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.1 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 the wicked Sylvia (who of course loves her wickedness and discourses on it) gives up trying to destroy her husband only because Valentine is bearing his child. She will not harm a pregnant woman. Without Mark’s marrying, Valentine’s childbearing, Sylvia’s contrition, there would not be the final justification that Christopher’s stoic patience calls for. Ford was writing a romance about a wicked world; in a romance, that literary shadow of the medieval church, the world is justified because we are reconciled with it.
But what has our hero not had to suffer from his wife’s delirious hatred, and her industrious spreading of calumnies? His reputation has in fact suffered through the whole of upper-class English society and even the high command of the British Army in France. At the opening, in Some Do Not…, we meet a blond, thickset Christopher Tietjens (as oversized and immovable as the Ford whom Hemingway in A Moveable Feast with all possible malice prepense described as looking like a hogshead) whose gifts and virtues are equally oversize. He is a superlative mathematician in the central government bureau of statistics who can from memory recall all the mistakes in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, despises people who consult books of reference, lends money carelessly to a “friend” who palms off Tietjens’s most brilliant work as his own and is knighted for it. Of Ford’s endless fantasies, one of my favorites is that Tietjens is so pure a mathematician that he disrespects astronomy. He is so principled that he refuses to doctor some statistics at the behest of the government. To cap it all, Sylvia Tietjens contemptuously asks him to take her back after she has gone off with another man. Of course Tietjens does; a gentleman does not divorce his wife if she has a child—not even when he is quite sure, and Sylvia is happy to encourage him in thinking this, that the child is not his.
Sylvia’s hatred of her husband, a fire that burns throughout the book—you can positively hear it crackling, she is so determined on the subject—seems to be based on the unavailing sexual heat that he rouses in her. She is uncontrollably exasperated with his patient constancy and consideration for her. While he looks at her “attentively, as if with magpie anguish,” Sylvia “went on with her denunciation. ‘If you had once in our lives said to me, “You whore! You bitch! You killed my mother. May you rot in hell for it…,” you might have done something to bring us together.’ ” To which he replies: “That’s, of course, true.” “Don’t you know, Christopher Tietjens, that there is only one man from whom a woman could take ‘Neither I condemn thee’ and not hate him more than she hates the fiend!” Sylvia is tireless only because, like Milton’s Satan, she is bored by heaven. Still, “…taking up with a man was like reading a book you had read when you had forgotten that you had read it.” There is no satisfaction anywhere. And that is wickedness.
Although “some do not,” Sylvia circulates rumors from the beginning that Valentine has had a child by Christopher. Somehow news gets around that Christopher’s father committed suicide in shame at Christopher’s seducing Valentine, the daughter of the father’s closest friend. Christopher is also in trouble because of his careless loans to a colleague, Macmaster, who was knighted for work that he stole from Christopher. Macmaster’s wife defames Christopher rather than repay him. And when we come to the second volume, No More Parades, we find that rumors are circulating around the British Army that Christopher “sold” his wife to General Lord Campion. That credulous man (supposedly the best military brain among the slow-thinking English) believes Sylvia’s accusations that Christopher has a bastard somewhere, is a “Socialist,” … and went off to war with Sylvia’s two best sheets. The delicious absurdity of such details is a credit to Ford’s fluent storytelling, since you get too absorbed to protest that the British Army has more to worry about than one captain’s back-home fornications or his estranged wife’s sheets.
The more these many defamations mount up against our Christopher, “so appallingly competent, so appallingly always in the center of his own picture,” the more stony and unconcerned he seems. But by this time he is so nervously (never morally!) disordered by the killing and dying that he is exhausted by the tribulations of his men and the dottiness of his fellow officers. In one pyrotechnical section of No More Parades, Sylvia arrogantly wangles her way to wartime France and makes elaborate preparations for seducing her husband. Of this he seems only vaguely conscious. Tietjens’s problem is that he has refused a Welsh soldier leave to go home, for the man’s wife is living with a prizefighter who would kill the husband. But the soldier is now shot and dies, horribly bleeding, in Tietjens’s arms.
A man, brown, stiff, with a haughty parade step, burst into the light. He said with a high wooden voice:
“‘Ere’s another bloomin’ casualty.” In the shadow he appeared to have draped half his face and the right side of his breast with crape. He gave a high, rattling laugh. He bent, as if in a stiff bow, woodenly at his thighs. He pitched, still bent, on to the iron sheet that covered the brazier, rolled off that and lay on his back across the legs of the other runner, who had been crouched beside the brazier. In the bright light it was as if a whole pail of scarlet paint had been dashed across the man’s face on the left and his chest. It glistened in the firelight—just like fresh paint, moving!
