FORD MADOX FORD ON PARADE’S END

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Ford Madox Ford, still from a home movie, c.1929

Much has been written about the BBC’s Parade’s End (brilliantly adapted by Tom Stoppard) in recent weeks. Happily the series has also focussed attention on the novels themselves, which had been all but forgotten by the reading public. What has been missing, however, is Ford Madox Ford’s own perspective on his tetralogy. 

When the four volumes were first published by Duckworth between 1924 and 1928, Ford (somewhat reluctantly) provided prefaces to three of them. In the first he wrote: ‘I have always held . . . that a novel should have no preface.’ Despite his misgivings, these ‘Dedicatory Letters’, as he preferred to call them, give important insights into Ford’s mixing of fact and fiction in the depiction of the First World War (in which he served on the front line) and of his hero, Christopher Tietjens, ‘the re-creation of a friend I had’.

The prefaces can be read in full in an excellent edition of the author’s War Prose. Here is an extract from the preface to the second volume in the series, No More Parades, published in 1925:

As far as I am privately concerned these books, like all my others, constitute an attempt simply to reflect – not in the least to reflect on – our own times.

Nevertheless as far as this particular book is concerned I find myself ready to admit to certain public aims. That is to say that, in it, I have been trying to say to as much of humanity as I can reach, and, in particular to such members of the public as, because of age or for other reasons did not experience the shocks and anxieties of the late struggle:

This is what the late war was like: this is how modern fighting of the organised, scientific type affects the mind. If, for reasons of gain or, as is still more likely out of dislike for collective types other than your own, you choose to permit your rulers to embark on another war, this – or something very accentuated along similar lines – is what you will have to put up with!

I hope, in fact, that this series of books, for what it is worth, may make war seem undesirable. But in spite of that hope I have not exaggerated either the physical horrors or the mental distresses of that period. On the contrary I have selected for treatment less horrible episodes than I might well have rendered and I have rendered them with more equanimity than might well have been displayed. You see here the end of the war of attrition through the eyes of a fairly stolid, fairly well-instructed man. I should like to add that, like all of us, he in neither unprejudiced not infallible. And you have here his mental reactions and his reflections – which are not, not, NOT presented as those of the author.

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PARADE’S END REVISITED

Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn in Paris, 1923

It was Graham Greene who contended that ‘There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.’ This prediction didn’t quite come to pass, and Ford’s popularity has never matched that of his near contemporary Evelyn Waugh, for example.

Ford is set to experience a new lease of life, however, with the announcement of a forthcoming television adaptation of his four-volume First World War masterpiece, Parade’s End. This seems an ideal time to discover or revisit the first book in the series, Some Do Not . . . (published in 1924) which the philosopher John Gray recently described as ‘possibly the greatest twentieth-century novel in English‘.

Some Do Not . . . introduces the major themes and characters of Parade’s End, which traces the trauma of the Great War as if affects Christopher Tietjens and the two women in his life: his socialite wife, Sylvia, and Valentine Wannop, the suffragette with whom he falls in love.

We have become used to seeing depictions of the First World War on our screens of late (in the likes of War Horse, Downton Abbey and Birdsong), and can no doubt expect to see more in the run-up to the 2014 centenary. Ford’s work stands apart in being based on his own direct experiences at the Front, and being motivated by a strong anti-war stance. In that at least, Ford’s novel is as resonant as ever today. As he explained in 1934, when he’d completed Parade’s End:

I have always had the greatest contempt for novels writtten with a purpose . . . But when I sat down to write that series of volumes I sinned against my gods to the extent of saying that I was going — to the level of the light vouchsafed me — to write a work that should have for its purpose the obviating of all future wars.

UPDATE (August 2012)

The complete Parade’s End tetralogy is now available from Swift Editions, either as individual novels or in a single-volume edition.