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.