Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Good Soldier - A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford

This book is part of the ‘Connected reading’ with a connection to Ford Madox Brown, one of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ford Madox Ford was his grandson, through his daughter with Emma Hill, Catherine Madox Brown. This is his most famous book of his and is included in most lists of greatest novels of all times.

Apart from a novelist he was also a poet, critic and editor of various journals. He lived in Paris in the 1920s and his friends included James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Jean Rhys, and he helped to publish them all. Ford is the model for Hemingway’s character Braddocks in The Sun Also Rises, so this will be a natural connection to the next book.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” So starts the book and The Saddest Story was intended to be the title of the book. However, the publishers suggested to change the title. The story is about two couples and their leisured life in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century. Two Americans and two British. The story is told from the part of the American husband, John Dowell, who marries a heiress with heart problems. At least that is what she wants him to believe. Her main aim is to stay in Europe where she has a lover. They stay on in Paris for some time and then go around Europe to different spas and other places where the rich and beautiful spend their time.

Here they get acquainted with the Ashburnhams; Edward and Leonora an English couple of the nobility. The story is told in flash backs by John Dowell, and from having believed that here are two happy couples with a leisurely life-stile, we slowly, slowly realised that this is not the case. As the story of their relationships evolves it gets more and more complicated, and more and more sad. Dowell starts telling the story through his wife Florence and her actions and devastated ending, into Leonora’s life,actions and dreams, to finally end with Edward’s road to destruction, because he could love almost all women except his wife. In a moment of clarity he says to her:

By jove, you’re the finest woman in the world. I wish we could be better friends.’
It has been said that the narrator is a unreliable one. He does not engage with the others, just go through life like it did not concern him. As he puts it himself:

‘Well, it is all over. Not one of us has got what he really wanted. Leonora wanted Edward, and she has got Rodney Bayham, a pleasant enough sort of sheep. Florence wanted Branshaw, and it is I who have bought it from Leonora. I didn’t really want it; what I wanted mostly was to cease being a nurse-attendant. Well, I am a nurse-attendant. Edward wanted Nancy Rufford, and I have got her. Only she is mad. It is a queer and fantastic world. Why can’t people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing. Perhaps you can make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.’

A book worth reading, telling the story behind the facades of people’s lives. Not everything is what it seems to be. It is one of the best books read this year.
Graham Green said about the book:

‘In The Good Soldier Ford triumphantly found his true subject …the English “gentleman”, the “black and merciless things” which lie behind that facade…I don’t know how many times in nearly forty years I have come back to this novel of Ford’s every time to discover a new aspect to admire.’

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