Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

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The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford book cover
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford is a modernist classic, an intricately worked novel that unpicks the downfall of two couples who meet by chance while travelling in Europe. John Dowell, a wealthy American and the narrator of the tale, cares for his wife Florence, who has been diagnosed with a weak heart, making sure that she does not fall victim to over-excitement. When the couple come across Edward and Leonora Ashburnham – a well-to-do English couple – the quartet hit it off. Edward is, according to Dowell, a great physical specimen and somewhat of a sentimentalist, while Leonora is more savvy than her husband, and feels her Catholic heritage keenly. Beneath the polished veneer of the affluent couples lurks real people with real failings, full of paradoxes and, ultimately, unable to match up to the idealistic front that they project. Over many years the couples come together around Europe, and their lives intertwine as they pull others into their collective story, which culminates in adultery, death, and suicide. Dowell relates all this after the final action has been taken, revising and revisiting events as he attempts to spin his story. Few of the ‘facts’ of the plot are obscured from the start – Dowell makes plain that Florence has had an affair with Edward, and that both the adulterous pair have since ended their own lives. Graham Greene called it “the finest French novel in the English language,” and with the delicacy of delivery and intimate tracking of the human consciousness and relationships it is easy to understand the assertion.

Much of the discussion about the novel revolves around the narrator, John Dowell. As he relates the events that shape the lives (and deaths, in some cases) of the characters, details of the story are subtly pulled apart, reimagined, and reinterpreted. In this way, the novel explores the relationship between truth and perspective, reality and appearance, and how truth is, always, in the eye of the beholder, no matter how he must contort the facts to reach his conclusion. Whether Dowell is reliable or not, and to what extent he was cognizant of his position as cuckold is absolutely crucial to the different readings of the novel. In truth, only a close reading can really begin to pick these questions apart, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this review, he appears a narrator prone to self-delusion, perhaps to protect himself from the grim reality of the facts, but certainly unreliable to some degree as his self-reflective statements throughout attest. Ford works the narrative beautifully, using paradoxical sentences frequently, Dowell obfuscating the truth, often through his own failings, while Ford reveals it.

When Dowell pre-empts the reader’s reaction to his tale in his opening line by declaring it “the saddest story I have ever heard,” he immediately announces both his pitch as a storyteller and his own passivity within the events themselves. For, at times, there is something decidedly melodramatic in Dowell’s telling of the story, he assuming the role of storyteller and ornamenting the facts with Gothic style images laced with pathos. That he chooses to spin his tale in this way marks it out very clearly as an artificial form of reality, like any story, and this draws the construction of the plot into a discussion of not just Dowell’s own perspective but of storytelling technique. Like Dowell, Ashburnham cannot spin a story: while the men who Dowell and he mix with on their trips in Europe tell lewd after-dinner stories Edward remains mute, unable or unwilling to participate. In the case of both men, the ability to formulate a narrative creates a barrier to knowledge – for Dowell this is the understanding of the facts he has available to him over the course of his wife’s affair and beyond, and for Edward it is purely self-knowledge, the rich interior life that might save him from his downfall.

As a player in his own story Dowell is an empty vessel who finds meaning only in relation to the other characters. By traditional measures of masculinity – dominance, sexual potency – he is a failure and somewhat in awe of Edward Ashburnham, or perhaps suppressing a closeted romantic love towards him. Dowell may claim to be a sentimentalist in the same mould as Ashburnham, but it takes some artistry with the facts to bring him to this conclusion. Indeed, throughout the shifting interpretation of his own narrative, Dowell exposes a beautifully-realised form of revisionism: a state in which memories are edited to fit the narrative one wishes them to have. Was Edward a hopeless sentimentalist, Florence a brazen adulteress, or Leonora an emotionally-detached Catholic? It is remarkably difficult to say, given Dowell’s version of the story, inherited from Leonora, is all that is presented.

Dowell’s seemingly credulous acceptance of the lies his wife sold him is clearly, to some extent, self-deceptive, but the jumbled order in which facts come to him or are appreciated is representative of a realist’s stance to storytelling on Ford’s part. It is Jamesian in its subtlety but much more chaotic than James’s style and places Dowell in a state of complete flux where the ideas that held his world together – of decency, etc. – are severely compromised and he is cut loose in a new world that he does his best not to acknowledge. Indeed, even by the novel’s close he is afforded no great revelation, nothing that can impose a sense of order on his tangled memories.

