The Better Angels of Our Nature

This post was requested and, I confess, I have been putting it off for quite some time. However, I’ve ran out of ways to procrastinate (which included turning in papers prior to their due date, watching horrible TV shows on Netflix, and cleaning) and so, the following is a post that starts with an apology, but hopefully ends with approbation.

In April 1924 a book debuted and it, along with the three novels which followed, would become a tale of love, mistrust, society and war. Ford Maddox Ford’s tetralogy was published in a time when war literature was commonplace, but Parade’s End was anything but. Ford’s brilliance wasn’t its originality in concept, rather its originality in plot. Parade’s End (which was originally published as four separate works: Some Do Not… in 1924, No More Parades in 1925, A Man Could Stand Up in 1926 and Last Post in 1928) chronicles a story of a man who is as different from Hemingway’s Frederick Henry as possible. Unlike A Farewell to Arms, Ford’s tale discusses not only war, but the social situations surrounding a man of a specific class in a tumultuous time.

Ford describes his main character, Christopher Tietjens, as “the last Tory” which is a distinction that becomes important later on.. ironically, Tiejtens’ politics are actually a very limited character in the novels. Rather, it’s Tiejtens’ consciousness which becomes a secondary character in the story. Tiejtens’ is a character you quickly come to feel great pity for… his life seems particularly perfect on the outside, while inside he’s slowly falling apart. Some Do Not… introduces us to Tietjens’ lifestyle, his politics, and his society all wrapped in the setting of pre-war England. He’s a brilliant man who finds himself in a precarious situation quite early on, and his decision to stay with a less-than-faithful wife helps to create a pattern for his character.

In order to show what Edwardian society was to the Tietjens, Ford explains some of the various social morays of the day… including a smart, beautiful and controversial suffragette. Valentine becomes to Tietjens what his wife is not… although their affair is never consummated. Ford calls it an “intellectual affair,” although it’s quite obvious from the start that it’s more than that. Interestingly, the non-affair between Tietjens and Valentine only serves to prove Ford’s point about Tietjens’ character…. regardless of his wife’s liaisons (which he is well aware of), Tiejtens never breaks the vow himself, despite the fact that both his friends and family believe differently (hence the title Some do not…).

Novels of the First World War were not rare in the 1920s, but Ford manages to create an entirely rare situation: a novel set in war which follows a man’s consciousness through war… how Tiejtens’ deals with the trials and tribulations of war is far more important than the events themselves. Ford even goes so far as to argue that war is inevitable… and while it appears that he’s talking specifically about the First World War, you can’t be completely sure.

The most tragic part of Ford’s tale is that a brilliant man, stuck in a marriage because of his own values, meets and falls in love with what could potentially be his soul mate (talk about sucky timing)… although Valentine and Tiejtens ending is different than their beginning, their ending is influenced by the morals of society and the scandals caused throughout the four novels. The ironic thing is that Tiejtens’ heart is allowed to wander because he knows his wife is having affairs (it’s not like she tried to hide them), but she is only having affairs in order to create some reaction from Tiejtens. What Sylvia wants most is the affection of her husband, be it good or bad, and Tiejtens doesn’t even give her that, consistently ignoring her philandering which she only engages in to gain his attentions. It’s a classic catch-22, and Tiejtens isn’t unaware of the fact… yet he ignores the situation, making it worse.

Ford shows how war (when these novels were written, the biggest war ever known to mankind) affects not only an individual, but the affects on society as well. The First World War had a massive impact on Edwardian society, culture, and the individuals who lived it. Although Ford tells a very myopic story, which focuses on one particular group of people and the impact their actions have on society, he’s painting a bigger picture. Ford’s novel ignores many things about Edwardian society, his point is well made. The impact of war on any society is massive… but when that society and culture is based on a very structured class system, and impact would be massive. In this particular case, the impact is on society as a whole, as well as the social structure of one family. By the end of Parade’s End even Tiejtens has lost many of his high morals, and has chosen a life that prior to 1914 he never would have chosen. War, it seems, does more than change political lines… it also changes the perspectives of those who live through it… what was unacceptable to a man with high morals in 1912, was not outside the realm of the possible in 1918.

Ford’s tale takes a world of established social and cultural rules, and completely disintegrates it. British society and culture suffered a massively impact by the First World War, and Ford uses that impact in a very specific way… he shows us that even the most brilliant of men with the strongest of values are simply human. Or, to use Ford’s own words, “Higher than the beasts, lower than the angels, stuck in our idiot Eden.”


(I realise that normally I make some connection between written works and film, and this is no exception. Parade’s End was made into a five-part serial, which aired on BBC Two in August and September of this year. I’ve not yet seen it, since it won’t be airing in the States for several months, and on a channel I don’t have anyway, which means I can make no connections or comparisons between the two. But considering the screenplay was written by Sir Tom Stoppard, I’d bet that it was fantastic)

[If you’re curious about page numbers and specific references, I’d suggest you read the books. The edition I have is Kindle (my print edition is in a box in my grandparent’s shed in NY), so page numbers aren’t available.]


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