Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"

While Ford Madox Ford may be the godfather of this blog, he has a very good excuse for not being asked to subject his most famous book to the Page 99 Test: he's been dead since 1939.

Anyway, Max Saunders may know Ford better than the man knew himself. Saunders is Professor of English at King's College, London, and the author of the critical biography, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, 2 vols (OUP, 1996), co-editor of the Everyman’s Library edition of The Good Soldier (1989), and editor of Ford’s other major fictional work, the tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-28), for Penguin (2002).

He also edited Ford's Selected Poems (Carcanet, 1997, 2003); War Prose (Carcanet, 1999); (with Richard Stang) Critical Essays (Carcanet, 2002); and is the founder and General Editor of the annual series, International Ford Madox Ford Studies.

Saunders is also chairman of the Ford Madox Ford Society.

He put the Everyman's Library edition of The Good Soldier to the "Page 99 Test" and reported the following:
‘I didn’t know’. John Dowell, the narrator of Ford’s pre-war tour-de-force, tells us so often what he didn’t know, that Ford could almost have called the novel What Dowell Didn’t Know. He didn’t know that his friends the Ashburnhams, who made such a good first impression, are living out a sham marriage. He didn’t know that his close friend Edward Ashburnham was a serial adulterer. Nor that his own wife, Florence, was only feigning a heart condition, and using it as an excuse not to consummate their marriage, as well as a screen behind which she could conduct her own affairs. Most spectacularly, and revealed on the page before this, he didn’t know that Florence had been having a protracted affair with his friend Edward. Now he reveals that he didn’t know Florence’s death was suicide.

After such ignorance, what forgiveness? Not much from some critics, who have felt Dowell’s credulity is beyond theirs, and that he is obtuse to the point of idiocy, or self-delusion, or comedy. To others he has seemed to be manipulating the situation. Perhaps because it’s hard to credit such impercipience, especially in a narrator otherwise so rich in impressions, he has sometimes been taken to know more than he lets on: acting deceived in order to be less so.

One of the ways this passage is typical of the novel is how Dowell’s tone here is so arrestingly strange in its equanimity. Who else would take time to comment on ‘the extraordinary sense of leisure’ in between two such fundamental revelations – which ought, by normal standards, to be devastating? Is it simply for the contrast between outer idleness and inner turmoil? Or is it a sign of psychopathic lack of affect? Dowell’s confession of having been ‘singularly lacking in suspiciousness’, in drawing attention to its own singularity, of course potentially arouses our suspicions about him. One critic has even suspected him of murdering both Florence and Edward. The charge can’t be proven. But perhaps what is important is that shadow of a doubt. Ford’s friends often remarked on his ‘omniscient’ manner, which makes his impression of unknowingness here all the more striking. Because real people always remain opaque to our understandings, we only know them, perhaps, at the point at which we know we don’t know them. Ford’s impressionism creates the aura of doubt around Dowell’s every utterance. Our response to him thus re-enacts his own experiences of the other characters, whose hearts have been, and remain, darkness.
--Marshal Zeringue