Forty years ago, I sat, afternoon after afternoon, for almost two years, in the Upper Reading Room of the Bodleian Library. I was purportedly pursuing literary research (I had done the serious work before lunch, honestly!), but really I was reading novels that were loosely connected to the time encompassed by my thesis. “Calling up” books, waiting for them to be fetched from the stacks, and then opening what proved almost consistently to be first editions, evoke a golden time that nostalgia paints deceptive sepia. The catalogue at that time had the form of large folio ledgers, divided at some arbitrary year (I do not remember which.) because the original set of ledgers had simply filled up. Even opening their pages could be perilous for the entries on long rectangular strips of paper, especially the older ones, were often loosely attached and fluttered to the floor. How to replace such an errant entry?
Thinking of these afternoons recently, I could not dissociate them from reading Ford Maddox Ford’s tetralogy, now called Parade’s End (1924 – 1928). I found myself opening the work again and compulsively reading it through. At the time, years ago, I offered to myself as mitigating circumstances for the indulgence in novel reading the fact that it was driven by research into life in England between the two wars – roughly the time frame of my topic. Admiration for Ford’s The Good Soldier and the anecdotes written by and about him pushed my interest. The work’s chief character, Christopher Tietjens, is the second son of a great landed Yorkshire family; Tory by upbringing and conviction, and an immensely gifted mathematician, at the opening of the novel he serves a government department with great skill and with little apparent conceit. Christopher’s relationship with his manipulative and scheming wife, Sylvia, forms one of the major conflicts. The pair seems fated to confound each other. Sylvia’s Catholicism prevents divorce, and her profligacy makes the parentage of their child suspect. All this is further complicated by the unjust suspicions of Mark Tietjens, the elder brother, that Christopher is having an affair with a young woman, Valentine Wannop, who is both suffragette and a socialist in politics. The drama is played out in the years bracketing the Great War. Ford himself served in France; his experiences give eye-witness validity to his account. Tietjens, superbly competent at organization and supplying of troops with material, copes with the horrors of battle – both with the enemy across No-Man’s-Land and with his wife. The hero is stoically truthful and suffers constantly for his determination to act honorably. His probity makes him at times unbearable even to his friends, just as they allow him to be easily exploited. His Christological significance has often been noted.
The details of plot are myriad, and the characteristic Fordian dialogue obfuscates as much as it reveals. Ford simply excels in dramatizing character through their verbal exchanges; his breadth of range and fluency are impressive, but his style may be an acquired taste. It suggests the maxim, “more is more.” The novel’s forth volume, The Last Post, set after the war, was a disappointment to some. Graham Green refused to include it in his Bodley Head edition but others have praised its interior monologue form.
The BBC has announced that it will be airing a television adaptation of the work done by Sir Tom Stoppard, no more assured way to gain greater currency for the book. It is to be reprinted in a critical edition, and has been available in Modern Library form edited by the late Malcolm Bradbury.
Ford’s role in English letters in the first part of the twentieth century is legendary. He knew and published in his The English Review, a great number of famous authors. His list of publications is enormous, rivaled only by the hyperbole that seems to surround him – in the form of praise and criticism. Perhaps the BBC will bring about a Ford resurgence. In any case, he exists, indelibly, in afternoons of great and happy distraction for me, evoking a past, my own and his.