The good soldier, p.1
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The Good Soldier


  FORD MADDOX FORD was born Ford Hermann Hueffer in Surrey in 1873. He married Elsie Martindale in 1894. His first published works were fairy stories. In 1898 he met Joseph Conrad and they collaborated on several works including the novels The Inheritors and Romance. Ford published over eighty books in total, The Fifth Queen appearing in three parts during the period 1906–8. In 1915 he published The Good Soldier, which he regarded as his finest achievement. In the same year he enlisted in the army and served as an infantry officer. Parade’s End, the culmination of his experiences during the First World War, was published in four parts between 1924 and 1928. Ford moved to Paris in 1922 and two years later founded the Transatlantic Review, whose contributors included, among others, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. In his later years he divided his time between France and America. Ford also published several volumes of autobiography and reminiscence, including Return to Yesterday (1931) and It Was the Nightingale (1934). A final characteristically personal and ambitious volume of criticism, The March of Literature, appeared in 1939, the year he died.

  Educated at Newcastle University and the University of Oxford, David Bradshaw is Hawthornden Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford. He has edited The Hidden Huxley (1994), Brave New World (1994) and Oxford World’s Classics editions of The White Peacock (1997), Women in Love (1998), Mrs Dalloway (2000) and The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (2001) by Virginia Woolf. In addition he has edited Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall for Penguin Classics (2001), a volume on Modernism for Blackwell (2002) and has published articles on Bloomsbury, Conrad, T. S. Eliot, Huxley, Woolf, Yeats and various aspects of literature and politics in the 1930s. He is an Editor of the Review of English Studies and a Fellow of the English Association.


  The Good Soldier




  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by The Bodley Head 1915

  Published in Penguin Books 1946


  Introduction and editorial material copyright © David Bradshaw, 2002

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser




  Selected Reading

  Note on the Text

  Dedicatory Letter to Stella Ford

  Part One

  Part Two

  Part Three

  Part Four



  This may or may not be ‘the saddest story’ you will ever hear, but it will certainly be one of the best. As a tale of the ‘broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic’ human condition it has few equals and it spellbinds from the beginning. Ford once said that he and his friend and collaborator Joseph Conrad (whom he first met in 1898) strove for progression d’effet in their novels, where ‘every word set on paper – every word set on paper – must carry the story forward, and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity’,1 and The Good Soldier, with its tortuous retreat from the farthest reaches of the Empire and the cosmopolitan watering-places of Europe to a loose box in a Hampshire stable (by way of two suicides, one fatality and one mental collapse), achieves progression d’effet of rare degree. It is universally regarded as one of the masterworks of modernist literature, a novel which explores tensions between light and darkness (epistemological, moral and narrative), speech and silence, desire and restraint, order and chaos with an ever-tightening power. Sadness is one of its many attributes; humour, oddly enough, is another.

  But, if there is one mood which dominates the novel, it is doubt: The Good Soldier, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), is orchestrated by an unreliable narrator, in this case John Dowell. One of the richest sources of pleasure for readers is in pitting themselves against Dowell, attempting to figure out the stories behind his story, trying to make sense of his peculiarities, obsessions, tonal shifts and evasions. It is not easy, since there is no aspect of the novel which is not either shaded by or shot through with uncertainty.

  One thing, however, seems clear: Captain Edward Ashburnham was not just a good soldier, but a very fine soldier indeed. A holder of both the Distinguished Service Order and the ‘Royal Humane Society’s medal with a clasp’ for having twice jumped from a troopship to rescue ‘Tommies’, Ashburnham, even more impressively, has been twice recommended for the Victoria Cross, the highest honour conferrable on a member of the British armed forces for conspicuous bravery in battle, ‘and, although owing to some technicalities he had never received that… order, he had some special place about his sovereign at the coronation [of Edward VII in 1901]’. It is small wonder Ashburnham’s troop had ‘loved him beyond the love of men’. Of course, by the time the Dowells meet the Ashburnhams in August 1904, the good soldier has resigned his commission, but being ‘tall, handsome, [and] blond’, and with a moustache ‘as stiff as a toothbrush’, Ashburnham still looks the consummate cavalry officer, even though his demeanour, like so many other aspects of this enthralling and challenging book, is deceptive.

