Rating: 3 stars
I watched the BBC adaptation of Parade’s End a few years ago. It made me want to read the book. The novel is a monumental work. I can see why critics call it the finest English novel about the Great War. I can see why Ford Madox Ford is fêted as a writer, unlike any English writer before or since. I struggled with this book, though. I had to make a lot of notes to marshall my thoughts as I read, or I might have gone mad with it all.And what a slog it was to finish this. What a grind of a novel it turned out to be.
Book One: Some Do Not
Instantly, I see that Benedict Cumberbatch, who is on the cover of this edition and was in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation for the BBC, is not the physical embodiment of Christopher Tietjens, but he acted the character of him well.
Tietjens in the book is a physical boor of a man – large, uncouth, too fleshily solid. His sharp mind makes him rude, as only those completely sure of their rightness about everything can be. Impatient with others, certain of how the world works and bluff about how people should move through it. He isn’t a sympathetic character.
Sylvia Tietjens is interesting. A bored housewife who married in order to escape scandal and now feels trapped by both husband and child. She is a free spirit in the mould of the Bloomsbury set – those Stephen girls who became Woolfs and Bells. Privileged and therefore free from having to think about consequences beyond a little social disapproval when experimenting with different ways of being. In her way, she wants life to be different for women. She is driven by self, though, and is languid in her methods.
Valentine Wannop also wants life to be different for women, but she goes about it with more of a social conscience than Sylvia. She is a suffragist, a protester, a demonstrator against inequality. She should be a vibrant character, but is small, somehow, edgy and lacking in the hauteur that Sylvia possesses.
I wonder about the choice of names. Christopher, familiarly Chrissie, is a prim name and also a child-like name. In his sense of rightness, Tietjens might be seen as prim, and that absolute self belief is also somewhat child-like. Sylvia is a shivering beech of a name, at odds with her maiden surname of Satterthwaite. It is glassy and brittle, sibilant like wind through leaves. Sylvia bends and sways in her restlessness. Valentine Wannop is a heavy sigh of a name. She is breathless as though she has landed with a crumple while leaping into her future.
The prose is light and easy to read, clipped and straightforward. I don’t like any of the characters, though. The clipped prose leaves no room for empathy. Tietjens and Sylvia are at times brutal, at times blasé about their loathing of each other. I don’t like them, but I can’t stop reading their story.
The lives of the well off are somehow grubby. The way they spy on each other, the way they gossip. Especially the way they are jealous of each other and try to ruin each other’s reputations. Family members presuming the worst about each other, judging each other for behaviour that matches their own. Friends doing the same. So much hypocrisy.
Valentine Wannop becomes interesting towards the end of this book. The scales fall from her eyes. She sees the hypocrisy of the well off. She sees the hypocrisy of the time. She sees that she has nothing to lose, the war has given her that. What others say, think or do is of no consequence. She recognises that she needs to be true to herself. She has no broad scheme, she has only a single goal. She is unlike anyone else, other than Tietjens.
Part One is a reflection of life before the war. Social structures and moral codes are clear cut. Doing the right thing, being seen to do the right thing, covering over the cracks are the main concerns.
Part Two begins the process of showing how war changes people. Those who don’t go to the front to fight detest those from their class who do and spend their time trying to ruin their reputations. Those who join the war in the trenches begin to see that much of what mattered before is no longer important.
One thing I found offensive while reading this first book was the repeated assertion that women are whores when they practice the same sexual freedom as men. A man is a rip (whatever that means) when he takes a mistress, but a woman is a whore if she goes off with another man. A harlot, too. And a strumpet. But mostly a whore. Cheers for that, Ford.
Book Two: No More Parades
Part One is at the front. Ford covers the pettiness of war, the disorganisation, the brutality, the stupidity. Death and injury is treated unsentimentally. The arbitrariness of who gets leave and who faces air fire, shrapnel and a race to the front is presented sanguinely. Through Tietjens we gain an analysis of each layer of warfare, from the bureaucratic decisions made in offices, through the chain of command, via the petty individuals who see an opportunity to screw others over for their own gain (reputational and financial), to the waste of life. Tietjens understands what is going on and still participates. He is to an extent like Andrei Bolkonsky in that there is a fatal disinterest in his life at home that means death in battle is somehow acceptable. He is still an unpleasant character, still persists in thinking his wife a whore (sometimes a slut), but he is a fair and pragmatic man who tries to do his best by the men it is his fate to command. War is everyday. The noise, the preparations, the false starts, the unpreparedness, the unequippedness, the death, the madness, all becomes typical, assimilated. A horrible existence, but inescapable. I think of my granddad Jim and his brothers, who enlisted because they felt it was the right thing. Ordinary millhands who had never been abroad. Men who weren’t rich, but lived decent lives within their means, plunged into the hell of war. How must it have felt to sacrifice your freedom to join the army and fight for your country and then to discover that you were cannon fodder in a war where office based decisions bore no relation to the realities at the front? I know enough about Jim from my parents, from my siblings, to know that he was an honest, principled man, and he would have done what was expected of him without complaining. I know less about my granddad Herbert, only that he was gassed in the trenches, didn’t want his eldest son to fight in the next war, and was already old by the time my mum was born. Old through the poison in his system and the poverty he came home to. Ford’s descriptions of Tietjens’s small realm in a borrowed tent in a town close to the front make me want to weep for what my granddads went through.
