A Sad Story

My venture into the depths of literature made me trudge down alleys I would not normally walk down on. By perusing several must-read, I encountered titles and writers I have previously never encountered. One such name was Ford Maddox Ford and his novel, The Good Soldier. Back then, it was one of the titles that I was apprehensive about. I barely had an iota on what the book was about; because of the title, I assumed it was about soldiers and warfare, two subjects I was not really a fan of. However, when I came across the book during the 2019 Big Bad Wolf Sale, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it for it was on sale. I mean, there is nothing wrong if I buy the book since it was also listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Speaking of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I read The Good Soldier when I immersed in works from the said list last October 2020. I was curious what the book was about, especially after reading the novel’s opening line: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Apparently, the voice was by John Dowell, a Philadelphian from a “good” family. He was married to Florence, an heiress from Stamford, Connecticut who was suffering from a heart ailment. As a result of Florence’s frail condition, the Dowells were obliged to live in a succession of European health spas, seeking treatment and comfort at the same time.

At a health spa in Nauheim, Germany, the American couple encountered Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora. Captain Ashburnham, the titular “good soldier”, was on leave from service in India. Like Florence, he was also suffering from heart disease, which led to the British couple spending their time in European health spas. The two couples, with their seemingly perfect unions, would soon forge a friendship that would extend for years. The narrative, related primarily through the perspective of John Dowell, then follows the story of the two couples as their lives become entangled in a web Dowell has never foreseen nor expected when he took the “good soldier” as his friend.

“Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and madness.”

~ Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

Widely regarded by many a literary pundit as the best of Ford’s corpus, The Good Soldier originally carried the title The Saddest Story. Post-World War I, however, publishers asked Ford for a new title to which, without preamble, he sarcastically suggested The Good Soldier. Ironically, the title stuck and would be the title the literary classic would be known for years to come. Twelve years following the change in title, Ford was quoted as mentioning his regret on being convinced by the publisher to change the title. Nevertheless, The Good Soldier proved to be an enduring literary classic, with its influence rippling in the contemporary. Decades after its initial publication, it still continue to receive praise and in 2015, it was even ranked 13 by the BBC on its list of the 100 greatest British novels.

What does the novel hold that it still earns recognition long after its publication? On the surface, the novel is about two couples who share some similarities. Their seemingly perfect marriages have bound them together, helping them develop an unlikely friendship in the health spas of Europe. Like a closely knit group of friends, the two couples enjoyed the pleasures of their privileged lives. Together, they drank tea , listened to the Kur orchestra, and attended social functions. To the typical spectator, the quartet was the epitome of perfection and marital bliss. However, there was more to their story than meets the eye. As we all have learned by now, not everything is as they seem. As the lives of the two couples get intertwined, the veil of perfection was pierced and what unfolded was a story where deception, and lies resonated.

With the convergence of the two couples is the collision of different personalities. This contrasts and similarities propelled the narrative forward. As the façade of superficiality was lifted, the readers were given a glimpse of a life far from the idea glam of health spas and tea ceremonies. As the characters are being unmasked, the readers learn that they are not who they purported themselves to be. Dowell’s wife, Florence, for instance, has a cunning and complicit personality. She feigned her heart ailment in order to keep her husband from the marital bed. It was also a ploy to conceal the clandestine affair she was having with Jimmy, an American artist.

In a way, Edward was Florence’s equal. His heart ailment was also a product of fiction. It was a sorry excuse he concocted with in order to pursue a woman at the health spa in Nauheim. As one digs deeper into the story, several instances of Edward’s infidelities surfaced. One of his most bizarre affairs was with La Dolciquita, the mistress of the Grand Duke of Nauheim-Schwerin. In a manner of speaking, Edward defied conventions for he is a sincerely believed himself a romanticist and that he is love with the objects of his desire: “With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory. A turn of the eyebrow, a tone of the voice, a queer characteristic gesture—all these things, and it is these things that cause to arise the passion of love.” His constant philandering did come with a hefty price; he had to pay bribes and gifts for his lovers. To save them from financial ruin, Leonora took control of her husband’s financial affairs, and paid off his debts.

“There is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.”

~ Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

Apart from marital troubles, betrayal was theme central to the story. This betrayal happened within the tightly knit circle of the two couples. This would ultimately lead to a suicide of one and the death of another. The most scandalous of Edward’s affair, however, was with Nancy Rufford, a young ward of the Ashburnhams. Unlike in his other pursuits, Edward controlled his passion, wanting to preserve Nancy’s innocence. However, the affair didn’t end well as Nancy later on became ill. Dowell ended up taking care of Nancy. There was also a preoccupation with hearts that went beyond the purported maladies Florence and Edward suffered from. However, there were actual heart ailments interspersed in the story.

Marital relationships are brimming with complexities, as was portrayed through the story of the Dowells and the Ashburnhams. What makes the novel even more interesting is that draws parallels from the author’s own chaotic marital life. This mess led him to changing names. Originally born Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer, it was often believed that he changed his name twice – to Ford Madox Hueffer before settling with Ford Maddox Ford – in order to steer clear of any lawsuits from his first wife, Elsie. Beyond the intricacies of his personal life, Ford was a renowned promoter of literature, publishing the works of up and coming novelists such as Thomas, Hardy, H.G. Wells, and Ezra Pound, to name a few.

