- The Good Soldier
The Good Soldier Author(s) Ford Madox Ford Country United Kingdom Language English Genre(s) Novel Publisher John Lane, The Bodley Head Publication date March 1915 Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback) ISBN NA
The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion is a 1915 novel by English novelist Ford Madox Ford. It is set just before World War I and chronicles the tragedy of Edward Ashburnham, the soldier to whom the title refers, and his own seemingly perfect marriage and that of two American friends. The novel is told using a series of flashbacks in non-chronological order, a literary technique that formed part of Ford's pioneering view of literary impressionism. Ford employs the device of the unreliable narrator, to great effect as the main character gradually reveals a version of events that is quite different from what the introduction leads you to believe. The novel was loosely based on two incidents of adultery and on Ford's messy personal life.
The novel’s original title was The Saddest Story, but after the onset of World War I, the publishers asked Ford for a new title. Ford suggested (sarcastically) The Good Soldier, and the name stuck.
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Good Soldier 30th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
The Good Soldier is narrated by the character John Dowell, half of one of the couples whose dissolving relationships form the subject of the novel. Dowell tells the stories of those dissolutions as well as the deaths of three characters and the madness of a fourth, in a rambling, non-chronological fashion that leaves gaps for the reader to fill.
The novel opens with the famous line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Dowell explains that for nine years he, his wife Florence and their friends Captain Edward Ashburnham (the “good soldier” of the book’s title) and his wife Leonora had an ostensibly normal friendship while Edward and Florence sought treatment for their heart ailments at a spa in Nauheim, Germany.
As it turns out, nothing in the relationships or in the characters is as it first seems. Florence’s heart ailment is a fiction she perpetrated on John to force them to stay in Europe so that she could continue her affair with an American thug named Jimmy. Edward and Leonora have a loveless, imbalanced marriage broken by his constant infidelities (both of body and heart) and Leonora’s attempts to control Edward’s affairs (both financial and romantic). Dowell is a fool and is coming to realize how much of a fool he is, as Florence and Edward had an affair under his nose for nine years without John knowing until Florence was dead.
Florence’s affair with Edward leads her to commit suicide when she realizes that Edward is falling in love with his and Leonora’s young ward, Nancy Rufford, the daughter of Leonora's closest friend. Florence sees the two in an intimate conversation and rushes back into the resort, where she sees John talking to a man she knows (and who knows of her affair with Jimmy) but whom John doesn’t know. Assuming that her relationship with Edward and her marriage to John are over, Florence takes prussic acid – which she has carried for years in a vial that John thought held her heart medicine – and dies.
With that story told, Dowell moves on to tell the story of Edward and Leonora’s relationship, which appears normal but which is a power struggle that Leonora wins. Dowell runs through several of Edward’s affairs and peccadilloes, including his possibly innocent attempt to comfort a crying servant on a train; his affair with the married Maisie Maidan, the one character in the book whose heart problem was unquestionably real, and his bizarre tryst in Monte Carlo and Antibes with a kept woman known as La Dolciquita. Edward’s philandering ends up costing them a fortune in bribes, blackmail and gifts for his lovers, leading Leonora to take control of Edward’s financial affairs. She gradually gets him out of debt.
Edward’s last affair is his most scandalous, as he becomes infatuated with their young ward, Nancy. Nancy came to live with them after leaving a convent where her parents had sent her; her mother was a violent alcoholic, and her father (it is later suggested that this man may not be Nancy’s biological father) may have abused her. Edward, tearing himself apart because he does not want to spoil Nancy's innocence, arranges to have her sent to India to live with her father, even though this frightens her terribly. Once Leonora knows that Edward intends to keep his passion for Nancy chaste, but only wants Nancy to continue to love him from afar, Leonora torments him by making this wish impossible—she pretends to offer to divorce him so he can marry Nancy, but informs Nancy of his sordid sexual history, destroying Nancy’s innocent love for him. After Nancy's departure, Edward commits suicide, and when she reaches Aden and sees the obituary in the paper, she becomes catatonic.
The novel’s last section has Dowell writing from Edward’s old estate in England, where he takes care of Nancy, whom he cannot marry because of her mental illness. Nancy is only capable of repeating two things – a Latin phrase meaning “I believe in an omnipotent God” and the word “shuttlecocks.” Dowell states that the story is sad because no one got what he wanted: Leonora wanted Edward but lost him and marries the normal (but dull) Rodney Bayham; Edward wanted Nancy but lost her; Dowell wanted a wife but has twice ended up a nurse to a sick woman, one a fake.
As if in an afterthought, Dowell closes the novel by telling the story of Edward’s suicide. Edward receives a telegram from Nancy that reads, “Safe Brindisi. Having a rattling good time. Nancy.” He asks Dowell to take the telegram to his wife, pulls out his pen knife, says that it’s time he had some rest and slits his own throat.