  As Ford mentions in his ‘Dedicatory Letter to Stella Ford’, he had wanted to call the novel The Saddest Story, and had only offered an alternative as a joke when his publisher insisted that his preferred title would render the book ‘unsaleable’ following the outbreak of the First World War. Ford ‘never ceased to regret’ yielding to this importunity, and, as he anticipated, the title was something critics latched on to when the novel first appeared on 17 March 1915. The Observer’s reviewer, for example, saw it as indicative of ‘a desire to catch that public that does not want to hear of any other kind of excellence but military excellence’,2 although readers who did buy it for this reason would have been surprised, if not disappointed, to find Prussia treated sympathetically (apart from one passing slight) and the War unmentioned (though there are two oblique references to its build-up: in Part Four, Ashburnham attends a meeting of an imaginary ‘National Reserve Committee’ and a little further on he expresses his eagerness to get ‘the numbers of the Hampshire territorials up to the proper standard’). But it was the title’s moral thrust, with its apparent stress o
n Ashburnham’s goodness as a man rather than on the calibre of his soldiering, which provoked most of the critical flak. One reviewer thought it unthinkable that ‘an officer and a gentleman… should have behaved as in close on three hundred pages of brilliant writing Mr Hueffer tells us he did behave’,3 while another maintained, with full-chested pomposity, that ‘good soldiers soon escape the fumes and do not descend so readily to the inferno of caddishness’.4

  Nevertheless, while Ashburnham’s conduct as a husband leaves much to be desired, ‘along at least the lines of his public functions’ his goodness seems incontrovertible. Though his soldierly prowess is a thing of the past by 1904, he remains an altruistic ‘county magnate’ with a highly developed sense of noblesse oblige until the day he dies, granting ‘his tenants very high rebates’, allowing a hard-pressed man named Mumford to pay no rent at all, giving ‘an oldish horse to a young fellow called Selmes… [whose] father had been ruined by a fraudulent solicitor’, and, just before his death, spending two hundred pounds on the defence of ‘the daughter of one of his tenants, who had been accused of murdering her baby’. Time and time again, from the beginning of the novel to the end, Ashburnham’s unwavering goodness and decency are amplified by Dowell:

  He was, according to [his wife] Leonora, always remitting his tenants’ rents and giving the tenants to understand that the reduction would be permanent; he was always redeeming drunkards who came before his magisterial bench; he was always trying to put prostitutes into respectable places – and he was a perfect maniac about children.

  Dowell goes on to tell us he has no idea ‘how many ill-used people [Ashburnham] did not pick up and provide with careers – Leonora has told me, but I daresay she exaggerated and the figure seems so preposterous that I will not put it down. All these things, and the continuance of them seemed to him to be his duty – along with impossible subscriptions to hospitals and Boy Scouts and to provide prizes at cattle shows and anti-vivisection societies’. Ashburnham is even responsible for ‘a thousand little acts of kindliness, of thoughtfulness for his inferiors… on the Continent’, coming to the assistance, for example, of Hessian paupers and the Hotel Excelsior’s deserted head waiter. In fact, apart from his all-too-public lapse with the Kilsyte girl, ‘the public side of his record’ is spotless, as Dowell is ever ready to attest. He describes Ashburnham as ‘the cleanest-looking sort of chap; an excellent magistrate, a first-rate soldier, one of the best landlords, so they said, in Hampshire’ and he is so unequivocal about the virtues of ‘Teddy Ashburnham’, and lists his merits and accomplishments so regularly, that his adulation of his friend is possibly the only consistent element of his story. Indeed, his reverence of the man who cuckolds him is hardly less ardent than that of Nancy Rufford, Ashburnham’s infatuated ward. ‘Have I conveyed to you the splendid fellow that he was – the fine soldier, the excellent landlord, the extraordinarily kind, careful and industrious magistrate, the upright, honest, fair-dealing, fair-thinking, public character?’ Dowell asks anxiously at one point. ‘It is impossible of me to think of Edward Ashburnham as anything but straight, upright and honourable,’ he confesses at another.