As a writer, Ford did struggle for some time trying to find the perfect voice and style to convey his stories. He constantly experimented with technique and style. It was until The Good Soldier that he finally found an assured and consistent style while simultaneously producing a literary masterpiece. The novel’s brilliance lies not in the titular good soldier but in John Dowell. Through Dowell, Ford employed the device of the unreliable narrator, utilizing it to maximum impact. In the opening pages, John Dowell was quoted saying, “I swear to you that they (the Ashburnhams) were the model couple.” But as everyone can agree by now, this was palpably false and Dowell was even aware of it.

It can’t escape one’s notice that the version of events Dowell was relating was a contrast of what the earlier pages led the readers to believe. Rather than a straightforward story with a linear plot, The Good Soldier relied greatly on the accretion of Dowell’s memories as he recalls them. This resulted into a bumbling narrator who was unsure most of the times: “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down.” He also expressed a lack in confidence in his ability of making sense of the story he is relating. He constantly weaved in and out of different time frames. It was because of this that I struggled establishing a consistent reading pace. Every now and then, I had to go back to earlier pages to connect the dots; there were several of them. It was not an easy read and it does require a lot of patience to grasp the story.

“Mind, I am not preaching anything contrary to accepted morality. I am not advocating free love in this or any other case. Society must go on, I suppose, and society can only exist if the normal, if the virtuous, and the slightly deceitful flourish, and if the passionate, the headstrong, and the too-truthful are condemned to suicide and madness.”

~ Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

What really stood out, rather, who really stood out in the narrative was John Dowell. His voice loomed above the narrative for the version of events we read are his. We must rely on his memories as he recalls them. However, his unreliability makes one question his true intentions and motivations. The novel then transforms into a character study as one scrutinizes his person. With the events surrounding him, Dowell was mostly passive, at least where emotions are concerned. It does come across that he only cares about himself for he barely exhibited any feelings to events that, to a normal person, would elicit strong reactions. Overall, he was a disengaged narrator, almost like an onlooker and not a character central to the story. Like the story he was relating, was Dowell who he really purported himself to be?

As the narrative draws to a close, one can easily fathom why Ford originally gave this literary tour-de-force with the title The Saddest Story. Despite the desire and passion that emanated from the characters, no one ended up happy. There was no “happily ever after,” as fairy tales go. Two primary characters died and another one ended up mentally ill, cared for by another character. The story of the two couples was a tangled web of sad events. As a literary work, it cannot be denied that The Good Soldier was a masterpiece. It was never an easy read and it explored the complexities of marital relationships and the banal themes of betrayal and deception. But it was more than that. In John Dowell, we find one of the finest examples of the unreliable narrator who made the readers question everything, especially the impressions we have of others.

Ratings

82%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Book Specs

Author: Ford Madox Ford
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: 2010
Number of Pages: 239
Genre: Fiction

Synopsis

When John Fowell and his wife befriend Edward and Leonora Ashburnham they appear to be the perfect couple. He is a distinguished soldier and she is beautiful and intelligent. However, what lies beneath the surface of their marriage is far more sinister and their influence leads John into a tragic drama that threatens to destroy everything he cares about.

About the Author

Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer was born on December 17, 1873 in Merton, Surrey, England. He was the oldest of three children. His father, Francis Hueffer, was of German origin and was a music critic for The Times. Following their father’s death in 1889, Ford and his brother, Oliver, went to live with their grandfather in London. Ford graduate from the University College School in London but he never attended university.

Ford’s literary career begun when he was 18. His debut novel, The Shifting of Fire was published in 1892. In 1897, he got acquainted with Joseph Conrad. Their friendship resulted into collaborations in The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). Whilst he produced a score of literary works where he experimented with his prose and storytelling, it wasn’t until the publication of The Good Soldier in 1915 that he obtained a consistent and powerful prose. The Good Soldier was also tagged by many a literary pundit as the best of Ford’s works. Over the course of his prolific career, Ford has published over 70 works of fiction, poems, short stories, essays, and nonfiction. Some of his works include Parade’s End tetralogy (1950; comprising Some Do Not [1924], No More Parades [1925], A Man Could Stand Up [1926], and Last Post [1928]), The Benefactor (1905), and It Was the Nightingale (1933).

Ford, who previously used the name Ford Madox Hueffer before adapting Ford Madox Ford, was also known for his promotion of literature. In 1908, he founded the literary magazine The English Review. Ford would publish the works of Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, May Sinclair, John Galsworthy and William Butler Yeats. He also published the debut works of fledgling writers Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal that greatly influenced modern literature. Ford also befriended and published the works of esteemed writers such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Rhys.

Ford was also renowned as a literary critic. Ford spent the last years of his life teaching at Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan. He passed away on June 26, 1939 in Deauville, France at the age of 65.