Goodness, if He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers or I had read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford before we got married, I doubt we would have risked it. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappier group of connivers as the characters in this novel in all my reading days.
If you are planning to get married and have any niggling doubts regarding your choice of partner, then read this book and be warned! If you ever intend to read this book, then stop reading right now, as I am going to tell you everything…
The Good Soldier is set sometime before WW1. It is narrated by John Dowell, who is an oblivious fool. John tells the story of himself and his wife Florence, and another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Edward, who is unable to keep it in his pants, was formerly a soldier and is ‘The Good Soldier’ of the title.
The couples met at a spa in Germany where Florence and Edward, who have ‘hearts,’ take the baths and other treatments for their health. Things seem straightforward enough in the beginning, when the couples recognise each other as ‘good people’ for very superficial reasons; they all like their beef underdone, the men drink the same spirits and the women prefer the same wine. For nine years the two couples’ friendship continued with regular meetings at the spa, meals and conversations, but as the story unfolded, it turns out that things were not as they seemed to John.
John is a cuckold, to use an old-fashioned term. After his wife’s death, John learned that Florence did not have a ‘heart’ at all, and her supposed ill health was just a lie to prevent a physical relationship with him. Florence and Edward had been having a passionate affair under John’s nose for years. Florence suicided when Edward fell in love with someone else and became frightened that John would learn of her affair with another man before they married. Meanwhile, Edward’s wife, Leonora, was fully aware of her husband’s affair with Florence as she was with all of Edward’s previous affairs, but she was more interested in controlling their financial matters than making a success of their emotional relationship. Later, Leonora got her nose out of joint when Edward fell in love with their very young ward, and did the ‘right’ thing by her and sent her away.
The narrator warns the reader in the first sentence and throughout the narrative that ‘this is the saddest story,’ although John isn’t heartbroken when his wife dies and is quite matter of fact about Edward’s many affairs, romanticising him as a sentimentalist. John takes it for granted that a man’s passion will ebb and that when this happens, his love will end.
The pages of the book will become familiar, the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.
Edward also suicided and his young ward went mad, Leonora ended up married to an ordinary bloke who she seemed to be happy with, and John finished up nursing Edward and Leonora’s ward, who he was also in love with. By the end of this complicated and unhappy tangle of affairs it was difficult to believe anything that John said, except for his wish that he had lived his own life more like Edward lived his.
The character’s morals in The Good Soldier are dreadful, but they all seemed to get what they deserved. The language is beautiful, the story is extraordinarily well told, and best of all, the characters became real to me, but if Ford Madox Ford’s works are all on similar themes, then I don’t want to read any more of his work. I much prefer fairy tales where nice people live happily ever after.