The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was published in 1915, and the story is set just before World War 1.
The narrator, John Dowell is an American from Philadelphia married to Florence from Connecticut. They are very friendly with an English couple, Edward Ashburnham (the ‘good soldier’ of the title) and his wife Leonora. Most of the action is set in continental Europe, on the French coast or the spa resort, Nauheim in Germany, where Edward and Florence are seeking treatment, ostensibly for their heart ailments. The narrator describes the characters as ‘all quite good people’ – Edward especially so – but as the story progresses it becomes clear that all is not what it seems: the good characters unravel rapidly and their dark sides are revealed.
Edward is a philanderer whilst Florence is scheming, manipulative and unfaithful; neither suffer the heart ailments that they lead others to believe – they have constructed elaborate fake heart-trouble in order to pursue adulterous affairs in Nauheim. Leonora struggles to control her husband’s womanising and financial carelessness. She ultimately succeeds, but ends up marrying a dullard. Most importantly, the narrator himself is unreliable, telling us about his bad memory (although some details are recounted in vivid detail). The story he tells is chronologically confused, full of inconsistencies and confuses the reader. At the end of the book we were left thinking that he might not merely be a poor story-teller with a bad memory but something worse, a murderer who has been obfuscating the truth and deliberately misleading us.
The book’s title does not describe the content of the book. The author’s preferred title was The Saddest Story - a tale of passion, echoing the famous first sentence ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’, but the publisher thought a book with a sad title, published in wartime years (1915) would not be saleable. Ford was asked for another title, to which he replied, probably sarcastically, “Why not the Good Soldier...’ and was horrified when this silly title was actually used (we learn this from the author’s 1927 letter to Stella Ford, who was really Stella Bowen and not his wife). The book didn’t sell very well, perhaps because readers found its content quite different from what they had expected and didn’t recommend it to friends.
We struggled with the book. Most of our discussion was between members who had read the book two or three times and in one case also twice viewed the DVD (Granada TV, 1981). The author’s writing style is clever and some thought elegant, but he conveys a blurred and uncertain vision of events, much as the impressionist painters were doing at that time on canvas.
The proposer of the book prefaced his introductory remarks by telling us about a modern book called The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes, in which a distinction is made between books that are ’readerly’ and those that are ‘writerly’. The chief distinction is that in a ‘writerly’ text the reader is expected to do some of the work, even retracing the steps taken by the author, whereas in a ‘readerly’ text, a fairly straightforward narrative style makes everything clear. The proposer suggested that The Good Soldier is firmly in the ‘writerly’ category. Some of the other books read by the group have ‘writerly’ qualities: for example in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the reader is not always told who is speaking, but must work that out from the content and context of the spoken words.
We talked about John Dowell’s character a good deal. In fact he can be said to be the only character in the book, as everyone else is presented from his point of view, and their words are only the words he reports to us – sometimes from scenarios at which he was not himself present. He is an unreliable and inconsistent narrator. He presents himself as a naive type, a daft laddie, and frequently apologises for his bumbling style, but there are at least some grounds for suspecting that all this is a ruse to obfuscate a dark deed that he has perpetrated – murdering his wife Florence and making it seem like a suicide.
John Dowell’s attitude to Edward Ashburnham, the ‘good soldier’ of the title, is deeply ambivalent. At various points he describes him with contempt, and at others with admiration and even envy. He even says that he ‘loved’ him. ‘He was the cleanest sort of chap; an excellent magistrate, a first rate soldier, one of the best landlords…in Hampshire…to the poor and to hopeless drunkards…he was like a painstaking guardian.’ He is a ‘good sportsman’ and risked his life to save others at sea. He was also the inventor of a new army stirrup!
But Edward obviously has a high libido, and conducts a series of affairs with other women while apparently abstaining from sexual relations with his own wife. On the final page of the book the narrator tells of Edward’s final demise: we are led to believe he has slit his throat or his wrists with a penknife, although, as with the death of Florence (Dowell’s unfaithful wife), we are left feeling that John Dowell himself could have done it. After all, Edward has cuckolded him for years, and Dowell is in love with Nancy Rufford, who is besotted with Edward, and has also – inconsistently as ever – confessed to coveting Edward’s wife Leonora.
Like his narrator, the author himself was a somewhat inconsistent character whose emotional life was complicated, as discussed by Julian Barnes in The Guardian, 7 June 2008. Ford Madox Ford was born in Surrey in 1873 as Ford Hermann Hueffer but German-sounding names were unpopular at the time of the Great War. Rather belatedly, in 1919 he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford (after being in the British army with his German name, 1915-1917). His real wife was Elsie Martindale but although he took other lovers she refused divorce. He lived first with Violet Hunt, a novelist whom he called Violet Hueffer and then with Stella Bowen, an Australian painter, whom he called Stella Ford. There was also the writer Jean Rhys in Paris.
So in some respects the author might have served as his own model for both the womanizer Edward Ashburnham and the shifty and confusing John Dowell. Perhaps all fictional characters embody some elements of their creators. Biographers think there may have been an original Edward Ashburnham – and Ford himself claims that both the man and the story were drawn from life - but he hasn’t been identified so far.
As one grapples with the plot, there are many passages of great humour, often satirical of social manners, and of attitudes towards, among other things, the Catholic Church, Scotsmen, Northerners, and Americans. The way the characters express themselves is often funny too – for example Edward’s reported worry that using one’s brain too much may diminish performance on the polo field. The book also has, in passing, much to say about class – the contrasts and imbalances between the ‘county folk’ like the Ashburnhams and their servants, and Dowell’s lack of compunction in beating up a long-standing and loyal negro retainer.
Dowell’s generalisations about women are also humorously handled, and are perhaps infused with the historical context of the suffragette movement that was at its height in 1913 as Ford Madox Ford was writing the book:
‘For although women, as I see them, have little or no feeling towards a country or a career – although they may be entirely lacking in any kind of communal solidarity – they have an immense and automatically working instinct that attaches them to the interest of womanhood’.
The author considered this to be his best work. He thought it was a ‘serious analysis of the polygamous desires that underlie all men’. Some of us thought it was something in the nature of a technical experiment: his attempt to be clever, or at least clever enough to see whether the narrator could hide the truth by pretending to be a poor story-teller, as distinct from more obviously unreliable narrators in fiction, such as a clown, madman or naive person. The confused timeline was also a technical experiment, and Ford’s overall intention was a form of ‘impressionism’, in some ways akin to the vision of the impressionist painters.
Although the work was not popular at the time it was published, it has stayed in print and is nowadays often in the lists of ‘most important books to read’. Ford imagined his book could be required reading for university students in 150 years time. It hasn’t quite made it yet, but there is still a half-century to go!