Love in the Head: Ford Madox Ford and Parade’s End

I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer to my blog today with some insights into the writing of Ford Madox Ford.

Actor, writer and teacher, Michael Murray was born in Stepney, East London.
He trained for the stage at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Under his Equity name, Michael worked for many years as an actor and voice-over artist. His career also encompassed teaching, writing and directing. Michael is a Drama in Education specialist and holds an advanced qualification in the teaching of drama: the A.D.B. (Ed). He also has an M.A. in Education. Michael now writes full-time. His latest novel, ‘Leefdale’, was published earlier in 2018.

Michael is the author of:
Magnificent Britain 2012
Julia’s Room 2012
Learning Lines? (A Practical Guide for Drama Students and Aspiring Actors) 2014
A Single To Filey (A DCI Tony Forward Novel) (Amazon Bestseller 2015)
Leefdale 2018. Michael is also my other half and I’m delighted he’s agreed to my posting this fascinating article.

I downloaded onto my Kindle Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy of novels collectively titled “Parade’s End” (Some Do Not; No More Parades; A Man Could Stand Up and The Last Post). I resolved to read the original work after watching Tom Stoppard’s compelling T.V. adaptation of it for the BBC, which provided several superb performances, particularly Adelaide Clemens’ luminous portrayal of Valentine Wannop.

I’d never previously read any of Ford’s novels: all I knew about him was that he’d been involved in a ménage a trois with his common law wife and the writer, Jean Rhys, and that Rhys had drawn upon this experience for her magnificent novel “Quartet”.

Interestingly, there is a ménage a trois at the heart of “Parade’s End” but it is of an entirely different character to the one depicted by Jean Rhys: the parties to it are either estranged or separated by distance for much of the time and they have very little sex.

The triangle involves Christopher Tietjens, an intellectually brilliant, High Tory who is a member of North Yorkshire’s titled, land owning class; Christopher’s beautiful, bored and philandering wife Sylvia, who is a lost Catholic with a vengeful, sadistic streak; and Valentine Wannop, a principled suffragette, precise Latinist and admirer of frugality.

Like Tietjens, Valentine exists for the world of ideas and the life of the mind. She also shares something else in common with Christopher besides a fondness for Latin: the capacity for making sacrifices on behalf of others. After her father’s death — he was an academic — Valentine provided for her brother and her grief stricken and impoverished mother by working as a general drudge in a house in Ealing. At the time when Valentine meets Christopher she is painstakingly absorbed in typing out her mother’s novels which provide their only source of income. Eventually she undertakes a teaching post in order to keep a roof over her and her mother’s head. Christopher Tietjens’ selflessness is revealed in different ways: he accepts that his son is possibly not his own and that Sylvia was probably carrying the child when she seduced him in a railway carriage.

Nevertheless, he resolves to bring the child up as a Tietjens. Christopher is unguardedly generous and people often sponge off him or take advantage of his good nature, yet for reasons of conscience he will not accept what is due to him under his inheritance.

During the war, he is brought close to exhaustion as he tirelessly strives to improve the conditions of the men serving under him; and he almost loses his mind after risking his own life to save one of his wounded subordinates. These acts of self sacrifice give Valentine and Christopher the whiff of sanctity, an odour which makes certain kinds of people, such as Sylvia, feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Sex and its consequences seem to bring everybody low in this novel: even the most minor characters find themselves in some sexual bind. Malicious rumours about women conceiving out of wedlock abound. I’ve already mentioned that it is thought that Sylvia presented Christopher with another man’s child; it is also rumoured that Valentine is pregnant with Tietjens’ child and that her former friend, Lady Macmaster, conceived a child as a result of her affair with Macmaster before she married him. There is even a suggestion that Valentine is the child of Christopher’s father which would make her relationship with Christopher incestuous. Even the servicemen under Christopher’s command in the First World War have incredible difficulties caused by their complex sex lives.