Ford’s accomplishment is very subtle in war scenes ironically dominated by the endless ripples of Sylvia’s falsehoods. He works with a narrative line so rapid and fluent as to seem continuous, which fits in with the noise of the battlefield seething like a “pot.” There is a casual, unsettlingly chatty interweaving of battle sounds and soldier fright, of killing, domestic anxiety, English gamesmanship. Ford’s tone is almost one of banter. There is a low-keyed surface of tone necessary to the complicated counterpoint of Sylvia and war. Tietjens, who as we know can do anything, writes a sonnet, from some catchwords set for him, in two minutes. Captain Mackenzie (who mysteriously becomes McKechnie) is going off his head, hates Tietjens for not going off his, and as a prize Latinist offers in rivalry with Tietjens to turn the sonnet into Latin hexameters.
What Ford handles particularly well in the war novels—No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up—is the modernist magic show of separating thought from action so as to dramatize the powerlessness of the modern conscience. The clipped, vaguely derisory shuttling back and forth of time frames has been a feature of the movement of Parade’s End from the opening, where we see Tietjens and the untrustworthy Macmaster on a train that moves into the past and out again on the slightest word from Ford. But in the two middle novels, No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up, it is the necessary unreality of war to the frightened crowded eye that gives these sections Ford’s characteristically hallucinated but casual quality.
This unforced and even breezy fluency is all the more remarkable because of the social yearning for archaic England, legendary England, that bursts out in A Man Could Stand Up. Tietjens recalls with rapture the opening of George Herbert’s “Virtue”—“Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright….” In the trenches a man has to stoop. In the ideal dream world of George Herbert’s parsonage, a man could stand up on a hill….
Ford was such a dreamer that he once agreed to help drive Shaw and the Webbs from the leadership of the Fabians, but described himself as “a member of a [political] party that never was on land or sea but that may rule the world when Arthur shall rule again.” Parade’s End is a dazzling modernist performance based, like so much of Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Céline, on yearning for a world that existed only in the literature of romance. But we are very far here from the “mysticism” of Little Gidding or the addiction to religion-as-culture in Mont St. Michel and Chartres. Offhand I can think of no other fully accomplished modernist work in which a wholly symbolic and visionary figure like George Herbert enters—and leaves—so casually. Herbert is another of Ford’s passing fancies, one of his many dream creations that evoke a genuine longing for a principled world. But the legend of Herbert, the pure Anglican genius, flits through the book like so many other figures and details in Parade’s End. How right Ford was to say in It Was the Nightingale—“My brain, I think, is a sort of dovecote. The thoughts from it fly round and round, seem about to settle and circle even further than before and more and more swiftly.” He added: “I try in the end to let them come home with the velocity and precision of swifts that fly at sixty miles an hour into their apertures that you would say could not let them through. I hope thus to attain a precision of effect as startling as any Frenchman.” 2
Ford in his too many books before and after never did as well as he did in Parade’s End. For once, he captured neatly, almost curtly, on an impressive scale, his besetting dream of himself as a man misunderstood by everyone but finally, as in great romance, justified. In the marvelous way of fiction, which gives its real prizes not to the cleverest but to the possessed—those enraptured by a particular time and place—Ford was a virtuoso, not much of a thinker, above all, a writer bemused, caught up, who did not always know his dream from “reality.” Christopher Tietjens somehow shrinks from 1912 to 1918 only because the world can no longer support his knightly vision of perfect faith and rectitude. In The Last Post we see that Christopher will accept the house at Groby and all its perquisites because Valentine, pregnant with his child, cries out, How will we live? Christopher will not go back on anything that demands self-sacrifice; he cannot sacrifice a woman and their child. And to tell the truth, his stiff upper lip in the face of Sylvia’s hate—born of her disgust that her “wooden faced” husband will reject life’s sensual gifts—has become rather trying to us too. It is the fact that life finally takes him over, forces him to adjust to another’s needs, that makes The Last Post, sentimental as it is, necessary to the tetralogy.
But by taking him over, and making him a little more amenable to the world he has scorned, we see the force of the compulsion behind Ford’s book, the myth of a perfect English knight—in our time!—that has rooted this strange, laughable, but forceful book in such a vision of human perfection as the current novel hardly understands. “Modernism” and “experimentation” are the rarest notes struck by fiction just now. It is all documentation and has no perspective but individual psychology, our favorite tautology. Ford’s “absurdity” in seeing so far behind the modern world has made this book last.
November 22, 1979
Ford went off with Violet Hunt, but his wife Elsie would never divorce him. Violet Hunt, whose own gift for make-believe fascinated and alarmed Ford, called herself “Mrs. Ford.” Elsie sued to restore her conjugal rights, and won—in court. Ford, whose father was the German-born music critic of the Times, was of course a British subject but at one time established residence among his (Catholic) relatives in Germany and absurdly claimed German citizenship in order to divorce his wife from abroad. ↩
I do not know how much Evelyn Waugh’s own long-suffering Guy Crouchback owes to Ford’s hero and how much Waugh may have been influenced by Parade’s End. Waugh was harder, more satiric, but above all more abstract in creating the figure of “the last English gentleman.” Waugh as a Catholic novelist was more deductive in forming his hero as a reaction to what he intellectually despised as the secular godless mess. Tietjens is no less remarkable for being so much Ford’s most golden image of himself. ↩