The racism is hard to take. The insulting attempt to render the Welsh accent phonetically, presumably because Ford’s audience at time of reading would not have encountered something as uncouth as a regional accent. Anti-Semitism, too. References to people of mixed heritage as ‘half-castes’. The 1920s were a classy time for the pig ignorant.
382 pages in, I’m finding that, as well written and compelling as the book is, reading about characters you don’t like in miserable situations is really tiring.
I find myself thinking about Sylvia. I don’t like her, but she is interesting. I’m trying to understand who she is, trying to cut through Ford’s misogyny towards her. She is an intelligent woman, she lacks mental stimulation, she is bored by her situation. She enjoys sex, began regularly enjoying sex and found she had become pregnant. She needed to marry and Tietjens appeared solid. But Tietjens’s solidity is dull. She doesn’t respect him. I sense that she wants to love him, but Sylvia is a woman who loves best when she is made to feel interesting, and Tietjens’s dull solidity doesn’t offer her that. She wouldn’t have sought adventure elsewhere if Tietjens hadn’t been so ready to dismiss her as a whore, if he had tried to understand her.
Part Two introduces the reasons Sylvia is so obsessed with her cycle of hurting Tietjens and winning him back. For her, he is a man among overgrown schoolboys. His beliefs and opinions repel her, but his maturity and certainty are worth more to her. It’s reasonably interesting to see inside her mind, and it confirms what I was already thinking, but it doesn’t soften her any as a character. There’s also a whole lot of unnecessary back story for Perowne, about whom we really don’t need to care, which introduces another element of misogyny: that of the mother as corruptor of childish personality. Ford also reveals his opinion of women like Sylvia, who seek distraction through liaisons with young, pretty men only to decide that all men are the same. Perhaps Sylvia is as bored as she is because she’s self centred and not interested in asking questions to draw out who these men are as individuals. Perhaps Tietjens doesn’t find her interesting because she isn’t. It feels like, if Sylvia’s character was written by a woman, she would still be all the things Ford has her be, but there would be more exploration of why, and she might be more sympathetically drawn. As it is, she’s just horrible. It’s a shame, because Ford does seem to grasp that women want men to see them as more than sex objects, and gives Sylvia the daydream of “a man who was a good sort and didn’t go all gurgly in the voice, and cod-fish-eyed and all-overish”, a man who would be “light comedy … for a whole, a whole blessed weekend”. Someone who saw her as a person, I think is what Ford is getting at, who likes the same things as men and isn’t merely there for their convenience and satisfaction. I want to like her for that, but she’s as shallow as the men she claims to be bored by.
I want to like Sylvia, too, because she kicks against the constraints society puts on her gender in a more interesting way than the clichéd Miss Wannop. She has a natural propensity for what society calls vulgarity, which means not suppressing emotion and not being ashamed to behave with passion in pursuit of your heart’s desire. The trouble with Sylvia is, she doesn’t scruple at lies and defamation as tools to achieve her object.
Part Three is a farce. The farce of Sylvia’s desire for entertainment at her husband and former lover’s joint expense playing out. The farce of Tietjens under arrest. The farce of his godfather investigating him not for striking an officer but for the suggestion made by Sylvia that Tietjens was a communist. The farce of Ford using a conversation between Tietjens and Levin as exposition. I’m starting to see a satirical undercurrent to Ford’s story telling. From Sylvia’s assertion that “Paris, when you avoid the more conspicuous resorts, and when you are unprovided with congenial companionship can prove nearly as overwhelming as is, say, Birmingham on a Sunday”, to Tietjens’s explanation about why his unit has no fire-extinguishers (bureaucratic buck-passing taken to a ludicrous extreme), there is a delicious sense of the ridiculous that seems a precursor to Heller’s Catch-22.
Book Three: A Man Could Stand Up
Part One brings in the end of the war. There’s something of Jane Eyre in Miss Wannop’s reaction to the news that Tietjens is back and somehow damaged. He’s her Rochester, wanting her, not wanting her, married to another, rude, callous, infatuated by her youthful vigour, by how different she is. She wants and doesn’t want him, is insulted by his lack of concern over the past two years. She’s still a child.
So if Valentine is Jane Eyre, and Tietjens is Rochester, does that make Sylvia Bertha? An insane drunk who sleeps around and traps her husband in marriage by refusing to release him to marry the woman he loves? It makes a kind of sense. Even down to Tietjens not knowing if his son by Sylvia is his or not but treating him as heir to his estate, and Rochester adopting Adèle because she might be his daughter by a French mistress but probably isn’t and he feels he needs to be responsible.
