Some Do Not…
No More Parades
A Man Could Stand Up–
Ford’s tetralogy of novels, Parade’s End, is on most lists of great books about World War I and is the basis for a series now showing on the BBC to great critical acclaim. Benedict Cumberpatch plays the main character, Christopher Tietjens, and that immediately raises warning flags about the TV series. But that isn’t a reason not to watch. Look, I’m going to tell you what happens in the books, then you can pretend to have read it when the show hits NetFlix or PBS or wherever you can view it. Or, if so moved, you can read Parade’s End for yourself and tell me that I am full of it when I slag Ford’s characters.
Christopher Tietjens (pronounced TEE-jens) is the youngest son of English gentry. An ancestor came over with William of Orange and founded the family estate, Groby, in Yorkshire where the Tietjens family own a town — or so it is said in the first novel of the series, Some Do Not…, there is no further mention, later in the book, of the town, only of the great hall at Groby and Groby Great Tree that shades it. Now a Yorkshireman is supposed to be stubborn and so is a Dutchman, so we might well expect Christopher to be “obstinate as a hog” as his equally stubborn brother puts it — both of them are incredibly pig-headed to the point of self-destructive behavior. In appearance, Christopher is a large man, often described as looking like a meal-sack. Sometimes this is modified a bit: a “fat meal-sack”, for instance, or affectionately as a “dear, meal-sack elephant”, or even “as courteous as a well-trained meal-sack of the dix-huitieme” by Christopher’s French Sister-in-Law. Christopher is described as a meal-sack at least twenty times over the course of the four books. Now, I have seen meal-sacks and I have seen Sherlock and, hear me People! Benedict Cumberpatch is no meal-sack! He is a swell actor and all and photos from the BBC production indicate that he may have put on a few pounds, but I doubt that he is going to do a DeNiro and fatten up to meal-sack proportions. The fat, stubborn Yorkshireman is played by a slender southerner. Well, I haven’t seen it yet, maybe it works somehow.
Some Do Not… begins with two young men “of the public official class” in a railway coach in the summer of 1912. One of these two is Christopher Tietjens who discusses his wife’s infidelity with the other young man, MacMaster. Christopher tells MacMaster that he has had a message from Sylvia, Christopher’s wife. Sylvia has been in Europe having an affair, something she does fairly often, it seems. Will Christopher divorce her? No, he is too much a gentleman to ever divorce a woman, she must divorce him. Sylvia is a Catholic and unwilling to do that. So the couple is locked together. Sylvia is devious and nasty, dedicated to causing her husband pain — she can’t stand the stoic front that he presents (and, for that matter, I grew a little tired of it myself). Christopher doesn’t really believe in the value of the society whose standards he upholds, but he must, in his hard-headed stubborn way of thinking, uphold those standards because they are standards, his standards. Sylvia says that he lacks the guts to live by his own beliefs and that struck a chord with me, too, but the essence of the book is Tietjens finally coming around to living a life with meaning, rather than the sham existence — meaningless job, loveless marriage, irrelevant belief system, socializing with fools — at the novel’s beginning. Or at least that’s the best construction I can put on the narrative but actually, Christopher seems pretty lost at the end.
Tietjens, 26 years old, is “entitled to the best” but his friend MacMaster has Scots shopkeepers for parents and depends on Tietjens for cash and social entry. Tietjens can afford to neglect his own career as well as his appearance, MacMaster cannot. MacMaster is arty and latches onto the remnants of a pre-Raphaelite group (see Pre-Raphaelites) headed by Rev. Duchemin, one-time intimate of Ruskin, and Mrs. Duchemin, who lives in fear of her husband, who is completely nuts and may turn violent at any moment. MacMaster sizes up the scene and makes his move on Mrs. Duchemin, who succumbs to his charm. Also in this group is Mrs. Wannop, close friend of Christopher’s father, daughter of a famous critic and herself the author of a novel that Christopher thinks is pretty good. Mrs. Wannop’s daughter, Valentine, acts as a sometime housemaid for her mother and assists Mrs. Duchemin. She is twenty-two and a suffragette.
These characters, and some others, including General Campion, a family friend and Christopher’s godfather, entertain Christopher and MacMaster. This entire section is a venomous take on Edwardian society. The men play a round of golf first, some of them seeing if they can hit the party ahead of them with a drive, which is interrupted by suffragettes charging across the course. Some of the golfers chase after them shouting, “Strip the bitch naked!” One of the young women falls and sprains an ankle. Tietjens helps her and Valentine Wallop to evade the police and the girls get away.
