Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
Like most people who have had any exposure to Ford Madox Ford (not to be confused with Pre-Raphaelite painter, Ford Madox Brown or a car Henry Ford didn’t make), it was through his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier. However, I was prompted by Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the tetralogy known as Parade’s End for the BBC to explore his oeuvre further.
The four novels were published between 1924 and 1928 and concern themselves with the life of Christopher Tietjens, a government statistician from a wealthy landowning family. The first volume (Some Do Not..) – FMF is fond of the aposiopesis – is set before the First World War, the second (No More Parades) and third (A Man Could Stand Up) during the war and the fourth (Last Post) following the war.
Themes running through the tetralogy are the horrors of war, sexual passion and madness. The story revolves around Tietjen’s doomed marriage to Sylvia, a deeply repelling and unhinged character, the uncertainty that their son is his and his unconsummated affair with suffragette Valentine Wannop who may also be the illegitimate daughter of his father. Sylvia is the polar opposite of Christopher, modern, promiscuous, Catholic whilst he is a conservative Anglican and Latinist stuck in the eighteenth century. Wannop is also another version of modernism, a suffragette, but as a consummate Latinist she is more in tune with her lover.
Like war, sexual passion is depicted as another version of madness – Sylvia says that men just go to war to rape innumerable women – and most characters are described at some point as mad or on the verge of madness – the only rock of sanity seems to be the French mistress of Tietjen’s brother, Mark. Even in the fourth book there is no peace for Christopher who is continually harried and tormented by Sylvia who is out to destroy him and all he holds dear (including the totemic (in every sense of the word) Great Tree of Groby, his family home).
The second and third volumes describe the horrors of trench life but are interspersed with humour and a damning critique of the governing classes. Unlike the TV adaptation, much of the work features the thoughts and recollections of the key characters and visits and revisits the same events from different perspectives.
I found the books satisfying, enormously enjoyable but quite demanding of the reader. I would recommend a break between each course – all four courses in a sitting may be just a bit too indigestible.