Saturday, August 11, 2012

F. M. Ford's Parade's End

With the wisdom of hindsight I should have read Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy when I was in graduate school so-and-so many years ago. It was Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (a brilliant study of the Great War poets and their cultural, literary, and historical context) that launched me on my topic for my master's thesis, but I quickly narrowed my focus to British women novelists writing about the war -- Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf. At the time, I felt I needed to take a different angle on the literature of the period, there being so much attention paid to the great poets and memoir-writers, particularly Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, who I read and loved. So, in devouring all the primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, I knew I couldn't include 900+ pages of a novel that wouldn't figure into my focus.

Oh, how wrong I was! So many of the themes and imagery that I traced in my work I found brilliantly illustrated in the pages of the four novels that make up Parade's End. Set roughly in the time period before the war from about 1912 through the war years (the Armistice was in November 1918), and coming to an end in the years after the war, the sequence follows the progress of the "last Tory," Christopher Tietjens of Groby Hall. A youngest son of an old Yorkshire family of wealth and position, Christopher's unhappy marriage to a woman who makes it her obsession to torment and ruin him is set against the tumultuous upheaval of the Great War.

Christopher's wife Sylvia may be one of the most hiss-able villains that I've ever encountered, and yet Ford doesn't make her a flat, one-dimensional character. She is a contradictory, deeply flawed, thoroughly dysfunctional woman, obsessed with getting the attention, if not the affection, of her saintly husband. To me, she embodies the idea of the monstrous female -- an image that cropped up again and again in the literature of the period of the Great War. The Woman Suffrage movement that was in full, militant swing before hostilities began and the deep psychological divide between soldiers and non-combatant women on the home front often resulted in an undercurrent of guilt felt by women who swept into the absent men's roles, attaining a freedom that they never had experienced before, and bitter resentment on the part of the men fighting in the trenches, who felt they were being sacrificed both by the old men in the corridors of power and gleeful, "patriotic" women. Christopher's long-suffering, Christ-like qualities are obvious throughout the four novels. Sylvia several times makes the comparison explicit:
"And I daresay if... Oh Christ!'re shot in the trenches you'll say it...oh, between the saddle and the ground! that you never did a dishonourable action....And, mind you, I believe that no other man save one has ever had more right to say it than you..."

Tietjens said:
"You believe that!"

"As I hope to stand before my Redeemer," Sylvia said, "I believe it....But, in the name of the Almighty, how could any woman live beside you...and be forever forgiven?"
(Some Do Not Part II, p.186, Everyman's Library Hardcover edition)
And Christopher's ruminations while he is serving in the front line trenches make it clear that soldiers often felt more affinity for even the enemy than they did their own countrymen (and women):
And it was curious to consider how the hatred that one felt for the inhabitants of those regions seemed to skip in a wide trajectory over the embattled ground. It was the civilian populations and their rulers that one hated with real hatred.
(A Man Could Stand Up Part II, p.679)
Christopher has more than enough reason to feel that sort of hatred toward the home front -- a place where his own wife constantly works against him. It is, in fact, due to her machinations that despite his already-damaged lungs, he is once more in the most dangerous position on the Western Front with men under his command dying horrifically all around him. What others describe as his big, lumpish body, and what he deprecates himself as a "collection of meal sacks" in war becomes valuable. He has the physical strength to save his soldiers from being buried alive in a shell explosion and carry them to safety. And while his own privileged class -- even his own family -- believe all the lies told about him and discount his worth, the men he commands, mothers, and tries to keep alive seem to be the only ones who understand his true worth. To them he is capable, heroic, fair, and courageous. Christopher, a throw-back to another age and clinging to an 18th-century code of honor, watches everything about his old way of viewing the world coming apart at the seams.
...All these men given into the hands of the most cynically care-free intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world. All these men toys, all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to be put into politicians' speeches without heart or even intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-browniness of God, exactly as if they were nuts wilfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies....But men. Not just populations. Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a green grocer's business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife....The Men: the Other Ranks! And the poor - little officers. God help them.
(No More Parades Part I,  p.319)

But it is by witnessing the demolition of all that has come before that allows him to break from the feudal past of his ancestors -- to give up his family's money and estate -- and thus, break from his wife, to live openly with the woman that he does love -- the young Suffragette and Pacifist, Valentine Wannop.

The Good Soldier is considered usually to be Ford's masterpiece, but I think Parade's End is even more deserving of that honor. It exemplifies the Modernist techniques of using non-linear time shifts, varying viewpoints, and stream-of-consciousness narrative. Of the latter, my favorite example is the long passage at the end of A Man Could Stand Up where Christopher has become acting C.O. of his battalion expecting a German offensive; he inspects his men, thinks about Valentine, and considers his future, if he is to have a future at all. It's breathtakingly beautiful and sad, and often even funny. Ford has a great sense of the comic, and for all Christopher's sufferings, he is rather a sad sack. In the final novel, The Last Post, his brother Mark, who is dying, describes the lot of the Tietjenses, particularly Christopher:
A luckless sort of beggar, Christopher!...If you took the whole conglobulation at its worst -- the father suiciding, the son living with his sister in open sin, the son's son not his son and Groby going over to Papist hands....That was the sort of thing that would happen to a Tietjens of the Christopher variety: to any Tietjens who would not get out or get under as he, Mark, had done. Tietjenses took what they damn well got for doing what they damn well wanted to. Well, it landed them in that sort of post.
(The Last Post, p.821
That passage made me laugh out loud when I read it, but you probably have to be there -- to have taken that long journey through all the humiliations, pains, block-headedness, and misunderstanding that finally lead to Christopher's imperfect, but at least more hopeful, post-war life.

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