While Dowell may not be in the same mould as Ashburnham, both are emasculated by their wives – Edward is forced to surrender control of his finances to Leonora after losing vast sums in an adulterous liaison, and Dowell is made a eunuch and cuckold by Florence, who diminishes his position as husband to mere servant to her everyday needs while others satisfy her sexual desires. The fact is, neither Edward nor Dowell know how to be ‘men’ – either through lack of education in intimacy or lack of strength and base passion, both fail to live up to the expectation of masculinity in the late-Victorian/Edwardian period and their marriages are irretrievably unbalanced as a consequence.

Ford originally wanted the novel to be called 'The Saddest Story' but his publisher objected. He then suggested they might prefer The Good Soldier, supposedly, with no small amount of irony and was rather shocked to find it taken up. The original title highlights the importance of sadness in the story, and it is from the lack of knowledge or self-knowledge that much of the pathos springs. Like Austen before him, Ford is concerned with the education of the heart. Whether with one’s own heart or the heart of another, intimacy is very important here and often conflated with knowledge. Edward and Leonora have not, Dowell reports, spoken in private for thirteen years. Theirs is an arranged marriage and Edward’s sentimental heart is melted not by his wife’s cold strength but by a vulnerability which he finds in others. To say the Ashburnhams’ marriage is loveless is not quite right – perhaps it would be better to call it hopeless. Edward’s heart is too full of sentimental feeling and his mind too empty, too lacking in self-knowledge, and Leonora’s conscience is too easily outsourced to her spiritual advisors who offer only platitudes where nuanced insight into humanity is needed.

As an extension of the intimacy issue, sexual passion is shown to be destructive both in its repression and its expression – repression by Dowell and Leonora, expression by Edward and Florence. It is just one of the rather fatalistic views of human nature expressed in the book. There are imperial undertones to Edward’s domineering approach to seduction that draw parallels with the imperial scramble for colonies. Indeed, there are a number of larger themes that recur in the novel, beyond imperialism. Edward and Leonora represent a class of people whose nature of existence was changing rapidly. The traditions and systems of Feudal Europe were being pulled apart by the Great War and Ford’s perfectly timed novel reflected the inevitability of this disintegration. In the century past, the landed gentry held an esteemed position, if one still open to criticism, but by the time The Good Soldier reached the reading public, the lives of the landed gentry had begun to look significantly emptier and less noble. This too adds to the burden of sadness felt within the story’s core.

Religion is the other major topic touch upon. Dowell locates Leonora’s secretive nature within her Catholic heritage, which must, he supposes, predispose her to concealment given the position of Catholics in English society historically. Indeed, Dowell appears considerably concerned with Leonora’s religion, tending to other her at times on the basis of it. For, being a non-Catholic he sees their worldviews as almost completely incompatibility despite having little evidence for this assertion.

As mentioned earlier on, there is no definitive reading of The Good Soldier (if, as the deconstructionalists doubt, such a thing can be said to exist for any novel) and so this review adds to a body of differing opinion but is very much one opinion in a multitude of alternatives. The one thing that most critics agree on is that The Good Soldier is a great book. Ford himself believed it to be his best work and, in its intricate and beautifully constructed form it is hard to disagree with this. As an example of literary impressionism, it is an essential part of the twentieth century canon, even if readers unpick the tangled web that Ford weaves in quite remarkably different ways. There are plenty of authors who have hailed The Good Soldier as a masterpiece, including Graham Greene and Julian Barnes whose own themes and styles echo Ford’s, to name but two. A hundred years since its publication and the novel remains immensely readable and emotionally-wrought while being intellectually challenging as a mystery and admirable as a literary achievement. Ford described The Good Soldier as his ‘great auk’s egg’ – his most complete, perfect creation, it remains a complex mystery that sits, one might say, at the point at which the twentieth century lost its sheen, fifteen years into the most changeful century in human history.

Technically a gorgeous book that you can't help but appreciate. It made me think of The Remains of the Day, Lolita, The Sense of an Ending, The Great Gatsby, and it sits comfortably in the company of books of that quality. Anyone who claims The Good Soldier is boring doesn't know a good book when they read one.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Good Soldier on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Good Soldier on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Good Soldier on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of The Good Soldier on Amazon (US)

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2 comments:

JacquiWine said...

Terrific review, Matthew, very insightful indeed. I like how you've captured the contrast between the outward facade and inner turmoil:
"Beneath the polished veneer of the affluent couples lurks real people with real failings, full of paradoxes and, ultimately, unable to match up to the idealistic front that they project." That's so true.

It's interesting to read your comments on Dowell, how he comes across as an empty vessel who finds meaning only in relation those around him. I think you're right. Of the four main characters, he was the one I felt I knew the least about.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for stopping by Jacqui - I fear my review is not as well put together as your own, but thanks for taking a look :)

Yes, Dowell is really interesting. He's the character that sticks with me and it's really interesting to see the way Ford builds his character without actually giving us anything directly. A very artful piece of characterisation.