Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Good Soldier - Ford Madox Ford

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard" , starts one of the classic novels of 20th Century. This line is considered to be one of the best first lines from novels by many ( see the list ).
Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, is considered to be one of the modern English Classic. Though I have read this in my college days, I had another opportunity to read this book again, recently.
At the outset, it is another story of love and infidelity around two otherwise perfect noble families. An English couple, of Edward and Leonara Ashburnham and their friends, American family of John and Florence Dowell indulge in a 9 year old story of friendship, adultery, power, deceit and love. The story is retold by John Dowell, as he recollects the events in their life ,since their acquaintance with the Ashburnhams. The plot is fairly simple. It is about Edward, the good soldier, and his various flirtations with the ladies of different class and type, including the wife of the narrator , which he knew only after the death of the adulterers. While the families maintain their social respectability in their conducts and daily routine, the effects of the mistresses in the life of Edward bring forward the various power politics into the life.

As we see, both the marriages are not something to cherish. Edward, deprived of his pleasures (for no obvious reasons), seek out to other lovers as his mistresses. Over the period he had been with various mistresses often loosing valuable money, until his wife takes over his financial affairs, giving him yearly allocation for himself. John on the other hand, is made to the belief that his wife has a deteriorating heart condition, which worsened after their journey across Atlantic, and any advances will loose her forever. Unlike Edward, he is not ( at least in his narrative) getting into the dangerous zone of seeking pleasure from outside. "If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did" , he says. Though, after the death of his wife, he was keen to marry Nancy, the new love of Edward, on the advice of Leonara. The narration takes us through the lives of the two families through fragmented recollections, and various lovers of Edward, until the eventual death of Florence and Edward.

While none of the characters win your sympathy and admiration, one of the most interesting character in this story is Leonara. The writer, I guess has formed the character very vague and secretive, who controls the entire events as they unfold. There is an invisible presence of her through out and none could ever win over her with their charm.

At the end, it is death for both the adulterers of the story. Florence, dies of her hear decease when she in an anger of the moment ( when she found Edward with the young Girl Nancy at the garden), does not take the medicine that prevent her heart failure. Edward ends up committing suicide. While John was unaware of the flowering love between his wife and Edward, Leonara was aware of every affairs of her husband. Most of the story was revealed to John by Leonara, post the death of their respective partners.

The narration is not smooth, as the recollections are not in chronological order. As he himself explains..
"I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be a sort of maze. I can not help it.... And when one discusses an affair - a long, sad affair - one goes back, one goes forward."

It is a story of jealousy, adultery, love, despair, power, revenge and manipulation fitted with a glorious writing, with acute observation of characters, the subtle non-verbal changes of attitudes of individuals. One of the beauty of this book is that one can approach this (in your after read moments), with perspective from each character. This book is one which demands further read and each read will bring out some new angle to the subject , thus revealing itself much clearer to the reader.

I've read elsewhere , that the original title given by the author was "The Saddest Story", which was later changed by the publisher at the onset of the World War I, which remained there after. It is also said to be loosely based on two incidents of adultery and on Ford's messy personal life.

Outstanding book, no wonder, it is considered as one of the classic literature of 20th century.
The Good Soldier

151 Pages
Further Read : Biography of Ford Madox Ford at Books&Writers, Guardian Review

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