Ford Madox Ford opens The Good Soldier with the words: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ The novel, written between 1913 and 1914, was originally called The Saddest Story, but given the political situation at the time, Ford’s publisher pressed for an alternative title (which came with its own problems). The original title might have been more fitting for a novel that features two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, for it is a very sad story indeed. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires, of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. It’s a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity.
The Good Soldier is narrated by Dowell, who, as the novel opens, is looking back over the previous nine years. Dowell and his wife Florence are ‘leisured Americans’ living in Europe and spending the summer seasons in Nauheim, a German spa town. Here they meet and befriend Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an English couple of a certain class. To all intents and purposes the Ashburnhams appear quiet and well-mannered; they are what Dowell believes the British would call ‘quite good people.’
By the time we reach the end of the novel’s first page, we learn that Florence Dowell is now dead, and there are hints of an affair having taken place between her and Edward Ashburnham – both are referred to as having ‘had a heart’ (this organ is an important recurring symbol in this book). What we don’t know is when or why Florence died. We can also assume Ashburnham is dead – use of the term ‘had a heart’ indicates that he too is no longer alive.
Over the remainder of the novel, Dowell tries to relate the story of the two couples, but in so doing, he does not begin at the beginning. Instead, he imagines himself relaying the tale to a silent listener, going backwards and forwards in time over the previous nine or so years as one does when ‘one discusses an affair – a long, sad affair’:
One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. (pg. 134)
As a consequence of this approach and shifting timeline, particular events (or characters) are introduced briefly or alluded to but not necessarily developed at the time. We assume these things are significant, but as our impressions are incomplete, we are left anticipating a return to the scenes in question. As the novel moves forward, our perceptions of events and the characters themselves shift as new information is revealed. We are constantly reflecting and updating our impressions.
I’ll return to how my impressions of the main characters changed in a little while, but Ford’s approach to the novel also conveys the feeling that Dowell is trying to make sense of both the story and the nature of relationships between men and woman in general:
And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations and activities? Or are meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness. (pg. 32)
Dowell’s initial impression of Edward Ashburnham is that of an upright and honourable man, ‘exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with.’ At various points in the nine years in question, Ashburnham serves in the army, is a county magistrate and landowner – he believes in the good of the community. But Ashburnham is also a sentimentalist – much is made of this description, it recurs repeatedly. And this, together with his naivety, leads to his undoing in two critical areas: affairs of the heart and affairs of a financial nature.
Ashburnham is attractive and having fallen out of love with Leonora within a year or two of their marriage, he embarks upon a string of affairs:
I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid. But the brick pink of his complexion, running perfectly level to the brick pink of his inner eyelids, gave them a curious, sinister expression – like a mosaic of blue porcelain set in pink china. And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. It was most amazing. (pg. 42)
A short-lived dalliance with the ruthless mistress of a Russian Grand Duke, coupled with a brief gambling spree at Monte Carlo, results in near financial ruin for Ashburnham. As a consequence, Leonora takes control of the couple’s finances.
At first, Leonora appears patient, principled and outwardly loyal to Edward. But as the story unravels, we learn more of her character – a different side is revealed, and we understand how mismatched she and Edward are as a couple. Edward is a Protestant, Leonora a Catholic. He is too sentimental for his own good, rather foolish, a sucker for a poor cause and a pretty woman. Beneath her exterior image, Leonora is cold, unsympathetic and controlling. She is an individualist whereas Edward is more democratic, a collectivist.
Alongside her control of the purse strings, Leonora also attempts to dictate Edward’s amorous affairs. The way Leonora sees it, if Edward has to play away, he may as well do so with someone she approves of, someone relatively stable – if nothing else it prevents him from running loose. There are times when she hopes Edward will return to her, but she would rather keep him occupied with an acceptable mistress than have him behave promiscuously.
However, once the Dowells arrive on the scene, it’s not long before Leonora realises that an affair between her husband and Florence is inevitable. And she knows this will create trouble for the two couples because when Edward embarks on an affair, he falls long and hard:
With Edward it was fatal. For, such was his honourable nature, that for him to enjoy a woman’s favours made him feel that she has a bond on him for life. That was the way it worked out in practice. Psychologically it meant that he could not have a mistress without falling violently in love with her. (pg. 120)
Turning our attention to the Dowells for a few moments, they have marital troubles of their own. Dowell is a man of ‘solid and serious virtues,’ and after a year or two of marriage to Florence, he falls out of love with her:
She became for me a rare and fragile object, something burdensome, but very frail. […] Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed. (pg. 79)
At first, Florence is portrayed as a fragile creature with a weak heart, but as with other characters, we learn more about her as Dowell continues his story. There is little she would like more than to take her place as a lady of the English county society, and she harbours hopes of installing herself at Bramshaw, the Ashburnham’s residence. Dowell readily admits that Florence is a riddle to him, and he remains ignorant of Florence’s affair with Edward for quite some time – she is a flirt and a good actress with it.
That’s as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot save to say that there are further indiscretions and intrigues along the way. The Ashburnhams young ward, Nancy, also plays a significant role in the story. (It’s quite difficult to discuss the key events without revealing spoilers.)
The Good Soldier is a truly great novel. Ford’s prose is superb, and his descriptions of characters and their gestures are simply wonderful. It’s a very controlled piece of writing. The novel’s structure and shifting timeline requires the reader to play close attention to the text as the story is revealed in waves. There is much for the reader to process and assemble, and it’s a book I’d like to reread to gain a better understanding of the different layers and connections in the story.
I’ve talked a little about how my perceptions of the characters changed during the course of the book. In the beginning, I had Edward Ashburnham down as a cad and my sympathies were with Leonora. However, as I continued to read, I found some of my sympathy shifting from Leonora to Edward. Ultimately, I thought of Leonora as a rather cold and manipulative woman. She seemed well-equipped to deal with normality, but her behaviour became extreme when faced with the emotional dysfunction and duplicity of those around her. Despite Edward’s failings, his hopeless naivety and foolishness, he appeared powerless to quell his sentimental nature. Each character has their own flaws.
Dowell, the narrator, is left questioning it all and we’re left querying his reliability. There’s a wonderful passage in the opening pages where he questions the loss of permanence and stability in the couples’ lives. They appeared to be living their lives like a formal dance, a minuet, knowing exactly where they should go and what to do in every possible circumstance. All dancing together in perfect time with not a foot or hand out of place. This was how their lives appeared on the surface, but behind the façade all hell was breaking loose.
I’ll finish with a quote that for me seems to capture something of the feel of this novel:
I call this the Saddest Story, rather than ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorate. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness. (pg 123)
My copy of The Good Soldier is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 4/20 in my #TBR20.