Ford Madox Ford was a close friend of Ezra Pound, and part of a remarkable literary Modernism sustained in Britain, and specifically London, between the first meeting of the Café Tour d’Eiffel poets (later the Imagists) in 1909 and the publication of The Waste Land in 1922.
Ford wrote a considerable amount of poetry, but was even more committed to prose, and the tetralogy — a sequence of four novels — of Parade’s End constitutes, undoubtedly, a great Modernist work of art. Published between 1924 and 1928, they augmented the Modernist project in Britain. The first novel Some Do Not… is set immediately before the First World War; the middle two, No More Parades and A Man Could Stand Up, are centred on the Western Front; and the final one, The Last Post, takes place in the war’s aftermath.
Although written in the third person, there are, as befits Modernism, shifting points of view, and the most impressive writing is the way Ford conjures stream of consciousness monologues from different characters. Nevertheless, there is a central character: Christopher Tietjens. A member of the Yorkshire gentry, he is variously described as “The Last Tory,” an “Anglican Saint,” and someone who would have been more at home in the eighteenth century. He moves to his own beat and with measures of idealism: his refusal to take family money results in a continuous argument with Mark, his even stuffier older brother. Fortunately, Christopher is balanced by Valentine Wannop, the love of his life, who is a suffragette and pacifist. The triangle made with Christopher’s wife, Sylvia, an adulterer and vindictive in her ways of maligning Christopher, is a constant in the four novels.
Ford had been an officer in the trenches, but those looking for blood and guts battle scenes will be disappointed. While death and physical pain are not ignored, Ford prioritises the psychological and spiritual suffering endured by those at the front. This continues for soldiers, like Christopher, who survive, and the final novel has Christopher and Valentine seeking the peace of a rural life in Sussex.
There are many literary Modernisms — Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Hemingway etc.— and surely Ford is up there with the best of them. He has become the subject of academic study and conferences, and, inevitably, the Ford Madox Ford Society is tweeting as @FordMadoxFordie. Adding to this growing interest, Parade’s End was, in 2012, serialised for television: scripted by Tom Stoppard and with Benedict Cumberbatch as Christopher.
Parade’s End shows a ruling class defined by a set of people from the same aristocratic and upper class background who all consequently know each other: a world largely dismantled by the upheavals of two world wars. Or was it? Despite significant social movements and changes — think, as examples, of women’s liberation, gay marriage, and the ascendancy of popular culture — we have a current prime minister who was at Eton and Oxford with the very person now vying to replace him. I do not think I am alone in finding that depressing.
Parade’s End is a brilliant achievement, though somewhat daunting to approach, but I would encourage you to strap on the crampons and enjoy climbing these Modernist heights.
About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York). www.bobzlenz.com
You can read Robert Richardson's review of the BBC adaptation of Parade's End here.