The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Subtitled “A Tale of Passion”, Ford’s 1915 novel has one of those first lines that tend to come up in quizzes: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” We picked it for our book group to discuss in November, after several of us having loved the recent BBC adaptation of Ford’s later set of novels Parade’s End.
The Good Solider is a tale of two couples, The Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora, and John Dowell and his wife Florence. The story is told by John, looking back over a period of years in which the couples spent too much time together, resulting in a disintegration of both of their marriages which accelerates once the Ashburnham’s ward, Nancy, joins the party.
John and Florence are American, and John, a Philadelphian, tells us a little of his wife: ”Florence was a Hurlbird of Stamford, Connecticut, where as you know, they are old-fashioned than even the inhabitants of Cranford, England, could have been.” The Dowells are ‘leisured Americans’, ex-Pats, spending some months in the South of France, and some at a German spa town each year – for Florence’s heart.
It is at Nauheim that they meet the Ashburnhams, and Florence immediately adopts them as they represent the epitome of everything she aspires to, having an English country manor, and Edward is an Army captain, on sick leave from India. Florence is always keen to show be the tour guide, showing off her research and knowledge – ‘intellectual slumming’, her husband calls it, but of course she is cultivating Edward from the outset.
It becomes clear quite quickly that there is no love lost between Leonora and Edward. He is a hopeless romantic and spendthrift, she tries to keep in him check, but there is little if any intimacy between them. John and Florence too, have an outwardly sexless union. John is gullible, fearful for the state of her heart; she is just playing him along. It’s all very claustrophobic and frankly rather nasty. There’s nothing to like about any of the quartet, although oddly, John never loses his respect for Edward, the ‘Good Soldier’ of the title.
I did find this a hard book to get into, it wasn’t until around page one hundred, nearly half way through, when it clicked and things started to get interesting, so I’m glad I persevered. This initial hard-going is due to the narrator John’s meanderings, digressions, and repetitions. John takes several months to recount his tale, and he keeps remembering things, and then realising that what he’d said before was slightly different to his new reality, so we have a new version of what happened – the chronology is not straightforward to unravel. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, but he doesn’t seek to deceive, only remember.
Along with the iterating and evolving story which goes round and round, Ford has a habit of re-using words and phrases – in consecutive sentences. It irritated me at first, but then I realised it was the way John was talking, pausing and repeating himself slightly differently again for emphasis. Mostly this is odd words, but in the following quote he does it repeatedly, and I rather liked that:
… I stood upon the carefully swept steps of the Englischer Hof, looking at the carefully arranged trees in tubs upon the carefully arranged gravel whilst carefully arranged people walked past in carefully calculated gaiety, at the carefully calculated hour, the tall trees of the public gardens, going up to the right; the reddish stone of the baths – or were they white half-timber chalets? Upon my word I have forgotten, I was was there so often. That will give you the measure of how much I was in the landscape.
The book was universally enjoyed by our book group and we debated for ages over the characters – whether any of them had any merit whatsoever, and decided that Edward came out top by a small margin despite being a serial philanderer – he was a decent sort underneath.
We all felt that this was a book that would benefit from re-reading – indeed I’d like to very much. Even on a first read, as a book group choice, it gives loads to discuss so I’d highly recommend it. (8/10)
See also what Hayley of Desperate Reader thought of this book.
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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (Oxford World’s Classics), other cheaper editions available.
Parade’s End, again other cheaper editions available.
Parade’s End [DVD], BBC 2012 starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.