A 20th-century masterpiece of love and betrayal
Ford Madox Ford was one of the most versatile and prolific of the great modernist writers. It is said that he wrote 1–2,000 words each day of his life, producing almost 80 books that spanned a variety of genres and often pushed the boundaries of form and style. No other does this more than Parade’s End. This extraordinary four-novel series, published between 1924 and 1928, chronicles the social upheaval wrought by the First World War. But it is equally an exploration of the nature of time, memory and relationships, presented through a deft stream-of-consciousness narrative. At its centre is Christopher Tietjens, a Yorkshireman and ‘the last English Tory’, who is transported from the predictable hierarchies of Edwardian Britain to the chaos of the trenches, all the while tormented by his sadistic wife Sylvia, who Graham Greene described as ‘surely the most possessed evil character in the modern novel’. Ford wanted to be ‘the historian of his own time’. Here, he achieved his goal, and in doing so produced a series of great experimental novels.
'There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them'
Ford’s prose is brimming with subtle observations about relationships and a Freudian sense of character rarely displayed by British writers of his time. Adapted by Tom Stoppard in 2012 for an acclaimed BBC/HBO television series, Ford’s second masterpiece, after his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, is undergoing a richly deserved revival. Ford is astonishingly perceptive in his presentation of British society as it evolved during and after the war. Like his protagonist, he was known for his phenomenal memory, and he was exceptionally attuned to the class distinctions of the times in which he lived. He also drew on his wartime experiences; he worked for the War Propaganda Bureau and then enlisted, partly to evade his then-girlfriend Violet Hunt, whose wrathful nature influenced the character of Sylvia. A shell explosion concussed him during the Battle of the Somme, an experience mirrored by Tietjens’s shell shock. He was eventually invalided back to Britain and began writing Parade’s End while convalescing in France.
Just as compelling as the novel’s decade-spanning landscape is Ford’s portrayal of the pensive, highly intelligent, emotionally reticent Tietjens. Few novels have a principal character whose consciousness is so fully expressed, nor convey with such accomplished, artful confusion the complex interrelation of our inner and outer worlds, and the anxieties, misperceptions and contradictions that beset our relationships.
Some Do Not... opens in England in 1912. Tietjens is a young government statistician, admired for his brilliance but with a personal life teetering on the brink of scandal, thanks to his wife’s promiscuity and his own growing attachment to suffragette Valentine Wannop. No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up— are set largely on the Western Front, where Tietjens has been stationed. He is determined to be with Valentine, but Sylvia’s machinations intensify as she seeks the ruin of the husband she desires and loathes in equal measure. The Last Post draws the tetralogy to a bold and poignant close, occupying just a few hours of a summer’s day after the war. Ford moves between the thoughts of multiple characters, offering a fascinating, splintered view both of the protagonist and the post-war era.
'Virtually alone of the male writing of the 1920s in affirming the ascendance of women and advocating a course of graceful withdrawal from dominance for men'