The Good Soldier


It is always a good thing to back yourself.

True, it is a perilous path. One man’s confidence is another’s unbearable pig-headedness. And context is key; I beg you to consider if it is wise to include the following prefacing dedicatory letter in your own novel, ten years after its publication:

I have always regarded this as my best book … [I tried] to put into [this] novel all that I knew about writing… No author, I think, is deserving of much censure for vanity if, taking down one of his ten-year-old books, he exclaims: “Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?

There’s a man who’s confident he’s done a good job.

I select cruelly; in his preface to The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford comes across as at least reasonably humble despite these punches. Luckily, The People agreed. Popular praise rolls over the chops of the book that Ford wanted to call “The Saddest Story”, and there it hunkers on my tyrant, The Guardian 100 Greatest Novels list. In their words: “This account of the adulterous lives of two Edwardian couples is a classic of unreliable narration.”

It is indeed the narration that is the interesting thing in this twisty turny tale of adultery, Catholicism, and emotional manipulation. The entire story is told from the narrator’s memory, who hints, dips and dallies around his content, obscuring here, shocking there, continually circling back to the same events with further details, or from a different viewpoint. The end [no spoiler] is typically teasing and offsetting – driving to a climax, only to suddenly and prematurely reveal it, analyse it, and then at the last minute give the detailed picture we thought we’d bypassed. It is a quite astonishing feat to make such tricksiness page-turningly readable, as Ford does.

The favourite plot device of early 20th century literature, Catholicism, is freely employed. Honestly, Catholics get a bad rap. To read Waugh, and Ford, and quite a few others, to be Catholic is to commit oneself to a certain lifetime of miserable marriage sans divorce, and terrible, crushing guilt. It allows novelists to depict a dreadful marriage without the practical objection that such participants would just go their separate ways. No wonder the Catholic church has a marketing problem.

For me, it’s an inferior work to Parade’s End, with all of its ponderously in-depth character psychology. If you read the two, you get a definite sense that Ford didn’t like strong minded, independent women, who get a rap almost as bad as the Catholics, prefering women to be girl-like and submit chastely to some dreadful man or other. Poor old Leonora Ashburnham has the misfortune to be both a strong woman and a Catholic, and is the only character to combine gumption and (patchy) integrity. She, however, gets a hostile reaction from the narrator who instead, vexingly, clings to his sympathy/love for Edward Ashburnham who to my eyes is a weak, adulterous, characterless twit. Yet it’s the sort of book, as Zoe Heller comments in her introduction, where you feel any criticism more or less plays into Ford’s hands. With TGS, he is wanting to mess with your mind, for you to query and doubt what’s presented and feel confusion at the complexity of the characters rather than numbly agreeing with the extremely problematic narrator.

All in all, it’s not totally satisfying, but it is strangely readable (more than I could say for Parade’s End, and a fraction of the length.) I took a break from the simple book which I’m currently dredging through to this complicated book which I leaped through, and that speaks volumes about its craft.


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