  Yet the more fulsomely Dowell praises Ashburnham and affirms that he possessed ‘all the virtues that are usually accounted English’ and that he believed ‘constancy was the finest of the virtues’, the more the reader feels inclined to respond to his words with puzzlement, if not amazement. As the novel unfolds, we become increasingly conscious of the discrepancy between Ashburnham’s almost saintly ‘public character’ and the shabbiness of his private life. It is true that Dowell regards himself as a poor judge of his fellow men, but this deficiency alone cannot fully explain the slippage between the paragon whom the narrator exalts and the libertine whose affairs he chronicles. Dowell represents Ashburnham as a ‘sentimentalist’ and an incurable romantic, but from a less sentimental viewpoint he is an incurable philanderer, ‘a rake impregnated with lachrymose sensibility’, as the Athenaeum’s critic put it in 1915.5 In his roles as feudal squire, county magistrate and cavalry officer, Ashburnham personifies loyalty and integrity; in his extra-marital relationships with La Dolciquita, Mrs Basil, Mrs Maidan and Mrs Dowell, he more obviously embodies the absence of those virtues.

  Ashburnham is most certainly a bit of a mystery, but Dowell is English literature’s most fascinating enigma. Paradoxically, the more gushingly he idolizes the errant ex-soldier and the more contradictory his appraisals of the other main characters turn out to be, the more urgently we feel the need to fathom not them but him. Whether Leonora is at heart a frigid and malevolent harpy or whether her humanity has dwindled with her marriage will be for the reader to decide; and whether the wayward Florence Dowell, admittedly a bit of a ‘riddle’, is really a scheming temptress or simply an opportunist who exploits Dowell’s perverse determination to marry her in order to resume her affair with the Europe-bound Jimmy, is similarly open to question. But coming to terms with Dowell himself is far more exacting. ‘I don’t know that analysis of my own psychology matters at all to this story,’ he remarks at the beginning of Part Three, but he could not be more mistaken. Ultimately, depending on how Dowell’s relationships with Florence, Leonora, Nancy and Ashburnham are configured; on how the reader interprets the various relationships amongst these last four and, above all, on whether the reader sees Dowell as ‘an American millionaire of exaggerated density’6 or a more switched-on and manipulative story-teller, seemingly intent on hiding rather than revealing the truth, ‘analysis of [his]… psychology’ is probably the only reliable angle from which the novel may be approached. So much so, that some critics have recommended that we subject Dowell not only to the closest scrutiny, but that we ‘assume an unrelievedly critical attitude toward everything he tells us and keep our eye on him at every moment, or the story gets away from us’.7 To focus on Dowell is not to lose sight of other aspects of the text but to accept that without him there would be no other aspects of the text.

  It is rich, in a novel powered forward by perfidy, passion and lies, that four of the five main characters – Ashburnham, Leonora, Florence and Nancy – have blue eyes: traditionally, blue has symbolized truth, loyalty, constancy, chastity, piety and fidelity.8 And while it is appropriate that the righteous Leonora has always looked at her best ‘in a blue tailor-made’, it is thumpingly ironic that the only dress of Florence’s that Dowell can remember is ‘a very simple one of blue figured silk’. The narrator, we should remember, favours ties of a ‘special shade of blue’, but whether his preferred colour is apt or not is more difficult to say, not least because his ironizing self-consciousness makes it almost impossible, at times, to decide where, if anywhere, his honesty and sincerity lie. We never discover the colour of Dowell’s eyes, and the only thing we do know about his appearance is that he is on the short side. We sit opposite him, as he imagines, but we can’t see him. Like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock (who also made his debut before the reading public in 1915), Dowell is ‘Natty, precise, well-brushed’, conscious of his lack of stature, and faceless.