However, as I’ve said, the ménage involving Christopher, Sylvia and Valentine is largely sustained without sex. Christopher, having been cuckolded, refuses to share Sylvia’s bed but as he is of the class that regards divorce by the husband as ungentlemanly refuses to divorce Sylvia. She, for her part, is Catholic and therefore cannot divorce him. Thus they remain uncomfortably yoked together, although we discover at the beginning of the first novel that Sylvia has slipped her harness and has bolted, having taken up with yet another man. (The equine analogy is appropriate as Christopher Tietjens is enormously good with horses). It is in these circumstances, in the period prior to the First World War, that Christopher meets Valentine and becomes deeply attracted to her. The difficulty for the still married Christopher is that Valentine is the daughter of his father’s oldest friend and, being chivalric and something of an Anglican saint, he is unwilling to compromise Valentine and expose her to scandal. For years, therefore, Christopher’s relationship with Valentine remains platonic. Even when he asks her to become his Mistress on the eve of his departure for the Western Front a series of banal circumstances prevent the physical consummation of their passion. (They eventually achieve this on Armistice Night in 1918 and even then Sylvia does her best to prevent it). However, it is sometimes said that the best sex is found in the head and for that reason “Parade’s End” is one of the most passionate and curiously sensual novel sequences I have read. Indeed, it is unusual to find in a novel of this period the frank and adult acknowledgement that human beings have sexual lives. Christopher and Valentine’s obsession for each other endures over many celibate years and is conveyed with astonishing intensity through a series of internal narratives which vividly explore the force and power of their passionate yearning and the acute despair that attends their unsatisfied longing. The separation imposed upon them by society’s hypocritical rules of sexual conduct and the brakes of their own conscience continues throughout the course of the Great War and it only intensifies Christopher and Valentine’s passionate and speculative reflections about each other in the isolation of their own heads: reflections which, inevitably force them to confront the probability that despite all their hopes they may never see each other again. This inevitably leads them to despair and to the brink of mental breakdown.

It only requires the addition of Sylvia’s unexpected jealousy and vindictiveness to this highly charged and overwrought situation, combined with her determination to reclaim Christopher, and the novel’s pervading sense of neurasthenia is complete. Sylvia Tietjens is one of those unreasonable women who, whilst she has no scruple about making her husband a cuckold many times over, and professes to have no use for Christopher — she likens his physique to meal-sacks and describes him in bovine and other grossly unflattering terms — is nevertheless determined that no other woman shall have him. She has an almost pathological animosity towards Valentine whom she dismisses as a ‘girl guide’. It might be assumed that as Sylvia is an adulteress and has abandoned Christopher her jealous response to Valentine’s appearance on the scene is something of an over-reaction. This would be too simplistic. Sylvia is dissatisfied with the nature of her philandering life; she compares each man that she starts an affair with to a book she has forgotten she has read: and once she realizes she is familiar with the book, ennui quickly sets in. The problem, as she freely admits, is that compared to the brilliant, honourable and reliable Christopher, the men she takes up with appear insufficiently grown up. At bottom she admires and respects Christopher for his erudition, goodness and saintliness yet conversely finds these very qualities in him tiresome and unattractive. Sylvia’s intense attraction and repulsion for Christopher finds expression in acts of extraordinary vindictiveness calculated to destroy his reputation. She even pursues him to the Western Front causing a great stir that brings Christopher only humiliation and distress. Yet these malevolent acts are really a perverse expression of her need for him. She rediscovers this need when Christopher falls in love with Valentine and Sylvia realizes that despite her abundant beauty, which can deliver into her bed any man she wishes, (and many she doesn’t), she is powerless to remove from Christopher’s head his preoccupation with the young suffragette. Ford brilliantly conveys the anguished mortification that accompanies jealousy: the brutal, self-extinguishing awareness that it is your rival who now unassailably occupies the supreme place in your beloved’s consciousness and not you. At times Ford depicts Sylvia as a poised and hating snake, coiled, head raised and about to strike which suggests perfectly her mesmeric beauty and poisonous nature.

It is Sylvia’s jealousy and her motivation not only to reclaim Christopher but torture him as well, combined with Christopher and Valentine’s determination to dedicate themselves to one another, albeit platonically, that gives the novel its forward drive despite its mainly stream of consciousness technique. Much of the back-story and subtext of the novel is conveyed indirectly and haphazardly through internal narrative and the recollections, musings, reflections, apprehensions and expectations of the three central characters. However, Ford is not afraid to abandon the stream of consciousness technique in order to advance the action and this makes “Parade’s End” much stronger on plot than most stream of consciousness novels. I know that this is a great work because having finished it I want to read it all over again, not least for the pleasure of analyzing Ford’s extraordinary method which generally eschews linear progression and conventional chronology and presents events not in the order in which they happened but in the random, haphazard and arbitrary manner that they occur to consciousness in reality. Unfortunately, the unashamed anti-semitism which is espoused by so many of the principal characters makes me baulk at reading the novel again, which is a huge pity. I know that anti-semitism and other abhorrent attitudes were endemic in the society and class that Ford was writing about but the anti-semitism in this novel seems completely disproportionate, and occurs so naturally and extensively it becomes deeply offensive. It is almost as though the writer was delighting in it and approved of anti-semitism so heartily he had to put it into the mouths of virtually every major character without challenge. I know that great literature is full of characters one would never invite to one’s dining table but there is a limit to what one’s stomach can stand. Which is a shame, because in “Parade’s End” Ford creates a compelling emotional triangle which involves the reader intimately and makes them feel that they have an experience of the Sylvia/Christopher/Valentine entanglement that is even more intense than that felt by the participants. It is an extraordinary achievement and a demonstration of the intensity of experience that only a truly great stream of consciousness novel in the tradition of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf can provide.

Thanks for reading 3sixtyfiveblog today.

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