The Good Solider, by Ford Maddox Ford, published in 1915, sits you down beside a cottage fireside, where quiet American millionaire, John Dowell tells you ‘the saddest story I have ever heard’. This is the story of Dowell’s relationship with his wife Florence, and a couple they meet at a German health spa, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Outwardly it’s all properness and polite chit chat, as might be expected in the presence of three powerful social drivers towards orderly conduct – John’s old-money wealth, Edward’s position as a British army officer, and Leonora’s Catholicism.
But beneath the respectable surface there’s complete chaos. Where to start? Just to give you a flavour of what lurks beneath – Florence pretends to be an invalid, so that she gets the material benefits of a marriage with John Dowell, without the downside of a physical relationship with him. While Dowell acts as a dutiful husband, looking after an apparently sick wife, Florence continues to indulge her sensual tastes with raffish artists or burly Army officers, like Edward Ashburnham. And Edward, as well as pursuing an affair with Florence, has relationships with other women at the spa, wives of fellow officers, and the Spanish mistress of a grand duke. Dowell describes the whole, sorry history in a fittingly rambling, conversational, non-chronological style where it’s difficult to get a clear idea of what’s going on.
At first, I might have been thinking that Ford Maddox Ford had set himself a little challenge – take conventions or institutions that people associate with order and reduce them to a pile of smouldering rubble. 1915 was a tumultuous time. Religious certainties were falling away with the advance of science. Society was convulsed by a terrible world war. In this context, it might not be surprising if a writer decided to build a novel around traditional pillars of respectable behaviour, and then demolish them.
Assuming total destruction was the aim, and an aim well-achieved, what is there left to do as you stand in the smoking ruins? I suppose the only thing left would be to rebuild. And there is a kind of moral reconstruction in The Good Soldier. While the story is very much about good things hiding rottenness, it’s also about apparently rotten things hiding virtue. Edward’s conduct might not appear becoming, but his carry-ons stand in contrast to the Catholic outlook on relationships, where ‘being married or not married is like being alive or dead’. In the face of such fundamentalism, Edward can seem sympathetically human.
I found myself recalling a few lines from Oscar Wilde:
“A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law and yet be fine.”
Oscar Wilde, of course, served time in prison for a crime that, outside totalitarian or religiously fundamentalist countries, no longer exists. A crime which might not be a crime is an apt description of the moral world of The Good Soldier. The confusion is painful, but if we are looking for something good to come out of moral collapse, I would suggest that Ford Maddox Ford, while not promoting a 1960s free-love, tune-in, drop-out society, does present confusion as being a more likely source of tolerance and justice than blind certainty. Secular literature is characteristically more about questions than answers, and after reading The Good Soldier you might find yourself tending more towards forgiveness than judgement.