Meanwhile, Christopher has refused to fake some figures for the Department of Statistics and has written a possibly insulting letter to his superior, something that upsets those around him a great deal. But Christopher wants to chuck the whole job. He winds up being lectured by his elders, frightening his good friend, irritating his co-workers, and, by the end of the golf match, is no longer on speaking terms with his golfing partner. Christopher meets each of these situations with the stolid, stoic visage of a gentleman.
Christopher and MacMaster have breakfast at the Duchemin house. Duchemin breakfasts are famous, once a main locus for artistic chat featuring Ruskin, Rossetti, and so on. The others are already at the table when Duchemin comes in, escorted by a muscular type that Tietjens recognizes as a champion prizefighter. And Christopher and the others understand that the boxer is there to restrain Duchemin if he becomes violent. A couple of times he seems building up to an explosion but MacMaster talks him down.
Anyway, by the time the golf/Duchemin visit is done, Christopher discovers an attraction to Valentine Wannop and is seen with her under circumstances that compromise the public perception of her virtue, which is a big deal here, partly because it has class implications. There is a fair amount of discussion among the male characters about when and where it is proper for a man’s mistress to make an appearance and how to deal with her financially — basically assigning her to a specfic class. A mistress is much higher in the social hierarchy than a servant but can never equal the status of a wife. This takes a fair bit of calculation and gentlemen consult one another in these matters.
Christopher and Valentine are in a horse-drawn cart during the early hours of the morning, having delivered the injured suffragette to safety. They discuss Latin, which Valentine knows very well, thank you. And they both yearn physically for one another but some do not embrace. Even so, when General Campion runs into them with his car — like a tea-tray coming out of the fog — it is assumed that they are having an affair. Christopher is also linked to Mrs. Duchemin. Sylvia piles on her own lies and Christopher is seen as a libertine and Sylvia, a wronged wife. Meantime, Christopher wonders if their son is really his child or not. Throughout, Christopher remains stoic and stolid and silent, though some detect a hint of suffering in his visage and seriously ask, “Is he trying to be Christlike?”
That is more or less the core story, the rest of the novel(s) will play out the ramifications of this first sequence over the next six or seven years. The War comes, Christopher finds himself facing “…death, love, and public dishonour…” — rare occurrences in the life of any man, we are told, but Christopher faces them all at once. Through it all, Christopher does not abandon his principles or his standards until toward the end of the War, by which time both he and Valentine have failed to embrace on several occasions, though each is dying to do just that. Sylvia continues on her nasty path of destruction, determined to make Christopher as unhappy as possible, possibly by warping their son, if she can find no other way.
All of this is worked out over the course of four novels that feature stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narration, and manipulated time lines. It is evident that the work is very structured but the nature of that structure is not immediately obvious.
Ford’s plan for Parade’s End seems to me like a musical composition. Once he has given us the opening story, the characters become themes, marked by recurrent words or images — meal-sacks, for instance. Sylvia is said to enjoy pulling the shower-bath strings — I think the meaning has to do with hot and cold water, but the string-pulling part of the image is evocative — she likes making trouble and she manipulates people like puppets. So “shower-bath strings” is the theme whenever she is mentioned and she is also shown pulling on actual strings, curtain cords, for example. In the musical piece, these themes would belong to specific instruments — a cello for Christopher going “I won’t. Won’t. Won’t.” and screechy violins for Sylvia with perhaps the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho bird calls, but maybe I am thinking too much about showers.
The titles of the individual novels are repeated throughout as well. “Some do not…” is given a number of different readings in the first book, just as A Man Could Stand Up and No More Parades are repeated over and over in those novels. In Last Post, the bugle call itself is played in the background from time to time. The repetitions — of titles, of character themes, of the same action performed by different people under different circumstances, of specfic words, (for example, “tea-tray” usually means violence, a crash or explosion, when you read it here — it may be instructive that someone remembers the name Tietjens sounding something like “tea-trays”) — all this repetition is intended, I think, as a sort of music meant to involve the reader. By the end of the work, just about every sentence is full of these repetitions so that words ring with the accumulated music. Or, I think, that is the way it is supposed to work.
