It’s been about a year since I watched the Parade’s End miniseries on HBO. I had never heard of Parade’s End before then, though the name Ford Madox Ford sounded familiar. Anyway, it is supposed to be one of the definitive books about World War I, probably right behind All’s Quiet on the Western Front. Of course, that one is written from a German perspective, whereas Parade’s End is so quintessentially, entirely, inescapably British.
Parade’s End is actually a tetralogy–4 novels. To make my life easier, I’m splitting this one into two posts. This one is about the first two books in the series: Some Do Not… and No More Parades, from 1924 and 1925 respectively.
The first book opens with two men in a train-car. A brand new, gleaming, perfect train car, with two men of a class who ‘administered the world’. One of these men is Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch in the miniseries).
The reason Ford opens with this gleaming, punctual, swift train carriage is the same reason I was very interested in this book. I’m a little obsessed with the Victorian era, which is (technically) 1837-1901, the period that Queen Victoria reigned. For a while, nearly 15 years, the incredible success of the Victorian era spilled over into the new 20th century. England started the century at its absolute zenith. By the end of WWI, that reflected and lingering glory is mostly gone. Ford sets his novel in those last moments of England’s place as the world superpower. Just before it all falls apart.
The basic points of the story (of all 4 books), revolve around 3 characters. Christopher Tietjens is a brilliant, honorable, slightly belligerent, extremely stubborn Tory from Yorkshire. His wife, Sylvia, is a conniving, sadistic, painfully beautiful and selfish woman, who married Christopher out of desperation (she was pregnant with another man’s son). In the miniseries, she was played by Rebecca Hall (who looked so beautiful in it that it makes me want to throw myself out of a window):
If the books were set in high school, Sylvia would be the Queen Bee, the Regina George. The other woman in Christopher’s life is Valentine Wannop, a bad ass suffragette.
I have already decided that this will be my Halloween costume this year, because suffragettes are my heroes, and how often in life do you get a chance to wear a sash? Valentine is innocent and young, but she’s also very strong, very smart, and incredibly capable.
First of all, I must say that Ford Madox Ford is awesome at writing female characters. He gives them the same amount of agency, of morality, of wrath, and variability, that he gives to male characters. They are not paragons or whores, they are complicated and multi-faceted, and that’s lovely to see. Especially from a book that is set 100 years ago.
But I also have to say that Ford Madox Ford is not great at creating an easy-to-read narrative. He does not hold your hand and walk you through the craggy bits of rock to get to the plot points he has scattered about. He jumps back and forth in time, from soliloquy to dialogue with very little direction for the reader. You have to pay attention and hold your end of the bargain in order to follow where he goes. But if you can follow, you get a lot of great tidbits and aphorisms.
Remarking on the famous stiff upper lip of English people, he talks about ‘self-suppression in matters of the emotions’, how in small matters, the Englishman ‘will be impeccable and not to be moved’, but in ‘sudden confrontation of anything but physical dangers, he is apt …to go to pieces very badly.’
And Christopher Tietjens is very much the epitome of that sort of English man. Even in his own thoughts, he is strangely blank about emotions. It is difficult for him to even think some of the horrible thoughts that come upon him, such as the fact that his son and heir is probably not his child, and that he was tricked into marrying a witch of a woman, and now his own sense of duty and honor prevent him from divorcing her. Sylvia, being a Catholic, will definitely not be divorcing him.
Tietjens is in love with Valentine Wannop very quickly after they meet. But even though his wife has strayed from him, multiple times, he cannot bring himself to do something as dishonorable as cheat on her. Even though most men think it normal (‘there’s no reason why a man shouldn’t have a girl…’), and the gossip mills already believe Valentine has had his child in secret. He knows Valentine loves him, and ‘his passion for her was a devouring element that covered his whole mind as the atmosphere envelops the earth’. But the two of them are too moral to begin an affair.
