Some Do Not… (Parade’s End vol. 1) – Ford Madox Ford

In some ways it feels a bit odd to be reviewing each volume of Parade’s End rather than the entire novel. However, the sheer scale and complexity of the four-volume book militates against my being able to do justice to each volume’s particular concerns in a single review. If I can do any kind of justice to even one volume then I will be pleased. (I haven’t yet watched the BBC adaptation, so I’m coming to the books as it were unspoiled).

I stand for monogamy and chastity. And for no talking about it.

In Some Do Not… Ford subjects the brilliant and upright Christopher Tietjens to the disintegration of his rigid Edwardian psychology and moral code. Tietjens stands for an old, feudal, landed and taciturn class of Englishman; a man at home with the contours of birth, privilege, and society, whilst hating presumption and overt sentiment. For such a man to be married to Sylvia, a repulsive but beautiful adulterer without a hint of remorse or sympathy, whilst falling in love with the intelligent, witty, altogether charming Valentine, tests both his moral and social principles to the limit.

If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it. . . .

With the coming of the War and his service Tietjens seems broken, his brilliance slipping away, as the world in which he was so at home slips away amidst the bellicose tumult, whilst he retains the principles which keep him from divorce and happiness. He maintains that he is a sentimentalist at heart, and it is such sentimentalism which keeps him attached to the moral code the world seems to be shedding and, perhaps, never truly held. For Ford forcefully asserts the human realities that Edwardian society struggled to deny: fractured marriage, adultery, ambition, expression, and institutional prejudice and fallibility. Throughout the novel ‘Some do and some do not’ stand as summations of divisions of class, principle and service, most of which Tietjens manages to fall foul of, be it by resentment of his birth, his ability, moral code, or War service.

She looked at Tietjens now with a sort of gloating curiosity. How was it possible that the most honourable man she knew should be so overwhelmed by foul and baseless rumours? It made you suspect that honour had, in itself, a quality of the evil eye. . . .

Sylvia, as loathsome a woman as one is likely to come across in literature, constantly works to undermine her husband. As she herself understands, ‘She preferred to inflict deeper and more quiet pains.’ That so many are prepared to believe her, and those like her, is testament to the rot Ford saw at the heart of pre-War society. Tietjens perceives this and it drives him to the nihilism of the latter part of Some Do Not…

You see in such a world as this, an idealist – or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist – must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf.

Indeed, Tietjens’ own brother – a model of Yorkshire taciturnity –  is more willing to believe in the possibility of serious moral and financial failings on Christopher’s part, than to countenance the error of a bank, a ‘prop of England’.

It is Ford’s psychology which I so admire. He plunges the reader into the mental life of his characters as they twist and turn under the pressures of society, duty, memory, and love. The narrative is far from linear as we often find out about a character’s feelings about an event or individual only at the end of Ford’s investigation of their response to it. This renders our apprehension of the narrative as partial as any of its inhabitants and Parade’s End a far more modern novel than it might otherwise appear. A kind of fear seems to drive so many, epitomised, perhaps, in the person of Tietjens’ old friend Macmaster: a Scotsman of low birth who idolises the Romantics, and who is searching for security and esteem, everything his friend has without apparent effort or desire, and finds in the wife of a lewd madman the pillar he needs to rise.

One has to be slightly concerned by the anti-Semitism which occasionally emerges in Ford’s novels, or, at least, that of his characters; and one rather hopes it is merely the latter. All one can really say at this point is that such things are a reminder of how prevalent such language and sentiment really was at the time. (Parade’s End was published during the 1920s). Eliot and others were as guilty as Ford, if not more so. Which certainly excuses nothing, but at the very least it gives a more rounded picture of a period when writers might also easily oppose Protestant and Papist within the work as a signifier of divided loyalties. A very different world.

In the end we might censure Tietjens for the tenacity of his principled stand. For all his brilliance he lacks the flexibility to consummate his love for Valentine in any sense. He does not bend, he breaks as his world dissolves. But even then he cannot quite give in and Ford’s novel is greater for it. Roll on No More Parades.

A man with doubts is more of a man, with eyes, hands, the need for food and for buttons to be sown on.

 

My thanks to Penguin for providing this review copy.

Mrs Bridge: Evan S. Connell (Penguin Modern Classics)

I’m reviewing Mrs Bridge as part of the Penguin proof group on Google +.

Ostensibly an innocuous collection of episodes spanning her adult life, from marriage to the onset of old age, Evan S. Connell’s novel is a brilliant study in the alienation and infantilisation of India Bridge, whose life is circumscribed by her husband, her children, and the trappings of a suffocating moneyed domesticity in interwar Kansas City. With unflinching realism Connell details Mrs Bridge’s struggles to understand those around her from a position of well-meaning but utterly shallow convention and deference. We see that this convention is all she has to cling to as her children grow up and rebel in entirely predictable ways, displaying an individualism she cannot comprehend. For Mrs Bridge deals in types of person each with their proper place, she has such trouble with names because she cannot connect with individuals, let alone the expression and non-conformity that might come with such self-consciousness. The irony of her surname, coupled as it is with so exotic a Christian name, in so parochial and disconnected a person should be lost on no one.

Connell’s realism is made poignant by the humour with which he explores Mrs Bridge’s increasingly confused interactions with her limited world. Whether it be her doomed attempts to make her son conform by wearing a hat or the shock of some revelation about her absent but utterly dominating husband, Mrs Bridge’s uncomprehending alienation is constantly underlined by the absurdity of the situations she engineers for herself and the world for her. She rarely asserts herself except in the cause of convention – the correct use of cutlery or the treatment of guest towels – and when she does it is a well-meaning but uncomprehending failure. One by one she drives her children away.

Every now and again, however, there are flashes of a deeper and repressed existential awareness, of ‘a terrifying inarticulate need’ for a past, for a future, that is the most human of all Mrs Bridge’s fears. She is spurred to try new things, but each time initial enthusiasm falls prey to a circumstance she might overcome were the will present. Yet she fails to assert herself and falls back into old rhythms once more. Connell controls all this with a fearful precision, allowing Mrs Bridge to edge closer to some existential epiphany, but always bringing her back to the surface before she becomes what Sartre termed ‘authentic’; before, that is, she decides to control her own fate by choosing the kind of life she wants to lead.

Yet Connell’s novel is more complex than a simple call to self-consciousness. In one episode he depicts the worst excesses of individualism with a violence which once again shocks, but cannot quite unbalance Mrs Bridge, at least not for long. The challenge is to find a position of rest between blasé propriety and outré excess; but such equilibrium will not come for Mrs Bridge because it requires some internal counterweight to the pressure of outward order. Her loneliness is borne of such a lack of self-definition and the repressed hopes and desires of a confused and unfulfilled promise.

Mrs Bridge might be read as a comment on the predicament of the women of the interwar years, caught as they were between a stifling domesticity and burgeoning emancipation; it might be read as the peculiar disconnection of one woman in the conservative surroundings of Kansas City; or perhaps as a penetrating and unrelenting pursuit of the human condition made manifest in a confused, fearful individual whose central predicament is summed up in one question she herself asks: ‘Do you want to be different from everyone else?’ The contradictory answers we all give to such a question form the tense heart of this very good novel.

Buy Mrs Bridge 

Amazon: Mrs Bridge

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