‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 256 pages; 1983.

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

So begins Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier, which was first published in 1915 and has remained in print ever since. It is said to be based on Ford’s own messy personal life.

Set in the Edwardian era and spanning nine years (1902 to 1914), it explores the complex and intertwined relationships between two wealthy and seemingly perfect couples —  John and Florence Dowell, from the USA, and Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, from England — who meet every year at a German spa resort.

The good soldier of the title is Edward Ashburnham, a refined English gentleman, who has a strong public record — “for his good soldiering, for his saving lives at sea, for the excellent landlord he was and the good sportsman” — but, as we come to discover, he isn’t exactly a good husband. He has what we would call a “roving eye”, particularly for much younger women, and over the course of the novel takes several mistresses. He is also involved in various sexual harassment incidents, which are made to go away via blackmail and bribe — such payments threaten Ashburnham’s already dwindling finances.

His wife, well aware of her husband’s shenanigans, turns a blind eye. She’s Catholic, so divorce is impossible, and she loves Edward’s reputation as a fine, upstanding citizen. She takes the best option open to her: she looks after her husband’s welfare and his finances and manages his country home for him so that they can at least keep up appearances without falling into disrepute or impoverishment.

But it’s a thin facade and it soon begins to crack.

An unreliable narrator

The tale is narrated by John Dowell in a kindly, occasionally puzzled, voice, almost as if he can’t believe what has happened to his English friend Ashburnham: he thought he was an upright citizen but now realises he was “morally soft”.

His narrative jumps backward and forwards in time via flashbacks, and as his story unfolds the reader begins to question Dowell’s version of events. He’s an unreliable narrator in the sense that he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself and by the end, I wasn’t sure if he had been played by others or done the playing himself.

Initially, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. His young wife Florence has “heart trouble” so he needs to ensure she’s always calm, never panicked, that she has lots of personal space and time to herself. He seems to be consumed with worry about her.  The slightest rise in her heart rate might end in death.

But as his tale proceeds, you realise that the only “heart trouble” Florence has is psychological: she’s having an affair and using her quiet time, in which her bedroom door is always locked, not to quell the beating of her dodgy heart but to have her adulterous way with a married man.

Dowell, who describes himself as a “trained poodle”, is shocked when the affair comes to light, but by then it’s too late to do anything about it: Florence is dead.

A tale of adultery 

As a tale of adulterous love and an exposé on the duplicity of those whose public lives do not match their private personas, The Good Soldier is extraordinarily good.

For a story that is very much about sexual morals, there is little to no sex in it. There’s quite a bit of religion in it, though. There’s a lot about the cultural differences between Americans and Brits (which I enjoyed), and a good smattering of tragedy, including illness, suicide and madness. But it never feels over the top. Madox Ford keeps a tight rein on events and emotions; everything is carefully restrained, so much so I sometimes had to reread passages to ensure I hadn’t missed anything.

It occasionally feels a bit woolly and repetitive, and I found it difficult to truly engage with any of the characters. As much as I liked Dowell’s voice, the rhythm of the sentences and the cool detached nature of the prose, I struggled to like The Good Soldier as a whole. But there’s a lot in this book to discuss — about gender and marriage and love and lust and which characters are true to themselves and which aren’t. It would make a terrific book club read for that reason.

The Good Soldier is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and was adapted for television in 1981.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 30th for #TBR40. It has been sitting in my TBR for more than a decade, having acquired it via BookMooch when I was an active member in 2005/06.

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11 thoughts on “‘The Good Soldier’ by Ford Madox Ford

  1. Pingback: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

  2. I’ve always loved this book for its tone and storytelling and the way things are so obliquely and slowly revealed; its feeling of peeling back layers, or unpacking Russian dolls, of story within story.
    I first read it when too young to understand a lot of it, have read it at least once since then and understood more each time, but your review has now made me feel I should read it once again. And especially from a writerly point of view, because of its brilliant handling of the unreliable narrator (i don’t think I realised he was unreliable on my first, naive reading!) and the pacing of information.
    Given this skilful pacing of information, though, I regret that you’ve given several spoilers, including a crucial one about Florence. Much of the satisfaction of reading this book for the first time is experiencing the slow revelations and realisations, as the façades are gradually dismantled.
    I hope you won’t mind my saying, as one who reads and enjoys your reviews, that this question of how much reviewers should reveal is a particular bugbear of mine. As a writer, I pace the revealing of information so carefully. It makes so much difference for the reader’s experience if s/he comes to the book with too much pre-knowledge. And as a reader, I do not want a review to tell me the story of a book! But rather to give me its atmosphere, the general subject matter, the approach, and above all whether the book works or not, from the reviewer’s point of view.
    That said, thanks for writing about this brilliant modern classic; I’m sure you’ll bring more readers to it, and that’s all to the good.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Christine. I’m usually very careful about plot spoilers, but in this case I’m not sure I’ve really given anything away. In my edition, Dowell confesses on the first page that Florence is dead, so the reader’s attention is piqued immediately — I know mine was and I was anxious to discover how this came about and it’s part of the reason I kept turning the pages. And every review I’ve looked at since, including the one in 1,001 books, mentions that Dowel is unreliable and that the story is about adultery — given it’s about two couples it’s pretty easy to guess who the culprits are…

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  3. ‘The Good Soldier’ is also sitting on my shelf. I bought it after reading a review about it. When I read your review I had to think about a story I read earlier this year: The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt.

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  4. I’ve never been sure I want to read Ford Madox Ford, for some reason he’s never really appealed. But your description of his style is so tempting. Careful, restrained prose is generally an approach I like, so I’ll definitely give this a try.

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    • I’ve long wanted to read him… but alas not done it until now. Admittedly, it wasn’t as powerful as I had been led to expect, but I still enjoyed the book and think it’s one of those stories you could re-read to get more out of it.

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  5. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2019 edition – Reading Matters

  6. I’ve been too tied up with work to comment before now, but you’ve inspired me to seek out the book. I liked Christine Whittemore’s comment above, not because you revealed ‘too much’, I forget reviews long before I get to read the book. but because I often find that authors build their stories with gradual reveals as they go along, and this makes them difficult to review.

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    • Those slow reveals (and twists and turns) are what makes it almost impossible to review crime novels or psychological thrillers but it can be done… I don’t actually think I’ve spoilt anything in this review because if you look at all the reviews online in mainstream outlets they have revealed way more than I have here… and I’ve been very careful not to give away the ending.

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  7. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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