Now one thing about turning these characters into musical themes is that it gives a certain license to ignore them as people, or rather, to ignore any aspect of their lives that is not part of the theme. Let’s check out these characters:
Christopher Tietjens: Our star meal-sack is stoic, stolid, and an asshole (see Scot-Jew). Benedict Cumberpatch says that he wishes he were as principled as Christopher. Oh no, Ben! These aren’t really principles being expressed by Christopher, they are positions taken by him and from which he will not be moved. “No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.” What principle is Christopher defending when he refuses to divorce Sylvia? The sanctity of marriage? Refusal to shame a woman who is shameless? Or is he just grabbing the moral high ground so that he can maintain an air of superiority to the entire situation? Certainly there is no Responsibility in Christopher’s position — neither toward his son nor his wannabe lover. Passive-aggressive Christopher is self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.
Sylvia Tietjens: Speaking of narcissism, let’s check out Sylvia. Sylvia screws around not because she enjoys sex, but because she enjoys being the star in her own little drama. She has allies in the form of besotted men and stupid cat’s-paw women. Her game is to disturb Christopher from his superior attitude:
Every speech he utters about everything… makes me want to stick a knife in him. …I can’t prove he’s wrong, not ever, about the simplest thing. But I can pain him!
She doesn’t mind being the villain, if she gets some choice lines, and boy, does she work for them!
Sylvia’s Scandals: The important thing is that the scandals are aimed at hurting Christopher, so any other result is just gravy. Christopher has been in England, recuperating (see Shell Shock) when he is about to be returned to the Front, His godfather General Campion has arranged for him to be as far behind the lines as he can manage, as a resupply officer. But Christopher has problems, too. Sylvia and her evil allies have created a situation where Christopher bounces a cheque or two, is crapped on by his bank, and booted out of his club. Christopher bounces back, demonstrating to bank and club that he was purposely put in the red by those aforesaid evil ones.
“Good God, Man! Your club membership is hereby reinstated!”
“In that case, I resign.” Never a crack in that stolid visage.
So Christopher is back in France having a not particularly good time though he does his job and does it well. But there are disturbing messages from the outside world. General Campion wants Christopher to make Sylvia leave him alone. It takes Christopher a while to realize that Sylvia is actually in France, at a nearby hotel, where he goes to meet her.
Now we learn, in fits and starts, that on the night that Christopher did not embrace Valentine and make her his mistress (see Non-Embraces), he went back to his London apartment and sat staring out a window into the darkness. Sylvia knows he is there and divines that he has not bonked Valentine (an event Sylvia tried to facilitate for evilness reasons of her own). She calls for a cab early in the morning to take her away; she is entering a convent retreat. Christopher, hearing her go, believes that their marriage is finally over.
Ha, ha. Silly boy! Sylvia spends three months in a nun’s cell before she becomes bored and decides to go back to torturing her husband. So, in France, at the hotel where she awaits Christopher, she flirts with a Major Perowne, who believes that he has the go-ahead to visit her room later that night. Now Perowne just happens to be the same guy that Sylvia shacked up with in Europe back in 1912 when Christopher came over to help her cover up any scandal. Sylvia sits, bored by Perowne’s chatter and contemplates hurting Christopher: “By the immortal saints,” she exclaims in an aside, “I swear I’ll make his wooden face wince yet.” Sylvia has more Asides to the Audience than Richard III; she turns into the camera and intones lines about the winter of her discontent and all, but let’s face it, she’s not a spectacular royal villain, she’s only Psycho-Bitch and a mature, adult male ought to be able to get shut of their relationship, not descend into the dysfunctional battle of “You hurt me, now I will stagger about and pretend I am not wounded. Then you can hurt me again!” Rebecca Hall ( Vicky Christina Barcelona) plays Sylvia in the BBC series, and it will be very difficult for her to avoid taking the role completely over the top.
This time Sylvia decides to seduce Christopher. So she dons a sexy negligee and sits at her dressing table looking alluring. Christopher comes to her room and is just about to be seduced — well, possibly, we hope, since after all these non-embraces the reader wants the boy to get his ashes hauled, every few years or so, anyway — when Perowne barges in. There is an altercation, attracting the attention of an officer that Christopher has antagonized and the whole evening becomes a shambles and a scandal. General Campion comes to see Christopher. The ramifications are that Christopher has to be transferred and, because Sylvia has cut off a number of possible posts and Christopher has antagonized himself out of others, he is to be sent to the Front. Christopher hears all this in a daze; he knows it is a death sentence. This was not what Sylvia intended, she just pulled one shower-string too many. Not that Sylvia is really sorry. She is never sorry.
