Ford’s Modern Romance

Parade’s End

by Ford Madox Ford
Vintage, 836 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, revolves around Christopher Tietjens, “the last British Tory,” a Yorkshire gentleman of ancient family and impeccable instincts whose dazzling, promiscuous wife is so enraged by his perfection that she tries for almost nine hundred pages to destroy him. It is a prodigiously fluent and inventive fiction that is no less captivating for being such a vibrant representation of Ford Madox Ford’s absurd mind. (It is now being published for the first time in a single paperback.)

Obviously there is less difficulty in creating a subtle, very long, and even exemplary social novel out of characters and situations that are often comically unbelievable if you live deeply enough in your own myth, your favorite fancy of yourself. Ford was a notoriously unreliable witness. He had a genius for getting lied about, for being on the wrong side of people he liked and worked with, and you can see from his long record of mishaps and disasters, farcically the same even as you droop at coming on still another one, why everything he wrote turned, as he said, into a novel. He could not stop writing and he could not tell the “truth” to himself about anything. The capacity to dream on paper, and to demand rewards for it from a distracted world, never had a more undismayed example over a hundred books than Ford Madox Ford. Occasionally, as in Parade’s End, he and his dream meshed—if not unobtrusively—altogether delightfully.

The four volumes of Parade’s End were published between 1924 and 1928. Ford regretted the concluding volume, The Last Post, in which the still-married Tietjens, after having been in love with Valentine Wannop since the opening volume, Some Do Not, finally consents to live with her on Armistice Day. As Ford uneasily made clear, this was possible only because his parfit gentle knight had virtually been unhinged from his principles by the corruption of wartime England and the beastliness of the trenches. But Ford could not have done without this totally romantic conclusion to what is essentially a knightly romance about a sordid modern world. In The Last Post the firstborn of the Tietjens family, Sir Mark, dies under a thatched roof, not in his great house at Groby, much as the virtuous or chastened characters in As You Like It and The Tempest signal their final reconciliation with life far from their proper palaces. Christopher has until now refused to accept his rightful share of the estate because Mark has seemed to credit the lies of Christopher’s terrible wife Sylvia. Mark, by making a good death at last, and marrying his French mistress of many years, regularizes all things at Groby in preparation for the accession of his long-exiled and slandered youngest brother Christopher.

As in a classic fairy tale or romance, Christopher the supposedly “errant” brother who is secretly virtuous must undergo many trials and adventures before entering into his inheritance. And at the end …

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Letters

The Plot Thickens March 20, 1980