The one chink in that resolution is when Christopher is on leave, back from France during the beginning parts of the war. He’s about to leave again, and he does ask her to be his mistress. Ford makes a point to show how this 19th century honor falls apart relative to the awful truth of World War I. The terrible truth of the outrageous body count, the long and pointless fight on the front, and the number of soldiers returning home in pieces. But the two never get their night together. There are some people who do that sort of thing, but these two are very clearly part of the eponymous ‘Some Do Not’.
Though the action of this tale starts before the war, and much of the action revolves around the two women who are (obviously) not in combat, the entirety of this story is about the war. It’s about a type of life that existed before the war–Sylvia’s type of life. Society, money, pretty gowns, shows of imperial might, often a real lack of morality… After the war, it doesn’t exist anymore. That old way of living in the height of the English Empire has slipped away. Though many don’t realize it, it’s already gone by the time the war begins. Ford talks about this in a lot of different ways. He has Tietjens reminisce about God, comparing him to an English landlord, ‘Benevolently awful’, and heaven is an English Sunday.
The ‘Parades’ in the title, refer to specific military drills and marches, but also to anything with former pomp and circumstance. The last generation was able to cling to tradition, ceremony, ritual. All of that gave them an inflated sense of purpose. After World War I begins, all of that illusion is gone. There can be no real sense of importance in elaborate dinners or literary salons or royal occasions, in a world where people were blown to bits by howitzers or burned with mustard gas. Or making it back to England, but blind or broken. That world just stops existing once it is confronted with the utter destruction of the War.
We see part of Christopher’s experience in the War during these first two novels. Ford shows a complete chaos, organizationally. First, Tietjens is asked to manipulate statistics to show incorrect numbers of men that England was supplying to the allied front. He refuses to do so, and resigns his place at the Statistics office. He ends up in France, in charge of sending men out to the front line. More chaos. He gets conflicting orders about where and when the men should go. They head out in one direction, and come back 6 hours later, because the French resistance has blown up the bridge they need to cross. General Campion, a senior officer and Christopher’s godfather, also expounds on the chaos of the English forces. Campion proves he is not as honorable as the English like to believe they are (he ‘was not overpoweringly sentimental over the idea of the abandonment of our allies’). It better suited English interests to protect the Eastern colonies, rather than helping the French on the Western front. But if the English did abandon France and Belgium to their fate, they would run into a serious problem getting the English troops back across the channel. The French would attack them when they attempted to retreat.
Some of the best scenes of this story are the utterly ludicrous things that happen in war. Tietjens and his fellow officers, educated in Latin and in poetry in elite schools, are ill-prepared for the realities of war. In a moment of strange desperation, Tietjens and another officer both try to prove their intellectual worth by utilizing those skills, which are of no other use in this time and place. As Tietjens says later, ‘it is not a good thing to belong to the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries in the twentieth’. Tietjens describes himself as ‘the English public schoolboy’. And look how ill-prepared he is for life in this new world that dawned in the 20th century.
At the end of the second book of the series, Tietjens is about to head to the front lines, after his wife has come to France to embarrass and harass him. Bored with only torturing him, she also makes eyes at several other young men hovering around the army-commandeered hotel. She comes all the way to war-torn France to see if she can make her husband grimace. Well, she does.
The thing to understand about Sylvia is why she wants to make her husband grimace. She, not unlike Estella from Great Expectations, measures her power with men in the pain she can cause them. It is difficult to make Tietjens cringe with pain or insult, so she must resort to despicable behavior to do so. For her, it is proof that he still cares for her, if she can cause him pain. It’s not admirable or pleasant, but I think it’s fairly easy to see how a woman, brought up to be a society darling, graced with incredible beauty, might learn to interact with men this way.
So even though he is a brilliant man, with good connections and money, Christopher is off to the front to put his life at risk because of some ludicrous idea of honor. Sylvia, who really does want him to love her (and shows it in the only way she knows how), refuses to loosen her grasp on him. Valentine vows to erase him from her mind, because there is no reason to believe he will come back from the front. And all the characters are miserable, forced by morality to do things that can only destroy them in future. I know what happens next, because of the miniseries, but reading the books will hopefully add another layer of depth and comprehension to the story.