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Handsome, wealthy, and a veteran of service in India, Captain Edward Ashburnham appears to be the ideal “good soldier” and the embodiment of English upper-class virtues. But for his creator, Ford Madox Ford, he also represents the corruption at society’s core. Beneath Ashburnham’s charming, polished exterior lurks a soul well-versed in the arts of deception, hypocrisy, and betrayal. Throughout the nine years of his friendship with an equally privileged American, John Dowell, Ashburnham has been having an affair with Dowell’s wife, Florence. Unlike Dowell, Ashburnham’s own wife, Leonora, is well aware of it.
When The Good Soldier was first published in 1915, its pitiless portrait of an amoral society dedicated to its own pleasure and convinced of its own superiority outraged many readers. Stylistically daring, The Good Soldier is narrated, unreliably, by the naïve Dowell, through whom Ford provides a level of bitter irony. Dowell’s disjointed, stumbling storytelling not only subverts linear temporality to satisfying effect, it also reflects his struggle to accept a world without honor, order, or permanence. Called the best French novel in the English language, The Good Soldier is both tragic and darkly comic, and it established Ford as an important contributor to the development of literary modernism.
Frank Kermode has taught at Manchester, London, and Cambridge Universities as well as at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Among his many books the most recent are Shakespeare’s Language, Pieces of My Mind, and The Age of Shakespeare.
Read an Excerpt
From Frank Kermode’s Introduction to The Good Soldier
Ford liked to appear precise about dates, and, as we shall see, The Good Soldier professes to be so; but the dates given in the narrative are in fact very confused. So are the facts of its writing and publication. It is likely that Ford began the novel in the summer or fall of 1913—using houseguests, themselves writers, as amanuenses—and worked on it possibly for a whole year. He sent some forty pages of manuscript, the opening pages of the book, to Wyndham Lewis as a contribution to Lewis’s new avant-garde periodical BLAST, and this extract appeared in the first issue of the journal, which is dated June 20, 1914 (though the issue may not have been published for some time after that date). There was a plan to serialize the whole book in BLAST, but this had to be given up because the second number of Lewis’s journal—the only successor to the first—was greatly delayed, and in fact did not come out until after the first edition of the whole novel had appeared, in March 1915.
The main reason for concerning oneself with these calendar details is this: The date August 4 is given great significance in the novel, and the question arises whether Ford picked it by accident or was choosing that date, on which the Great War began, as being particularly doom-laden—in which case he must presumably have written in the August 4 references after August 4, 1914. If the references existed earlier we are left to consider a really remarkable coincidence. Ford did attach a solemn importance to that date—it marked, for him as for many, the end of a civilization. It may not have seemed to him to matter greatly that in the novel the crowding of important events onto the date August 4 is implausible; indeed, it can be shown, in terms of the story itself, to be impossible. But all this goes to show how important the date was to Ford.
Common sense, and some scraps of external evidence, suggest that the book was indeed partly written or reworked after August 4, 1914, and that Ford, who had perhaps used the date once by accident, now forced it into the very center of the novel. (The most up-to-date study of this complicated problem is Martin Stannard’s essay “The Good Soldier: Editorial Problems” in Hampson, Ford Madox Ford’s Modernity, pp. 137–148; see “For Further Reading”.)
As we have seen, the problem is not merely bibliographical; the date August 4 affects the entire conduct of Ford’s story. He was avowedly a man who cared more for impressions than facts—indeed, he liked to call himself an impressionist—and the scope and integrity of his narrative mattered more to him than complete factual accuracy in its telling. He was more interested in what he called “the affair” than in mere story; the narrative must be shaped, constructed, with some larger purpose in mind than the simple and plausible setting forth, one after the other, of the events that constitute it. This might well involve damage to verisimilitude, and that is what happens when August 4 is obsessively repeated as the date of crucial events. A further enemy of easy plausibility is the use of an “unreliable narrator,” particularly as Dowell, without being a complete fool, seems to have rather extensive limitations as an observer of the action, so that learning about it from him is a chancy business; his occasional fits of sensitivity or perceptiveness add to rather than reduce the confusion of our impressions.
Anyway, it cannot be said that Ford made any attempt to render the date plausible. He positively brandishes it, forces its improbability on our attention. In the opening page of part II, chapter I, we are told that Maisie Maidan died on August 4, 1904. “And then nothing happened until the 4th of August, 1913. There is the curious coincidence of dates, but I do not know whether that is one of those sinister, as if half-jocular and altogether merciless proceedings on the part of a cruel Providence that we call a coincidence.” Florence, we are told, had superstitious feelings about the date: August 4 was her birthday. It was also the day in 1899 when she started on her world tour with her uncle and “a young man called Jimmy,” who became her lover on August 4, 1900; a Mr Bagshawe reports that he saw her emerging from Jimmy’s room at five o’clock in the morning on that date. “She had been born on the 4th of August; she had started to go round the world on the 4th of August; she had become a low fellow’s mistress on the 4th of August.” Exactly one year later she married Dowell. Bagshawe’s intervention, which her relationship with Edward could not have survived, also, rather amazingly, occurred on August 4, and it was followed, that same evening, by Florence’s suicide. “Mr Bagshawe and the fact that the date was the 4th of August must have been too much for her superstitious mind.”
Is this wanton and needless iteration? Perhaps not. It was part of Ford’s ambition to make apparently trivial details resonate in such a way that they suggested not local but large historical disasters. His book about Henry James, Henry James: A Critical Study, written shortly before The Good Soldier, expressly admired the older novelist for his ability to make suggestions of this kind, to induce the reader’s mind to pass “perpetually backwards and forwards between the apparent aspect of things and the essentials of life.” Thus the trivial, almost meaningless, life of rich people passing their time in spas, affecting to suffer from heart conditions, may be made to express “what life really is—a series of such meaningless episodes beneath the shadow of doom.” “Some one has said that the death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths, and I swear to you that the breaking up of our little four-square coterie was such another unthinkable event.” He means it was an event that for all its smallness reflected the disasters of the greater world—for example, the end of a civilization announced by the declaration of the war that, in the opinion of many, sealed its fate. In some unexpected way—as unexpected as the power of a date to draw into its orbit many apparently trivial but truly significant events—the miseries of the Ashburnhams and their friends and dependents might, to more acute sensibilities, be intelligible as reflections of an immense historical plot.