  Nor is it any easier to hold his story with confidence, and more than one critic, confronted with the task of trying to make sense of the text’s many complexities and confusions, has laid the blame squarely at the feet of Dowell the dodo. The Good Soldier, the argument goes, narrated by a ‘leisured American’ of the belle époque, is a slow-paced tale, punctuated with longeurs, recapitulations, inconsistencies, errors and corrections, and that, for the most part, is because the narrator is slow. He must be formidably dense and dull-witted, readers have argued, because how else is it possible to be the odd man out in a close foursome for nine years? How could he know the other three with ‘extreme intimacy’, be an integral part of’an acquaintanceship… as close as a good glove’s with your hand’, and yet not realize that two of the quartet (one his wife) are having an affair? ‘Don’t you see?’ Leonora roars at him during the fateful excursion to Marburg, ‘Don’t you see what’s going on?’, to which Dowell
responds feebly, ‘No! What’s the matter? Whatever’s the matter?’ And if Dowell is as stupid as he appears to be, then his projection of Ashburnham as a wellnigh godly hero requires no further investigation. When he is not lamenting his ignorance, he’s regretting his gullibility – ‘But think of the fool that I was’ – and in conceding that Florence ‘had the seeing eye’, Dowell tells us (with redundant candour) that he has not. He only learns of Florence’s relationship with Ashburnham through a chance remark of Leonora’s soon after her husband’s funeral. Dowell also discovers that rather than dying of a strained heart, Florence committed suicide. ‘It had never entered my head. You may think that I had been singularly lacking in suspiciousness; you may consider me even to have been an imbecile. But consider my position.’ It is absolutely crucial that the reader does exactly that from the splendidly catchy outset of this novel to its unbelievably nonchalant end.

  It should not amaze anyone that a man who appears to be so switched off from reality should be such an apparently inept narrator. ‘It is so difficult to keep all these people going’, Dowell complains near the end of the book, but. he has not helped himself by narrating his tale in a disjointed and misleading fashion. For instance, we are led to believe that Ashburnham’s pigskin travelling cases, all stamped ‘EFA’, epitomize his fastidious, old-world, slightly foppish, perfect-country-gentleman persona, but we subsequently discover that ‘they were Leonora’s manifestations’, given to him by the character whom we have otherwise been urged to identify only with the relentless enforcement of ‘economies’. Likewise, in Part Three, Chapter 4, Dowell tells us that Ashburnham’s ‘love-affairs, until the very end, were sandwiched in at odd moments or took place during the social evenings, the dances and dinners. But I guess I have made it hard for you, O silent listener, to get that impression.’ He also remarks with some pride in this same section that ‘I have generally found that my first impressions were correct enough,’ but this, pointedly, is only true ‘as far as waiters and chambermaids were concerned’. When faced with making sense of his own close circle or the world at large, Dowell is a good deal less reliable and has to apologize more than once for having conveyed the wrong impression. ‘I see that I have unintentionally misled you when I said that Florence was never out of my sight,’ he observes, for example, in Part Two, Chapter 1. ‘Yet that was the impression that I really had until just now. When I come to think of it, she was out of my sight most of the time.’ Similarly, any reader who does ‘gather’ from Dowell’s ‘statement’ on the first page of the novel that the reason for his wife’s death was her ‘heart’ will absorb the wrong impression along with an ironic take on the truth. In Part One, Chapter 4, the narrator brings to mind an American city where ‘the blocks are all square and the streets all numbered, so that you can go perfectly easily from Twenty-fourth to Thirtieth’, but the layout of his own story is altogether more obstructive. In fact, it is more like a labyrinth: with every page we turn, another dark passage lies before us. Some readers will regard Dowell’s narrative technique as perfectly suited to his gradual reconstruction of an imbroglio from which he was excluded; others will consider his mode of story-telling obfuscatory and entangling.

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