Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End”–The History of My Friendship with a Book

I’ve previously written a post here on WordPress.com about the way the love scenes are structured in the early portions of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, but I just last night finished the last of the four novels, and have decided that I have a little more to say, even as to remarks about the physical book itself, and so I will post today and believe if I can that you will bear with me as I wander the vagaries of my friendship with a particular volume.  The four novels in question which comprise the tetralogy are (in order):  Some Do Not…, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up–, and The Last Post.  I checked the four out from the library, published in one thick and much mishandled volume as they were, at least two months ago, and have been making my slow way through them ever since.  I should issue a spoiler alert, but first, I’d like to describe the physical volume as a clue to the book’s significance and history, odd though that might seem.

At first sight, the volume was too hefty and not particularly prepossessing:  the dust cover was black, with orange, gray, and white lettering, and much torn and beaten up under its plastic surface, with the two latter names “Madox Ford” filled in with a piece of white note paper by a diligent but not especially skilled librarian where it had been torn away.  There were pages where pieces of the text were missing, and the spine of the book was broken in a quite final way in one spot.  As the consoling librarian told me when I talked to her about how damaged the book was, how sad that it had not been adequately repaired or replaced, and how very slow-moving and not really exciting the plot was (as I was thinking at the time), she said, “Well, if it’s not that good a book, that’s probably why they’ve kept renewing it for people instead of replacing the copy with a newer and more costly copy.”  This stirred my sympathy for the book, and incidentally for Ford Madox Ford, whom Hemingway disliked intensely even as a friend and called a liar; and we all know that Hemingway, though a great writer, wasn’t entirely likeable himself in many of his manifestations and friendships.  So, I decided to stick it out with my friend the book to see what more it might have to say other than “I’m a boring old book by a stick of a writer who wrote tons of other books and whose other famous book The Good Soldier is much better.”  And I’m glad I did.

My reasons for being glad are a little unclear, however.  The book seems old-fashioned and sometimes prissy, and has the subtitle “Being the story of Christopher Tietjens, ‘the last English Tory,’ now for the first time in one volume, as intended by the author.”  Why should I, a staunch American liberal, want to read about a Tory, the ironically claimed last one or otherwise?  Why should I care were he truly the last one?  But the book already had a hold on me through the love relationship the already married Christopher was trying to restrain himself from having with the much younger Valentine Wannop; in short, I was so exasperated with him for not having the umph! to divorce his wife Sylvia, who dramatically tortures and abuses him emotionally throughout the book, even when he has made a commitment to Valentine, lives with her, and is having a child with her out of wedlock, that I had to read to the end to see what would happen.  This is the motive for reading which is one of the three or four different motives listed by Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, and it is arguably the least artistically or aesthetically inclined, but I wasn’t much enchanted with the style of the writing, so cannot claim that that was my reason for persisting.  I slogged through a volume which bore mainly on England during the years leading up to WW I and also through two volumes taking place mostly in Europe at the battle sites with Tietjens during the war, and I was damned if I was going to put the book down before I got to read any possible part about Sylvia getting her comeuppance and Valentine and Christopher making a life together.

In the end, Sylvia declares her intention of divorcing Christopher (his main objection to divorcing her, in spite of the fact that she had cheated on him from their honeymoon on was that “a gentleman” doesn’t divorce a woman, whereas he can allow her to divorce him); Valentine and he can get married, with his dying brother Mark saying his last words to Valentine about not running Christopher into the ground with too much criticism.  Certainly, Christopher needs someone’s empathy, but he’s such a hapless figure, often described physically as a “meal sack,” which description not only eliminates our tendency to view him as “the dashing hero” but also seems to apply to the weightiness of his frame of mind, intellectual though meandering and slow-thinking as he is, that it’s hard to maintain empathy with him.  We are told that he is a good person, a heroic person, a person given to altruistic gestures of really quite an extreme nature, but sometimes it almost seems that he is a deliberate screw-up, a person who wants to lose because he is afraid to be victorious.

