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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

"The good soldier" by Ford Madox Ford

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." This is the first line of this extraordinary book. The narrator, a rich American called John Dowell goes to a German spa town every year with his wife Florence because she has (she says) a bad heart. The couple meet Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora. They are the perfect couple and Edward is "the cleanest-looking sort of chap"  ... You would have said that he was just exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with. And I trusted mine, and it was madness"(p 14) Edward and Florence embark on an affair. At the end of the first chapter the narrator asks himself: " "Am I no better than a eunuch or is the proper man ... a raging stallion forever neighing after his neighbour's womankind?" (p 14) [I love the pair of neighs.]

The story is set in respectable society. The 'good soldier' Edward, whom the narrator respects and admires and excuses throughout the tale, is a serial adulterer who cannot help himself but get invovled with pretty girls. If he is a raging stallion, the narrator's wife is a mare in season, having an affair both before her marriage and during the honeymoon and subsequently having an affair with Captain A. The narrator himself never seems to have sex at all having been told by his wife that she has a weak heart ('heart trouble' is a neat metaphor) and any such excitement will kill her (which gives her the opportunity for her affairs). But it is a comedy in the sense that the transgressors die. So these upright upper class people encounter sex, violent death and madness. "Our intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we should unanimously choose ... it wasn't a minuet that we stepped; it was a prison - a prison full of screaming hysterics, tied down so that they might not outsound the rolling of our carriage wheels." (p 11)

The story proceeds in an extraordinarily rambling fashion. Dowell the narrator, who protests his innocence (both in the sense of ignorance and in the sense of guiltlessness) throughout the book is incapable of telling a linear narrative; sometimes it is very difficult to understand what is happening and when. Many events are prefigured and sometimes he refers back to something he mentioned previously but then at such a tangential allusion that it becomes easy to miss. Then again, it becomes difficult to believe in what he says. For all his protestations that he really isn't understanding what is happening this story is written from the point of view of hindsight. At the start he repeatedly refers to his wife as "poor dear Florence" but once he has recounted what she has done he says that "I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness". But he knew about her when he was still telling us she was a "poor dear" as if the thing that has made him hate her is the telling of the tale.

Even though Florence wasn't romantic at all (according to her husband) she loves a story about a mad French troubadour from the Middle Ages who fell in love with the chatelaine of the Four Castles and how her husband was forced to "kneel down and kiss his feet" and spend a lot of money looking after him and tell the world that "it was not proper to treat a great poet with indifference" even though the husband "was a most ferocious warrior" (p 18) This, then  mirrors the theme of the complacent cuckold.

There is some lovely innuendo. "Florence was at that time engaged in educating Captain Ashburnham - oh, of course, quite pour le bon motif [with the best intentions]" (p 32)  "the Captain was quite evidently enjoying being educated by Florence. She used to do it about three or four times a week under the approving eyes of Leonora and myself." (p 33)

One of the brilliances of this book is the way FMF ended his chapters on cliff hangers or words of great import: THIS BIT HAS SPOILERS

  • Part One ends with the death of Maisie, one of Edward's affairs. Leonora seeks Maisie but finds her in her room, dead. Not suicide. Her heart gave out. Edward “imagined that the death had been the most natural thing in the world. He soon got over it. Indeed, it was the one affair of his about which he never felt much remorse.” (p 57)
  • Part Two ends when Florence, realising her infidelities are at last to be exposed and fearing that Captain A is moving on to yet another women, is found lying dead on her bed, "a little phial that rightly should have contained nitrate of amyl [heart medicine], in her right hand" (p 76)
  • Edward's suicide, though much foreshadowed, occurs right at the very end of the book.
There are many wonderful moments. Here are a few:

  • "I know nothing ... of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone - horribly alone." (p 12)
  • "the whole world for me is like spots of colour in an immense canvas. Perhaps, if it weren't so, I should have something to catch hold of now." (p 16) 
  • And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dextrously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls.” (p 25)
  • "But these things have to be done: it is the cock that the whole of this society owes to Aesculapius." (p 31)
  • "And the odd, queer thing is that the whole collection of rules applies to anybody - to the anybodies that you meet in hotels, in railway trains, to a less degree, perhaps, in steamers, but even, in the end, upon steamers. You meet a man or a woman and, from tiny and intimate sounds, from the smallest of movements, you know at once whether you are concerned with good people or with those who won't do.  ... But the inconvenient - well, hang it all, I will say it - the damnable nuisance of the whole thing is that with all the taking for granted, you never really get an inch deeper than the things I have catalogued." (p 31)
  • I have the right to say it, since for years he was my wife's lover, since he killed her ... There is no priest that has the right to tell me that I must not ask pity for him ... from the God who created in him those desires, those madnesses ...” (pp 39 - 40)
  •  “It would have left a better taste in the mouth if Florence had let her die in peace.” (p 41)
  • You cannot, you see, have acted as nurse to a person for twelve years without wishing to go on nursing them, even though you hate them with the hatred of the adder ... I hate Florence with such a hatred that I would not spare her an eternity of loneliness ... She should not have done it. She should not have done it. ..." (p 54)
  • "I was like a chicken that is determined to get across the road in front of an automobile" (p 60)
  • "I always say that an overmastering passion is a good excuse for feelings. You cannot help them. And it is a good excuse for straight actions." (p 64)
  • "It is vanity that makes most of us keep straight, if we do keep straight, in this world." (p 86)
  • "a dollar can be extremely desirable if you don't happen to possess one." (p 110)
  • "all I wanted to do there was just to satisfy myself that the houses were in good repair and the doors kept properly painted." (p 111)
  • "this is a real story and ... real stories are probably told best in the way a person telling a story would tell them. They will then seem most real." (p 131)
  •   "She saw life as a perpetual sex battle between husbands who desire to be unfaithful to their wives, and wives who desire to recapture their husbands in the end. ... Man, for her, was a sort of brute who must have his divagations, his moments of excess, his nights out, his, let us say, rutting seasons." (pp 132 - 133)
  • "it is at the end of a long rowing contest that a crew finally collapses and lies forward upon its oars." (p 144)
  • "She knew nothing - nothing of life, except that one must live sadly." (p 159)
  • "Why can't people have what they want? The things were all there to content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing." (p 167)
  • "Conventions and traditions ... work blindly but surely for the preservation of the normal type - for the extinction of proud, resolute and unusual individuals." (p 167)
Complicated! But exceptional. 
 August 2012; 179 pages

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