Like in Jane Eyre, I want Valentine Wannop to resist the lure of brooding, pompous, socially inept Tietjens. I don’t want her to fall into the trap of thinking love can save and humanise an appalling shit of a man. I want her to be feisty and independent. She won’t be, though.
Part Two is exposition, bringing us up to speed with Tietjens’s experiences at the front. It is the weakest part of the book so far. Not to say it’s bad, but it feels like filler. Ford wants to tell us about how miserable the final year of the war was, with the sense of inevitability and frustration across the board, from Regulars to Officers. He wants to demonstrate that he was there, that he knows the sounds and the landscape. Tietjens sits in the middle of it like a pudding. I don’t know that it adds much to the story beyond moving it along. There’s a lot of recapping of what has gone before which, for readers at the time with long periods between each book, was probably necessary. For someone reading all four books in one volume, it’s a little pointless. Or maybe I’m just wearying of it all and want it to end. Much like the soldiers in the war.
There’s more anti-Semitism in this part of the book, too. It’s tedious and insulting. Tietjens is revealed to be an idiot, mooning around over Valentine Wannop, presuming that she’s tracking his every move when he doesn’t so much as write to her. And then he dithers about whether to write to her.
Most affecting in this part are the mundane thoughts that go through Tietjens’s head as distraction from the shelling and gunfire around him.
Part Three – just as I was thinking that this third book was the weakest part of the story, Ford throws in a stunning moment. Valentine Wannop is dithering in her adolescent, virginal angst, on the phone to her mother, when Tietjens returns to the house. She passes the phone to him and he catches hold of her wrist with his free hand. It is electrifying. After everything that has gone before, all the repression, false starts, hatred and miscommunication, in that one gesture Ford captures all that love is. Tenderness, certainty, presence and passion. The world stops spinning and all focus is on a man’s hand holding the wrist of the woman he loves. Beautiful.
By the end of this book, it feels quite hopeful, as though a corner has been turned. Tietjens and Miss Wannop are more like real people, instead of stuffy, brittle constructs.
Book Four: Last Post
Part One introduces Mark Tietjens’s wife, an indomitable Frenchwoman. I’m not sure why. She has been mentioned in passing before, in relation to Mark having no children and Christopher being his heir. Now she seems to be being set up as some kind of nemesis for Sylvia, who has taken possession of the Tietjens family home. This Mrs Tietjens is an exaggeration of a Frenchwoman. I do quite like the way Christopher and Valentine are off page somewhere, as though in another room, mentioned in passing, enough said to let us know they are content. I don’t really like the pointless waffling of this Mrs Tietjens, though. I’ve read 730 pages, and I’m ready for a conclusion. I could happily have left it at the end of Book Three, with Tietjens and Miss Wannop reunited, having an Armistice Day party with some of his former fellow soldiers.
I suppose Ford wants to resolve things with Sylvia, who is looming on the horizon. This Mrs Tietjens and Mark refer to her tangentially.
Ford’s love of trying to render a regional accent phonetically is really grating. The local people come across as a hybrid of characters from a Thomas Hardy novel and characters from H E Bates’s The Darling Buds of May. It interrupts the flow of my reading and turns the narrative stuttery.
Tietjens’s supposed son is introduced as a cipher to reconfirm the appalling nature of Sylvia. Ford doesn’t want us to forget, while at the same time acknowledging that the circumstance of her withered marriage to Christopher set her on her course, that she is a bitch and a whore. Tiresome. She’s neither. Get over it, Ford. There are more drips of anti-Semitism for good measure. The 1920s certainly were a great decade for bigoted white men, free as they were to express bile and hatred. At page 795, I’m tired of this book and tired of Ford’s ugly preoccupations.
There’s a long recap of everything that has gone before from Mark Tietjens’s perspective which I skim read because it added nothing that I didn’t know already or that I needed to know to move the story on. Ford makes Mark have a massive whinge about how the war has changed the balance of power and nothing is going to be the same again because the landed gentry no longer rule the roost, and boo-hoo-hoo.
Apparently, I share Graham Greene’s opinion of Last Post. He said it was “more than a mistake—it was a disaster” and called it “an afterthought which he (Ford) had not intended to write and later regretted having written.” There we go, then.
The only interesting gap that is filled in is an account from Mark’s wife of what happened on Armistice Night, when Christopher and Valentine finally came together. Of course the horrible Lady Macmaster had tipped Sylvia off who came back to London to ruin the reunion. And now everything is set for Part Two and the final blast from Sylvia’s trumpet.
Part Two is thankfully only slightly more than 60 pages long. It’s also mainly about the women. There’s a final meeting between Valentine and Sylvia and a kind of peace is made. And it sort of ends happily. In a way.
Should you read it? I don’t know. I feel like I’ve achieved something in finishing it. I don’t feel particularly edified, though. I definitely need some light relief to follow it with. And perhaps a soak in the bath to wash away my distaste at the attitudes Ford has forced into my brain.