This entire dysfunctional relationship bothers me. It’s as possible as anything else involving human beings, I suppose, but generally in these situations either the couple break up pretty quick or they are together forever, like George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for instance. Now there’s a couple that can out-dysfunction any other relationship ever recorded or invented! They are far more interesting, in their hideous way, than Christopher and Sylvia.
Valentine Wannop: The third side of this triangle is young suffragette Valentine. She is far more likable than the Tietjens couple mainly because she is healthy. Her father had her educated in ladies’ gym rather than academics because reasons of some kind or other. So Valentine is a vigourous type, sound in mind and body. Valentine is played by Adelaide Clemens, who is Australian and thus probably very healthy. Adelaide Clemens is a pretty blonde who can play Valentine very well, no doubt, but there is a slight glint in her eye that Valentine lacks. I cannot imagine Adelaide Clemens non-embracing all the time, there’s a girl with some life to her!
Christopher’s brother, Mark, thinks Valentine “has her head screwed on right”. Well, maybe. Here she is mooning after a married man for more than six years with nary an embrace. Something a bit off there, perhaps, but compared to Sylvia, a paragon of mental health. Let’s look at the thwarted romance of Valentine and Christopher:
Non-Embraces: The first non-embrace is during the long cart ride that results in scandal because it is thought that Christopher and Valentine actually did embrace. For five years afterward the two fantasize about one another, then Christopher decides it’s time to lighten up on this moral stance he’s taken. It’s his last night in England before he heads back to the War. “Will you be my mistress tonight?”
Will she! Valentine has already made the bed! “Yes!” Here’s instructions on when and where to meet me.
Well, finally! But things happen. Christopher and Valentine fail to embrace again. They part, Christopher headed back to France, stoic as can be.
Christopher and Valentine meet again on Armistice Day. Christopher has actually been in London a for a while but hasn’t looked up Valentine, who he has sworn will be his mistress, because some reason or other. Anyway, she goes to see him and it looks good for an upcoming embrace. But Armistice Day is a raucous event. Valentine and Christopher are interrupted by a bunch of his old trenchmates who want to celebrate, which they do, and A Man Could Stand Up ends with Valentine and Chris dancing together. Soon, the reader anticipates, they will embrace.
It is a little while into Last Post before we discover that, no, things did not go well on Armistice Day. (By this point, the reader should not be surprised.) The evening of jollity that ended with dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up continues into a difficult, raucous night — one of Christopher’s war buddies dies in a cab — and when Christopher tries to take Valentine back to his place so they can, you know, embrace, who is there but evil Sylvia who tells Christopher that she has cancer and then throws herself down a flight of stairs. She picks up a few bruises and muses later that she is losing her touch, why a few years back, she could take such a fall and never suffer a blemish. Valentine is not taken in by this “good theater fall” and the couple leave Sylvia on the floor. (Hooray!) So, Christopher wants some cash so he can locate an embracing spot (I don’t know if he ever found one that night) and poor Valentine winds up discussing war policy with Mark at 3:30 in the morning and occasionally dashing into the next room to weep all over Marie Léonie’s shoulder. It’s about this time you want to say, Girl, get out of this mess!
Mark Tietjens: Christopher’s eldest brother, Mark, works in Ministry of Transport where he is very high up indeed. He and Christopher meet in 1917 to discuss the deaths of their other two brothers, their sister, their mother, and their father. Yes, five family members dead. The two brothers were killed at Gallipoli, the sister was a nurse who drowned, their mother died of grief, their father… Ah! The father died of a gunshot to his head suffered while he dragged his loaded, cocked weapon through a hedge. Both the surviving brothers think it was suicide. Perhaps it was suicide caused by his disgraceful son, Christopher, who is rumored to have a child out of wedlock by a mistress he set up with a tobacco shop, and who was reputed to have an affair with Mrs. Duchemin — Mrs. MacMaster now, able to re-marry since the death of her husband — and who was a wastrel who had gone through thousands of pounds somehow, possibly on pay-offs to loose women, and military reports say he is a communist, or maybe a Francophile, and not to be trusted, and so on. Old Tietjens did not leave Christopher any money directly but instructed Mark to dole out whatever cash he requires. Christopher finds that insulting and says, all right! Then I won’t take any of that money from Mark! Yes! That’s the way to get back at the old dead guy, I’ll embarass him! By not taking any money and exhibiting an expressionless face, I will demonstrate moral superiority! And by God, Mark admires his younger brother for taking this firm stance — actually he admires any unrelenting position on anything, he believes this a proper Yorkshire attitude.
