (Wikipedia again: The ego (Latin “I”)[17] acts according to the reality principle; i.e. it seeks to please the id’s drive in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term rather than bring grief.[18] At the same time, Freud concedes that as the ego “attempts to mediate between id and reality, it is often obliged to cloak the Ucs. [Unconscious] commands of the id with its own Pcs. [ Preconscious ] rationalizations, to conceal the id’s conflicts with reality, to profess … to be taking notice of reality even when the id has remained rigid and unyielding.”[19] The reality principle that operates the ego is a regulating mechanism that enables the individual to delay gratifying immediate needs and function effectively in the real world. An example would be to resist the urge to grab other people’s belongings, but instead to purchase those items.


      • February 3, 2015 at 9:58 pm

        The Freudian bit is certainly credible. It’s the right period after all, Freud’s very influential at this point.


        • February 5, 2015 at 1:45 pm

          I think it is too and it is the right period for that.


  1. December 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm
  2. December 30, 2014 at 10:35 pm
  3. January 9, 2015 at 7:38 pm
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