And of course, with all the self-interested eccentrics grouped around Tietjens in the novel, we have to ask ourselves that key question, which Ford is provoking us with, both in terms of war and of social status, and of love:  what price victory?  Finally, Christopher’s status as a successful lover is forced upon him by Valentine, who insists that his wife’s latest stratagem–that of saying she has cancer and deliberately spraining her ankle to prevent Tietjens and Valentine from having a good first night together–is a fraud and a hoax.  Christopher, at the end of the novel, is still being taken advantage of by business associates and “friends” of the family, but even though his brother Mark is dying, putting him himself in the position of being Tietjens of the family estate Groby, a responsibility he tries to duck out of in favor of his son Michael (by Sylvia), he now has a determined Valentine in his corner.  We see her both fussing at him in a justifiable way for a bad business deal he has made which endangers their ability barely to eke out a living, and giving way to Mark’s advice to her not to become irate with Christopher in front of her child, when it is born.  Thus, victory when it comes to Tietjens is serendipitous, a gift from chance or heaven, allowable within the terms of the stern fictive premise that noblesse oblige is what one owes to the whole world, not only those parts of it that favor one.  And the price of victory for finishing the book?  Now I no longer have a meal sack hero to shake my head over and become exasperated with for his so-called Christ-like demeanor (another comparison applied to him by other characters in the novel).  For, I think there is always a part of us which, engaged upon following the extended adventures of a traditional “sad sack” hero, secretly wishes the best for him, especially when we are convinced that his motives are good.  Were he a character in a purely satirical novel, it might be otherwise, but having read the four volumes, having lived within the “picture” of the world of England in the early 20th century as seen by Ford Madox Ford for the considerable time it took me to read the tetralogy, I have finally made my peace with a character whose impossibly “good” characteristics seem to cause other people to want to be “bad” to him.  While teleologically (that is, in terms of the ending, which is “looking up” for at least the two main characters, Christopher and Valentine) one might argue that it’s finally better to be “good” and keep waiting for the serendipitous ending to take place, however, the novel is so long and goes through so many vicissitudes of fortune for Christopher, that it’s hard to stick to this sort of readerly resolve.  As to Tietjens himself and his personality, I take it not only as a good character portrait, but as an object lesson:  you might be able to imagine someone, a character or a real person, being unrealistically good, but don’t try it yourself, unless you want infamy and obliquity to descend upon you in bucketsful!  And this is the point I thank my friend, the tetralogy in the volume Parade’s End, for making clear to me.  Sometimes, a book can be a very good friend indeed!

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4 Comments

Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End”–The History of My Friendship with a Book

  1. I am so glad you have written about this book – and with such words of praise. Funnily enough, I’ve had it on my Amazon “Wish List” for a few weeks now. You have inspired me to click on the “Buy” button. Actually, I first heard of this work through the BBC dramatisation, which I picked up on DVD only recently, and watched with great pleasure. Have you seen it?

    • Thank you for your welcoming remarks. It’s odd, but through a lot of the book, I was resisting reading, since it seemed to move so slowly, and I was so annoyed with Christopher’s impossible self-editing standards. Then, little by little, I found myself rationing out how much I could read each night (just before bed), because I had other things to do during the day, and was relieved and relaxed to be able to turn to the book at night to “live” in it for a while. Finally, I was rationing it for a related but different reason; i.e., because I didn’t want to have to turn to another book that wasn’t about the world of this one! It’s certainly worth reading, though exasperating at points. Stick with it if you can; it repays the effort and then some. And no, I haven’t seen the BBC version, and our local DVD rental store is unlikely to stock it. But thank you for the info; if I ever open an account at Blockbuster or one of the larger chains, it will certainly be one of the first I’ll look for, though I can’t begin to guess how they will dramatize it. It seems discursive rather than dramatic, though I can see how it might make a good serial like “Upstairs Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey.”

  2. It’s a four-part BBC series, with Benedict Cumberbatch. You may well be able to find a trailer on line. I enjoyed it very much but I already know from your piece, that they have left out some material.

    • Thanks again for the info; I thought someone a while back wrote that Cumberbatch was very good-looking, and Christopher as he is presented in the book isn’t, but maybe a) it’s a different Cumberbatch or b) it just wasn’t typecasting. I’ve never seen the actor in question that I know of for sure, so I will look for it online some day soon, in a trailer, as you suggest.
      It makes me feel really, really good that I’ve written about something that someone else has so much enthusiasm for!

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