Mark doesn’t like Sylvia, who he thinks is a bitch. And one wonders why more people haven’t come to that conclusion, for crying out loud! She does everything except bare blood-stained fangs at the reader. But, No! Here she is persuading people to screw up Christopher’s pay and his bank account and everybody is saying, “Poor Sylvia, married to that dissolute brute!” when they must know she’s shagged half of Britain’s male citizenry by this time not to mention a few foreigners who helped wreck her husband’s reputation. I mean, at this juncture, if only the men who have boffed Sylvia know how not-nice she is, that is still a significant portion of the population. So, it is difficult to see how she can flourish except that Christopher is always rubbing people the wrong way and making enemies — perhaps, like Sylvia, Christopher’s enemies just want to wipe that smug look off his stolid face. By the end of the tetralogy people believe that Christopher is turning out his wife to get money or favors from the many many men who have bonked her. In other words, every time Sylvia screws a new guy, Christopher gets blamed. AND he wins the contempt of his fellows for not getting enough money or favors for peddling his wife’s ass. Not only is he a pimp, he’s a poor businessman!
Mark becomes upset that the Allies will not advance into Germany at the end of the War. The English failure to occupy Germany means that the years of war have been for nought. And there is an argument you could frame that way, and that argument was a serious consideration for the Allies of WWII who determined not to fail to occupy Germany again — they wanted the German populace to understand that they had lost and not, as in 1918, conclude that their victorious armies had suffered a stab in the back. Perhaps Ford, too, thought this in 1925, but here it is just one more fringe concept, just one of many thoughts and interpretations of events floating through the present that may or may not be of value in the future. Anyway, Mark is upset and determines never to speak again. Yes! That’ll show ’em! Hold your breath, too, why don’t you?
Marie Léonie: Mark has never married, but he does have a mistress. He spotted Marie Léonie in the second line of dancers at a show and was taken with her so much that he immediately looked her up and made a straight-forward proposition to set her up as his kept woman. Marie Léonie is from Normandy, which is France’s answer to Yorkshire, and was not offended by Mark’s blunt offer but accepted it. So, for twenty years, every Thursday and every Tuesday, except for a month during the summer racing season, Mark goes to the house that he rents for Marie Léonie. Marie Léonie prepares for Mark the same meal every time (see Meals), except during shooting season when pheasant are worked into the rotation, and the two have, so far as Parade’s End goes, a model relationship.
In October of 1918 (or thereabouts, Ford is purposely muzzy about the date), Mark has suffered a stroke and is mostly bed-ridden, Marie Léonie taking care of him. Christopher persuades Mark to marry Marie Léonie. No one asks her if she wants to be married; it is assumed that a woman of her class could want nothing more. Marie Léonie allows herself to be married. She is devoted to Mark, anyway, although she has looked ahead to her future and given some thought to going back to Normandy if Mark should die. Now, though, she is mistress of Groby, a member of the gentry. It doesn’t change her. She sees the possibility of a clash with Sylvia, who is living at Groby, and thinks, “Bring it on! I can handle her.” And, how exciting that would have been to read about! The clash between the stolid, firm Norman and the flaky English emotional cesspit! I’d buy tickets!
In the final novel, Last Post, Christopher has rented a Sussex farm where he lives with Valentine. Mark, completely silent and immobile, lies in a cot in a bower constructed for him. It is on this farm that we see Marie Léonie in her element. She runs that farm very well. Even though there is friction between herself and the local peasantry over Norman vs. English ways of doing things, it is not really an important issue: Marie Léonie and the local farmworkers understand each other very well. The best word for Marie Léonie is “grounded”; she grasps the fundamentals of life far better than any of the non-peasant characters in the book.
