“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
The opening of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is up there with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen” as one of the most memorable first lines in fiction. It’s also one of the most misleading; you assume it’s a statement of fact – but you’re no further than the end of the first chapter before you begin to question its trustworthiness. Dowell, the book’s narrator, is not simply telling the story, he is the story – so from whom has he ‘heard’ it? From that moment, the reader begins to suspect that Dowell is acompromised narrator, and at the least, unreliable, albeit in a sense that he doesn’t always ‘know how to put this thing down.’
On the surface, the story seems not to be complicated: two well-born couples, one English, the Ashburnhams, one American – John Dowell and his wife Florence, meet at a German spa town, where they become ‘a four-square coterie‘ and spend a companionable ‘nine years of uninterrupted tranquility‘ together until it’s discovered that Florence Dowell has been having an affair with Captain Ashburnham, the ‘Good Soldier’ of the story. But Ford’s great skill lies not in exploring the nuances of a conventional love-triangle (love quadrangle?), but in unpicking, and gradually revealing and concealing and revealing again in Dowell’s uncertain, bumbling impressions, confessions and revelations, the empty, desolate heart of both marriages. It’s a story in which there are neither heroes nor villains, only delusions, self-deceptions and tragic, shameful concealed truths. The Ashburnhams – ‘quite good people’ – haven’t said a word to each other in private for years, yet appear to be a model couple – Florence Dowell’s ill-health for which her husband has worked to create a ‘shock-proof world’ is nothing more than an elaborate charade to conceal an illicit relationship pre-marriage. Yet their spouses aren’t deceived innocents, but utterly complicit. It is the saddest story.
So where are we with the ‘ever heard’? In as much as Florence has deceived Dowell, he has conspired with the deception. Leonora Ashburnham goes out of her way to constantly uncover her husband’s philanderings and debts whilst rigorously maintaining the front of being ‘quite good people’ and behaving as quite good people might be expected to. Dowell is different – he refuses to believe the evidence in front of him, he is immune to his wife’s aunt’s dark warnings and seems almost able to ignore the truth of Florence’s past when a perfect stranger blurts it out to him. So he has had to be told, he has had to listen to his own story, and that distancing ‘that I have ever heard‘ underscores the tragedy, it is something he has heard, it is hearsay, it may not be true?
Julian Barnes calls Madox Ford ‘a proper reader’s writer‘ – I love him because I enjoy his ingenious manipulation of the reader – he’s not considered a modernist, and yet, on the evidence of The Good Soldier, I challenge anyone not to garland him with as many laurels for technical brilliance as Woolf or Joyce. Susan Hill with whom I’ll discuss the book tomorrow at her Books That Built Me calls it ‘the perfect novel form’. I keep coming back to The Good Soldier and every time I’m blown away by Ford’s extraordinary control over his novel – it is perfection, and I always wonder, ‘just how does he do it’.
Susan Hill, who chose it as one of her books that built me, says that ‘this is very much a book that comes high on my list of how to learn to be a writer by reading other people who are doing it better than you ever will….I learn from this all the time and I would die happy if I could write a book as great as To The Lighthouse, but ifonly I could crack the way Ford Madox Ford makes this [The Good Soldier] work in terms of shape and structure and narrative as well as a superb book about love and betrayal and death and lying and deceit – it’s so clever – this is a book taht you don’t read too young; every time I read it it is like a lesson, and it never can go back to being just a novel for me.”
[Susan Hill, speaking at The Books That Built Me, December 2015]