"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 22, 2011

"The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford (Book Review)

The Good Soldier (1915) is not a war tale, as I first thought on the basis of the title, but the story of the tragic lives of two outwardly "perfect couples." It is a story about adultery and deceit and finally about how people can destroy each other. It is also the ultimate novel with an unreliable narrator.

There are two kinds of unreliable narrators, those who cheat on purpose, and those who do not see the truth themselves. John Dowell, who tells the story of "the good soldier", belongs in the last group. He first gives us the story in flashbacks from the outside, seen through his rather naive eyes. Gradually, as his knowledge grows, we penetrate into the heart of this sad story and see events in their true colors.

The novel is set in the decade just before WWI. John Dowell is a rich American from an old Philidelphia family, idle but well-meaning, who has married the beautiful but empty-headed Florence on a strange condition: that he never enters her bedroom! She claims she has a heart problem and any excitement could be fatal so the marriage should remain sexless. An added condition is that he take her to Europe. So they rent an apartment in Paris and spend the summers in a German spa, Nauheim, where she cures for her heart. John is his wife's nurse (and financier) rather than her husband.

In Germany they meet a British couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham and they soon become fast friends. Here the husband, Edward, has the heart problem prompting them to leave their English country house every summer for the German spa's. Although the Ashburnhams are perfectly polite to each other in public, in private they never exchange a word. The husband, the owner of a large estate, has been a military man, although now retired, and as he is the main focus of the story, the novel has been named after him "the good soldier."

Edward has another "heart problem" as well : he is a great philanderer. He can't keep his hands off other women and that is the reason his relations with Leonora are so cold. His women also have cost him a lot of money, so now Leonora - the daughter of impoverished Irish gentry - handles all financial affairs.

It is only after the death of Florence that John learns Edward and Florence have been lovers, for a full nine years, right under his unseeing eyes. He has been squarely cuckolded and learns that in reality Florence had no heart problems at all, she just wanted to keep him away so that she could carry on with various lovers. Her death was in fact a suicide, brought on because these events came out. Interestingly, John never blames Edward.

Later he visits Edward and Leonora in England, where he witnesses another tragedy. After Florence, Edward has fallen in love with Nancy, his young ward. He fights against this affection, but Leonora coldly plays them out against each other. When Nancy leaves him, Edward commits suicide, thereby ending the story. The bad heart of Edward was of course also a lie - but despite his failings, Edward is seen by the narrator as an unselfish and warm personality, with as only short-coming his sentimentality, which made him fall in love all the time.

The perspective of the story keeps changing in an ingenious way. We start with the focus on John and Florence, after that Leonora for a while takes center stage, but the final focus is on the real protagonist, Edward, the good soldier. The shift in focus is accompanied by a shift in knowledge, as John gradually realizes the truth.
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was the grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. His real name was Ford Hermann Hueffer. Born in the U.K.. he also lived in various European countries and in the U.S. The Good Soldier is generally considered as his best novel. Another important novel is the his tetralogy Parade's End (1924–1928), set in England and on the Western Front before, during and after World War I. Ford Madox Ford was also an important critic and helped many other writers in their first steps towards fame.
The Good Soldier is available as a Penguin Modern Classic, and can also be found at Gutenberg