Meals: Every Thursday, every Tuesday, Marie Léonie cooks the same meal for Mark: two mutton chops, all but 1/8 inch of the fat removed, prepared without condiments, two floury potatoes, an apple tart with stilton cheese, and claret. Each book has a meal or food topic: there is the Duchemin breakfast where guests mumble iced caviar, peaches, and kidneys while wondering if a raving lunatic will swarm over the tablecloth at them; there is Christopher’s resupply officers’ lunch in France, with 1905 brut champagne that they buy themselves; there is Christopher’s luncheon at the front where the unit cook turns bully beef and other substances into mock pâté — these menus underline the absurdity of Edwardian manners in a non-genteel reality. Mark’s chops are an attempt to preserve at least some order in the world. In the final volume, Marie Léonie makes cider, upsetting the locals by using a siphon (“a chube!”) while she bemoans the lack of decent, proper turnips in England. But these folks will get along and adjust to the new reality, the local peasants and honest, solid Marie Léonie are the foundation for a new order, unless they are meant as the backbone of the old; possibly they are both.
War: No More Parades is set in the trenches in France. Christopher works at putting together units and shuffling them back to the front. There are a number of Canadian Railway Service workers, for example, who present an amusing spectacle in their furry hats. And there are Welsh soldiers — the Welsh are always good for a chuckle — some with names like 09 Morgan. See, there are so few family names in Wales that groups of men with same last name are often found in military units and numbered somehow to tell them apart. But Ford undercuts all the humorous set-ups that he creates. The general mood in Christopher’s dugout is not laughter but lunacy. Take, for instance, Christopher’s fellow officer, Mackenzie, or maybe his name is McKechnie, who is muttering to himself and seems on the verge of suddenly shooting his mates. Then 09 Morgan is killed by a bomb and dies in Christopher’s arms, his blood spreading across the floor. The men have to be got ready to move out and Christopher oversees their writing of their wills. One fellow has a girl in each of three different countries and wants to leave each of them a bit of dosh, and we have another almost comic turn. Almost.
Ford was proud of writing about the Great War and hoped that his work would aid the cause of peace, or so he said. I think that what he was really proud of was giving an honest account of modern war — it is not so much the skill or valor of the individual warrior that counts any more; it is where he is standing when the stray shell drops.
In A Man Could Stand Up… Christopher is back at the Front. A great German offensive is expected at any time. Senior officers have been killed and Christopher is in command of his unit. He bustles about, preparing for the assault on his position due to start any minute. He is not completely mad, though a little strange — he obsesses about the angles of trench lines and toys with the idea of sticking his head up above the trench. Then there are these drainage pipes that he had run horizontally instead of vertically because that would better drain the trench, he thought, except that there are vast muddy areas in the trench. A German shell explodes and half-buries Christopher. He digs himself out. He tries to help one man, who may drown in a trench mud puddle, and pulls the man up, thus exposing a part of the man’s face to a sniper who takes out his eye. This mirrors a situation in No More Parades, where Christopher does not give the Welsh soldier, 09 Morgan, leave to straighten out his marital problems at home — the local police tell him that if the man returns, he will be murdered — so Christopher has him stay in France where 09 Morgan is killed. Christopher cannot even trust his own instincts, his best intentions may make things worse. Anyway, General Campion shows up and relieves Christopher of his duties because, oh, Sylvia and this and that. Campion has been living at Groby (in the house meant for Marie Léonie) while he considers a political career and Christopher discerns that he is shagging Sylvia. By the way, Campion is looking much younger than he did in the first book — I don’t know how that was managed — but he must be approaching sixty if not already far past it. Christopher is re-assigned to looking after prisoners-of-war, thus losing command pay. Later, someone does Christopher a favor and de-mobilizes him a little early, thus costing him army pay. Christopher is broke on Armistice Day when he and Valentine meet in his rooms.
Shell Shock: After the fateful evening in 1912 when Valentine’s honor is compromised, the next part of Some Do Not takes place five years later while Christopher, who has been shell-shocked, recuperates in London. When Ford says “shell-shocked” he means exactly that: this is a man concussed by a nearby explosion. In 1917 Ford himself was sent back to England after three years in the army, diagnosed with “shell-shock”. That term’s relation to what we now call PTSD is hinted at in the novel but not spelled out. There is a mention that there are sanitoriums for veterans like that — a concept that fills me with dread since I expect they are actually prisons meant to keep these men from embarrassing anyone.
