Graham Greene calls The Good Soldier “probably one of the finest novels of our century”; to Max Saunders, it is Ford Madox Ford's “masterpiece”, the novel that proves that the period of literary modernism is as much Ford Madox Ford's era as it is Pound's, or Eliot's, or Joyce's. It emerged out of the crucible of a literary London dominated by the literary Cubists, and by the Vorticists, Imagists and other 'riotous jeunes“, a phrase Ford Madox Ford used to signify his feeling that he was an “Old Man” of letters, past his chronological best, when the novel appeared. He termed it his “great Auk's egg”, to signify his intention to continue supporting those “riotous jeunes“, rather than competing with them in what was now their world. (This intention was necessarily modified somewhat by his war experiences that would lead to the production of his other great literary endeavour, the four volumes of Parade's End.) It is possible that the first three and a half chapters of the text, published in Blast!, the Vorticist magazine, on 20th June, 1914, did look out of place. However, despite the fact that the novel could be described as a comedy of manners, a text that dedicates itself to Edwardian upper and middle class social codes, and despite the fact Ford Madox Ford was 41 when he wrote it, The Good Soldier is a cubist tale, a novel of multiple perspectives; it reflects his modernist technical credentials, sharpness of mind, and acute social observation on every page. Its original title was The Saddest Story. John Lane, Ford Madox Ford's publisher (one of the founders of The Bodley Head), decided that this description of the tale was one inappropriate to 1915 and a nation at war. The second choice of The Good Soldier was one that Ford Madox Ford insisted ever afterward he had only mentioned as an ironic jest, out of disgust for the sensibilities of a society that had only room for one kind of response to the disjunction and fragmentation of the modern world. The chapters in Blast! were published under Ford Madox Ford's original title (and his original name, Ford Madox Hueffer); the full version appeared as The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion, in March 1915, four months before Ford Madox Ford departed for the Somme as an officer with the Welch Regiment.
So what is it about? Ford Madox Ford considers the real-life events that formed the Jamesian “germ” of the text in a volume of his cultural criticism, The Spirit of the People, in 1907:
I stayed, too, at the house of a married couple one summer. Husband and wife were both extremely nice people - “good people,” as the English phrase is. There was also living in the house a young girl, the ward of the husband, and between him and her an attachment had grown up. It was arranged that Miss W- would take a trip around the world. The only suspicion that things were not of their ordinary train was that the night before the parting P- said to me: “I wish you'd drive to the station with us to-morrow morning.” He was, in short, afraid of a “scene”.
This, in a sense, is the “plot” of The Good Soldier. John Dowell, the American narrator of the text (in a nice pun, he's from Philadelphia), has Puritan roots. With his wife Florence, who suffers from a heart condition, he meets an English couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, whilst taking the waters in Nauheim, a German spa town, in 1904; Ashburnham is tall and fair with blue eyes and impresses Dowell with his physical presence, his “county family” air, his wealth, and his soldierly credentials. He is the “Good Soldier” of the title. They are friends for 9 years, during which time, unknown to Dowell, Florence and Edward have an affair, and take numerous other lovers too. Leonora tries to apprise Dowell of the state of things soon after they meet, on a joint trip to Marburg, scene of Luther's “Protest”. Dowell, excessively naïve, thinks that her distress is caused solely by the fact that she is a Catholic in a Protestant stronghold, being taunted by Florence. This is true, but Leonora is being taunted on sexual as well as religious grounds. Dowell does eventually discover Florence's duplicity; she does not have “a heart” at all (neither medical nor sentimental), but merely uses their separate bedrooms, and his required abstinence from intercourse, as an excuse to take other men into hers. (Dowell presents himself as only too willing to comply with the doctors' prescriptions for protecting Florence's health. He is asexual, as well as naïve.) On the night she sees herself as discovered by her husband, the same night that she sees herself as replaced in Ashburnham's affections by Nancy Rufford, Florence commits suicide. Nancy Rufford is the Ashburnhams' ward, and, towards the end of the chronological development of the tale, Edward conceives a passion for her. Rufford is a devout Catholic, and is devoted to her guardians, and to her faith. She, too, is ignorant of the sexuality that seethes through this text, ignorant to the extent that when she realises what it is that Edward wants from her, she loses her mind. She is sent away from Bramshaw Teleragh, the Ashburnhams' Hampshire house; Dowell accompanies her and Edward to the train station, and, shortly afterwards, Edward cuts his own throat. As the novel concludes, the hypocrisy of the upper-class “game” of sexual infidelity has been exposed. Edward and Florence are dead; Nancy is mad; Dowell compares the destruction with the “sack of the city” or the “falling to pieces of a people”. Even to the attentive reader, it is only clear why when the last page is turned.