Dowell ends up expressing sympathy for Edward, even though he casts both Edward and Florence as the villains.
John Dowell: The narrator, husband to Florence. Dowell is an American Quaker, a gullible and passionless man who can not read the emotions of the people around him.
Florence Dowell: John Dowell’s wife and a scheming, manipulative, unfaithful woman who uses Dowell for his money while pursuing her affairs on the side. She fakes a heart ailment to get what she wants out of her husband and has a lengthy affair with Edward Ashburnham.
Edward Ashburnham: Friend of the Dowells and husband of Leonora. Ashburnham is a hopeless romantic who keeps falling in love with the women he meets; he is at Nauheim for the treatment of a heart problem but it’s unclear whether the ailment is real. He is Dowell’s opposite, a virile, physical, passionate man.
Leonora Ashburnham: Edward’s wife by a marriage that was more or less arranged by their fathers. Leonora comes to resent Edward’s philandering as much for its effect on her life as on her marriage and asserts more and more control over Edward until he dies.
Nancy Rufford: The young ward of the Ashburnhams; Edward falls in love with Nancy after he tires of Florence. Eventually Nancy is sent by Ashburnham to India to live with her father, but she goes mad en route when she learns of Edward’s death.
La Dolciquita: A Spanish dancer (The Grand Duke's mistress) who is Edward's first sexual affair. Although he believes himself to be romantically attached to her, he quickly becomes disillusioned by her thirst for his money. She is not at all interested in Edward's "sentimental" gestures, and asks for money and expensive gifts in exchange for sex.
Maisie Maidan: Edward's third affair. Maisie was a young, pretty, married woman whom Leonora purchases from her "child husband" and brings back to Europe for Edward's sake. Maisie has a true heart defect and it takes her life as she tries to flee from Edward.
The central theme of the novel is the fundamental unreliability of narration. John Dowell is frequently confounded by the impossibility of telling the truth, which is of recording events and actions, but with the autheniticity of lived experience. Dowell is further obsessed with the impossibility not only of telling the truth, but also of knowing it, in the most literal and important sense. His life has taught him in the strictest terms that it is impossible to truly know anything of anyone's heart, or even one's own.
His narrative is comically undermined throughout as the stakes of truth on which his life is founded are shown to be flimsy shams. Though Dowell is at times a pathetic character, he is clearly not at fault for his naïveté. Rather, it is the other characters who presume to know one another's hearts and who scheme and dissemble relentlessly (including to themselves) who are at fault.
The heart is the key motif in the novel. It functions as both a physical badge of health and vitality and a symbolic emblem of truthfulness, since those emotions regarded as closest to heart are assumed to be most genuine. Both Florence and Edward pretend to have physically bad hearts, which are proven to be only symbolically bad, whilst Dowell appears to be heartless, lacking in vigour and passion.
Dowell exhibits a strong homosocial bond towards Edward Ashburnham, which reflects the fact that the Englishman is in some ways a paragon for his friend. Edward is steadfast and faithful to the desires of his own heart, although these prove to be woefully and destructively inconstant. Frequently and increasingly, Dowell presents Leonora (as well as Florence, who is forgotten barely half-way through the novel) as the villain of the piece, since she obeys not natural or heartfelt impulse, but a manipulative version of propriety that for Dowell is closely linked with her Catholicism.
Dowell repeatedly affirms his lasting admiration for and exoneration of Edward, whilst Leonora endures a radical negativisation throughout the narrative. Dowell avers that he is similar to Edward, and could have been just like him had he his physicality and nationality. It is a moot point whether this is true, or whether this is mere wish-fulfillment on the insipid Dowell's part.
The date August 4 is significant in the novel, as it is the date of Florence’s birth, marriage, suicide, and other important events in her life. Although the novel was written before the war’s start, August 4 was also the date on which Germany invaded Belgium, bringing Great Britain into World War I.
Film, TV, Radio or theatrical adaptations
The novel was adapted for television by Granada Television in 1981. It starred Jeremy Brett, Vickery Turner, Robin Ellis and Susan Fleetwood. It was directed by Kevin Billington and written by Julian Mitchell. In the US it aired as part of the Masterpiece Theatre series.
Burt, Daniel S. The Novel 100. Checkmark Books, 2003. ISBN 0-8160-4558-5
- ^ Womack, Kevin and William Baker, eds. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Broadview Press, 2003.
- ^ Ford, Madox Ford (2003). Kenneth Womack and William Baker. ed. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. New York: Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-381-3).
- ^ BBC – Book at Bedtime – The Good Soldier
- ^ Global British Comedy Collaborative – Ford Madox Ford
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