Tag Archives: No More Parades

Parade’s End, part two

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.

Parades End. Call Sheet # 39,40 and second unit on morning of th

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.

Parade's End

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Parade’s End, part I

parade's end bookIt’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):

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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.

8015647016_03c759c327_zI 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.