Christopher’s concussion has cost him some of his memory. He is reading the encyclopedia to regain facts that have been lost to him. Before the War, Christopher sneered at people who use encyclopedias. I think Ford wants us to know that our boy has picked up a little humility — though it is hard to tell, what with that stoic, stolid visage of his.Pre-Raphaelites: Ford’s hatred for the pre-Raphaelites is interesting because Ford Madox Brown, a leading painter connnected with the group, was his grandfather and Ford would have met the kind of people that enlivened the Duchemin breakfasts of the past. Christopher Tietjens says of Rossetti:
…it revolts me to think of that obese, oily man who never took a bath, in a grease-spotted dressing-gown and the underclothes he’s slept in, standing beside a five-shilling model with crimped hair or some Mrs. W. Three Stars, gazing into a mirror that reflects their fetid selves and gilt sunfish and drop chandeliers and plates sickening with cold bacon fat and gurgling about passion.
Don’t hold back, Christopher! Let it all out, let that bacon fat sicken, I can smell it from here reflected in your words. Mrs. Duchemin recalls Ruskin:
Fragments of all the worst stories that in his worst moods her husband had told her of [Ruskin] went through her mind. She imagined that the shameful parts of her intimate life would be known to [MacMaster].
The mad Rev. Duchemin talks about Ruskin’s marriage:
“When he drove away in the carriage on his wedding-day, he said to his bride: ‘We will live like the blessed angels!’ How sublime! I, too, after my nuptials…”
Mrs. Duchemin suddenly screamed: “Oh…no!“
Now Ford is perfectly aware that there are various stories of Ruskin’s wedding night — you prurient types can google — so the implication here is that Mrs. Duchemin’s honeymoon was also some kind of horror. So much for sublime angel connubial bliss! Later, when Mrs. Duchemin thinks MacMaster has knocked her up, she curses him in such a way as to indicate she knows her way around the block. Apparently, she has an abortion. So much for all that angelic innocence and ethereal feminine sensibility!
And then there is the mad Rev. Duchemin himself, one of Ruskin’s road-builders. I think we are supposed to believe that Duchemin’s mental problems stem from venereal disease or alcoholism or both.Christopher’s Intelligence: Directly after the evening when Valentine and Christopher first fail to embrace, Christopher heads out to Europe creating a cover story that will allow for Sylvia to avoid scandal. Then (we discover later — Ford is always tucking little bits of information here and there in the narrative) …Then, they go on to East Europe for a little while where Christopher invests heavilly in Ukrainian bonds…
Now let me pause right there: Christopher is thought by everyone to be incredibly smart. He has a calculator brain that breaks things down to numbers. Watching ships he calculates the cost/value of building a certain vessel against that of building a log raft in Russia, because that’s how he rolls. Christopher also favors himself as a bit of a classicist and has an argument with Valentine, who knows a bit of Latin herself, over a quote from Ovid. And he writes critical essays for Mrs. Wannop that make her reputation as well as reports for the Department of Statistics (including one that MacMaster takes credit for which earns him a knighthood) which are always truth because a gentleman does not tell lies. Okay, but this Smart Guy also does some dumb things, like buy Ukrainian bonds in 1913. When he knows a War is coming. And he is supposed to be an expert on East European matters, too! Christopher’s superior remarks drilly: “You’re a perfect encyclopaedia of exact material knowledge, Tietjens.” And Christopher accepts this as tribute, though he does not acknowledge it because taciturnity is one of his principles.
Rumors of War: There are various odd notions aired throughout the four novels as characters try to make sense of world events. For instance, there is the notion, held by General Campion, that England is withdrawing supplies and troops from France and sending them to Turkey to fight for the Middle East and Empire. In fact, the exact opposite is happening: in 1917 England begins shipping resources from the Turkish front to France, leaving T.E.Lawrence to battle for the Middle East all by himself. But this is a wonderful example of the kind of rumor that troops turn into grand conspiracy theories: “Why don’t we have more Mills bombs?” ” They’re being shipped to Iraq along with reinforcement troops. It’s part of a plan to pressure the French.” Sure. I have heard World War II vets who, years later, would repeat similar theories about their war. This rumor is a bit of genius by Ford, and, however I feel about his character delineation, I have to concede the man’s insight into human affairs.