The novel provoked extreme critical responses. Literary figures who had an investment in promoting new writing - figures like Rebecca West and May Sinclair - wrote and reviewed supporting it. Sidney Dark, in The Daily Express, called it “An Amazing Book”; “one of the cleverest books” he had ever read. Many others at the opposite end of the literary and moral spectrum expressed outrage. Most comment recognised that the tale was more concerned with the inner workings of the characters' minds than with plot, but to those who disapproved, the psychology had to do with depraved sexuality. For Ford Madox Ford, too, sexuality was what it was about, but from an intensely realistic, not moral, perspective; he represented it to his publisher as a serious analysis “of the polygamous desires that underlie all men”. A modern Ford Madox Ford would have added “and women”: Florence and Leonora take multiple lovers, Dowell none. For many reviewers, though, reality was not the issue; one, in the London Bookman, decreed that the tale “will prove of some value to the specialist in pathology”; on the other side of the Atlantic The Boston Transcript castigated Ford Madox Ford for not fulfilling his moral obligations as one of the paternalistically responsible middle class. As in the critique of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, the paper accused the writer of encouraging “marital infidelity” by lingering upon the “indelicacies of intrigue”. Edwardian England clearly did not respond well to this image of itself; nowadays, the novel is recognised as one of the most enduring works of British modernism and as an a brilliant example of unreliable novelistic narration.
In his dedicatory letter to Stella Bowen, included in the 1927 edition, Ford Madox Ford calls it a “true story”, but in what sense “true”? The critic John A. Meixner has defined it as having tragedy at its core, with a surrounding tone of comic irony, due primarily to the vagaries of its narrator; for Sam Hynes the novel is an epistemological investigation, a search for a the truth made from Dowell's narratorial wrestling with what he knows and how he tells it. The title of the novel, and the degree of social, sexual, psychological and bodily destruction that occurs, also seems to reflect upon the First World War that raged as it was published: the 4th August is the date in the novel upon which everything hinges, it is also the date on which Great Britain declared war on Germany. But the tone of comic irony that overlays the tragedy exists because of Ford Madox Ford's privileging of epistemology, and Dowell's struggle with knowledge; when knowledge does come, the sense of tragedy is supreme. The true genius of this text, then, lies not in the what but in the how of its telling.
The first time-reader in whom knowledge most painstakingly and confusingly accrues is most true to this novel, and to its narrator. As you begin you don't know what is going on, but you do know that the “four crashing days” that Dowell invokes at its outset must signify destruction, and that this destruction applies, in some way, to a world order or previous notion of stability. You also quickly realise that you cannot trust your narrator: Dowell begins, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard. We had known the Ashburnhams for four seasons of the town of Nauheim with an extreme intimacy - or, rather, with an acquaintanceship as loose and easy and yet as close as a good glove's with your hand.” His sentence is brilliantly suggestive of sexual impropriety and intrigue, voyeurism and smugness. But there is anxiety here too: the alliteration of the good glove metaphor is too much of a relief; the phrase “extreme intimacy” is unnecessary, forced even; the self-contradiction is wild. And the questions begged by this tale-teller who is simultaneously a protagonist and aural witness, who uses words problematically, are manifold. Thinking about it, then, it becomes clear that Dowell is still unaware, at some primary level, of the story he “knows” and is about to tell. Unsure of his status, as part of the story, or as the means of its transmission, he is clinging to both. Once you have “read” Dowell to this degree, the awareness that should be Dowell's transmits itself unsettlingly, obscurely, into your mind: the only clues are the words “extreme intimacy” and the metaphor of the “good glove”. To Dowell's unconscious the words have described the limits of sexual and psychological experience, an extremity that he can allude to but not fully inhabit for inhabitation, real acknowledgement, would make the good glove metaphor unusable (Florence and Edward were having sex behind Dowell's back for 9 years). The reader may be able to infer something of the sort, but will not yet get anything like the whole picture. Dowell says later in the text that, “I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their way through what may be a sort of maze.” He is not being coy. He has told it as it has appeared to him, a sexually naïve, cuckolded, alien protagonist; likewise, Ford Madox Ford wants the reader not to know where they are.
Dowell supports by his ignorance the world that belongs to Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, and to his wife, Florence. He allows it to happen. Theirs is a world of upper-class selfishness and sex, and he, the symbol of sexual repression, renders their expression possible. Ford Madox Ford is telling the reader about the cruelty of those classes that holiday in Europe, at spa towns, during the season; the hypocrisy of a society that cannot control itself. To do this he needs Dowell's naïveté, and his status as an outsider. As knowledge accrues, and then becomes nearly complete (no-one knows everything, as in a Freudian case-study), the “game” must end. People will be destroyed. Narrative, somehow, must both delay, and contain, this destruction. Chronological time and narrative time move in more or less opposite directions. Simultaneity is a foreign concept, particularly in the relationship of knowledge to action. Such anachronistic progression allows Ford Madox Ford his full exploration, but it also serves to defer and mediate the shock to the reader. The difficulty expressed in the image of the maze means some level of protection from the true horror of these blighted lives. Though the reader may have grasped or intuited some of it, surety is always denied. Freud invoked myths to help to contain the horror that is, in part, his vision of human sexuality. The Oedipal symbolism at the end of Ford Madox Ford's text is hard to ignore: Dowell says “I think it would have been better in the eyes of God if they had all attempted to gouge out each others' eyes with carving knives”. Better maybe, or simpler, but impossible, for there is no God here. They are unable to atone for their sin then, unable to seek forgiveness. If the Bible is relevant in this shimmering, terrifying, modernist text, it's the Old and not the New Testament that applies.
Citation: Haslam, Sara. "The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 January 2001 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=714, accessed 28 September 2022.]