It took me a while to finish all 4 of the Parade’s End novels by Ford Madox Ford. I will say, though, that each one is shorter than the last. It’s a bit like Michelangelo, who made the first frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling too big, and had to make them smaller and smaller as he went, to fit all of them on.
Unfortunately, these books are not the perfect works of art that Michelangelo’s frescoes are. The first two were complicated, often lacking in emotion, and frequently difficult to read. Following the plot was a bit like being pulled along by the hand too fast to look around and see what’s going on. If I hadn’t seen the miniseries before reading the book, I would have been even more confused. Ford is not great at 2 very practical things that make reading easier–making it obvious 1-who is speaking, and 2-when events are taking place. Two very easy things for writers to make clear, but when got wrong, the whole flow of narrative and the magical telepathy that reading is…just doesn’t work. You are constantly jumping back wondering–did she say that aloud or just think it? And…is this in the past? Did I miss something?
While I enjoyed the first two books, despite these little niggles, the second half of the tetralogy is more difficult to love. For one thing, they barely feature Christopher Tietjens, the crux of the four-novel plot. He isn’t seen until the last few pages of The Last Post, action revolving instead around those closest to him–his brother, his wife, and his mistress. And also, for some reason, his brother’s wife.
The third book, A Man Could Stand Up, starts with Valentine Wannop on Armistice Day, learning that the war is over, and learning that Christopher, her star-crossed lover, is still alive. But it shifts back in time for the second half of the book, having the reader join Christopher on the front.
Here is where Ford puts in some of his grimmest memories from his time in the war. He led a very similar life to Tietjens. He worked for the Propaganda office, drumming up blindly-patriotic enthusiasm for the thought of killing zee Germans. Leaving that office, he enlisted at 41 years old, and was sent to France. When you read Tietjens experiences of the unbearable and uncountable deaths around him, you just know that Ford is writing from his own experience. Here’s a passage that was particularly difficult for me to stomach, and left me with mental images I never wanted to have:
‘It was different from sleep: flatter. No doubt when the applled soul left the weary body, the panting lungs…well, you can’t go on with a sentence like that…but you collapsed inwards. Painter fellows doing battlefields never got that intimate effect. But these were not limbs, muscles, torsi. Collections of tubular shapes in field-gray or mud-colour. Chucked about by Almighty God? As if He had dropped them from on high to make them flatten into the earth.’
Time shifts again, and we’re back to Armistice Day, and Christopher and Valentine want to be together. They no longer care for the formalities of propriety and avoidance of scandal that held them back before. Though many try to talk them out of it, Valentine finally becomes his mistress.
The fourth book, The Last Post spends most of its time in the heads of Christopher’s brother, the brother’s wife, and Christopher’s wife. We see little of Valentine and even less of Christopher. We learn everything through hearsay, which I find really annoying. These two characters pine for each other for nearly a decade, live through hell and find each other again. They finally can be together and…we don’t really see much of it.
Most of the last novel focuses on the future of Groby, the Tietjens’ family estate. This does make sense, as most of this series of novels is about the future of the British ruling class, rather than just being about the Tietjens. Still, it’s easier to deal with a novel when the point of it isn’t thrust in your face at the expense of aspects you’re truly interested in.
Mark Tietjens, the eldest brother, is paralyzed (though it’s unclear how much of his immobility is psychosomatic), and has no children. Therefore Christopher is the next in line to inherit Groby. And his child the heir after him–if the boy is his child. That question is never adequately answered, but we’re led to believe he is definitely not. And the house, the symbol of the aristocracy will be further ruined by its passing onto the illegitimate son, brought up a Catholic (a horrible thing in British opinion of the time).
Christopher is married, but not living with his wife. Instead, he is living with Valentine, pregnant with his illegitimate child. They barely have enough money to support themselves, after Christopher’s business dealings go wrong. Groby and all that symbolizes the old guard of British land-owning aristocracy have been sacrificed at the altar of Sylvia, Christopher’s horrid wife. She has rented the ancestral home out to a vulgar American, who had the gall to cut down a very large and beloved tree on the property. In short, Sylvia continues to torture Christopher however she can, even from afar.
Most of this final book is about how the world has changed, instead of how the characters have changed. Indeed, the male characters haven’t changed that much at all. They aren’t adapting well to this new world that has been forced upon them. Mark Tietjens has completely given up on society and refuses to speak to anyone ever again. Christopher is trying, and largely failing, to support himself and Valentine by selling old furniture. The women on the other hand…the women can adapt. Valentine worries about what she’s got herself into, being a pregnant mistress to a disgraced aristocrat. Understandable. But she has embraced Christopher and chosen him over respectability and frigid chastity. Sylvia proves also fairly adaptable. She feels it’s probably time to stop torturing Christopher. To divorce him (a big change for her, as she is Catholic), and to marry the General that has always admired her and will be an easier target for her endless need to irritate.
If you’re wondering where all of this was in the miniseries–it wasn’t. Tom Stoppard left most of it out. The Last Post is a real controversy among critics of Ford’s works. Graham Greene omitted it entirely from an edition of Parade’s End that he edited. It’s a love or hate book, the literary equivalent of cilantro. I didn’t enjoy it. We see Mark as a stubborn invalid, we see our bad ass suffragette, Valentine, reduced to a nervous pregnant woman, worried about money, possibly regretting her decisions. It’s nice to know that Sylvia eventually would have given him the divorce, but nearly every other thing in the 4th novel could be left out and the character arcs would still be complete. It’s extra stuff, it’s not needed, and it takes the place of what might be a better denouement for Christopher and Valentine.
So that left me quite disappointed. When I watched the miniseries, I thought the ending too sharp and too quick. He comes back from war, a leader among his inferior soldiers, and shares a dance with his (implied soon-to-be) mistress.
Now I see why it ended that way. Everything else that Ford Madox Ford adds afterward really isn’t about the 2 of them. It’s about England, and it loses some of its potency by focusing on the culture rather than on the people.