This is part one of four instalments that I intend to write while reading Parade’s End. Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along.
I must admit that when I unwrapped the parcel from Amazon France and beheld Ford Madox Ford’s door stopping, flood blocking, handbag busting, super-size “Parade’s End”, my first thought was “what have I committed to here?” I have now finished the first of the four parts of this book – Some Do Not – and although there were moments when this thought came back to me, for the most part, this has been a read of challenge and discovery that I would recommend. It has become a joy.
The subject of the novel is the upstanding aristocratic Tory gentleman Christopher Tietjens. He is a man of education culture and means whose home life is far from idyllic. In fact, his wife, who is a notorious beauty and something of a bed-hopper has, at the opening of the book, left him for another man. A great deal of effort is expended by Ford to show that Tietjens is a vast intellect and a brick of the old order, but I have to say that in the first few chapters of the book my view of him was that he was an absolutely fearful prig and a total snob. When the runaway wife Sylvia puts in an appearance early in the book and claims to hate her husband because he is a patronising bore, I must say that I could see where she was coming from. The novel opens in the years immediately before the First World War – a conflict which Tietjens predicts magisterially from a train carriage, to be the inevitable result of social mobility. All rather ridiculous... or so I thought. Now, I think that these impressions were partly motivated by shock at the size of the book and compounded by reading too quickly, because as I got deeper into the Tietjens world, my ideas changed – the characters became somehow more real and the plot more involving.
Christopher Tietjens, for whom I had taken such a dislike, is slowly and beautifully revealed to be a man of deep intelligence. He is a questioning and humane soul who is unquestionably, also a snob. Through the layers of the narrative he comes to be seen as a victim and a proper subject of pity. His victimhood is based on the fact that almost everyone inexplicably appears to hate him – his wife, his brother, the social climbing characters of his daily life. He is a proper subject of pity because although there is a temptation to see Tietjens as being an “old fashioned” character in a “modern” world – in fact his displacement is far greater than that. His brand of “old fashioned” is one that never existed, was always a myth, was always an aspiration rather than reality. He floats around the narrative of the novel – almost totally out of time. His only true friends are an aging novelist and her young, spirited suffragette daughter, the lovely Valentine Wannop. Tietjen’s desperate love for Valentine grows and grows until he can barely contain it, but at the end of part one I am left wondering whether he will ever be able to reconcile his worldview with his love for a woman who is not his wife.
Some do not is a political book and it is a book about a society. Tietjens represents an idealised view of Edwardian England – of the unmuddied, clear-headed, righteous, humble, Englishman. Those around him, and in particular his wife Sylvia represent the onslaught of the modern world – a place where people may advance above their station, where the old hierarchies and certainties are a nothing, a reckless party, a meaningless charade. The themes of the novel – duty versus inclination, morality, love, society versus the self – they are all introduced and discussed directly by the characters. The narrative has the feel of a play as much of the story is acted out in epic scenes where characters come and go and plot and personalities are revealed bit by bit. There is something wonderfully Socratic about the way Ford tells us the story. He jumps about in time, he discusses everything, he makes his reader question first impressions. The surprising thing about Some Do Not is that nothing turns out to be quite as you expect it to be – so much so that I am quite sure that there will be more changes of heart as I go along.
Mel U at The Reading Life hosts this read along and there is also an excellent post on the novel by Dwight at A Common Reader. I have included the penguin front covers past and present and a picture of Ford Madox Ford as illustrations.
Look out for my first impressions and more considered view of part two No More Parades.... coming soon.