In book three we have the notion of the “Single Command”, a panacea for the lack of Allied movement: it’s all because of a lack of coordination between the Allies. Put everyone under the same leader and watch what happens! Of course, the English are concerned that it will be a Frenchman in charge and so that’s why we don’t have that and everyone is getting killed. That was the theory. In 1918, the French, in the form of Marshal Foch, took over the single command and the German Spring offensive failed, but what probably made more of a difference than the single command was throwing 300,000 American troops into the lines, with many thousands more to follow. These theories are Ford’s attempt at showing how we try to interpret events in a meaningful way, even in a state of chaos.
Furniture Business: Christopher has a rare talent: he can look at a piece of furniture and know if it is a fine antique or junk. This is one of two talents that Christopher possesses — the other one is a remarkable facility with horses — but horses are going out and motorcars are coming in, so Christopher sells furniture to Americans. His is not an Antiques Road Show skill, Christopher never looks on the bottom or pulls out the drawers, he just looks and knows, right away, this cabinet is a fine antique but this other piece is crap. I think this may be Ford’s way of saying that Christopher has exquisite taste honed by centuries of privilege or something like that. Anyway, Christopher is an idiot-savant of furniture, and is flogging every piece that he can locate. But he is not making much money. He has a partner in the United States who, everyone says, is ripping him off. But I can’t tell if Christopher is just a rotten businessman or what. The partner is a guy Christopher met when he was sorting German prisoners and he is a Jew (which deserves some more attention, see Scot-Jew).
Birds and Plants: Birds and local plants are repeated themes throughout the four novels, pretty much one major episode per book. Christopher recites English plant names as a mantra, he and the soldiers chat about the larks at the front, and so forth. Ford is pulling out an old trope here: the English countryside with all its humble lifeforms is a renewing, wonderful source of Englishness, and even as the country falls apart, well, nature is renewing, so England is renewing. Or something like that.
Christopher is particularly given to let his consciousness stream to Shakespeare and the list of flowers that float around drowned Ophelia, particularly the long purple flower which liberal shepherds have given a grosser name. It’s a little worrisome that Christopher tends to think of Ophelia when Valentine is on his mind.Marie Léonie doesn’t understand this English thing about giving every weed a name and, to her, all these sparrows are the same bird, but she is wonderfully appreciative of her chickens — there is a nice passage where she compares a rooster to Rodin, who she saw once in his studio, scratching about some young female visitors. If I was noting Good Parts of this work, that would be one for the list. Sylvia has her bird bit, too, she sees an eagle frightening seagulls and she immediately identifies with the eagle, not the screaming gulls, though I picture her as more screechy than soaring, myself.
Mental Health: I don’t think it possible to do psychoanalysis of a person if a) you have no psychiatric expertise or b) if that person is a literary invention. So, guilty on both counts, I will stand clear. I will hazard a guess that, if the BBC production has any traction, we will soon have a personality disorder named after Sylvia. And maybe one for Christopher. The person that is worrisome is Valentine — in Last Post she seems depressed and distraught and it looks like her pregnancy may not end happily, either miscarriage or post-partum troubles. She is already practically drooling over the thought of a bromide that the doctor may give her. Wait until she discovers the other drugs that were over-prescribed back in the day! And she was so healthy, too!
Scot-Jew: In the railway carriage scene that opens the first novel, MacMaster mentions that Christopher should be careful about how others in his civil service office see him.Tietjens agrees:
…a first-class public office is very like a public school. It might very well object to having a man whose wife has bolted amongst its members. I remember Clifton hated it when the governors decided to admit the first Jew and the first nigger.
What? Are you free-associating here, Christopher, or do you really think that a cuckold will be treated as a Jew? Or is this just an excuse to call people names? “Nigger” is used only once more and at a distance — blacks are hypothetical in Tietjens’ world — but Christopher really lays it on the Jews. Sometimes he remarks on the way they sneak into English life, but they can’t fool him — Christopher can spot the Oriental, or the Levantine, features that indicate someone is a Jew. Curiously, at one point in Parade’s End, Christopher is seen hanging about with a young woman who is Jewish — is he getting it on with her? Maybe he sets her up in a tobacco shop, which brings us back to just how much of what the characters say can be believed. Anyhow, the anti-Semitism is unrelenting. Mark, for instance, says that the only good thing about Sylvia is that she’s never had sex with a Jew — and he gives her credit for that.
Even so, Christopher has a number of relationships with Jews (not counting the young possible-tobacco-shop woman), officers, bureaucrats; he works with both and has a German-American Jew as a business partner:
That he was a Jew and an American did not worry Christopher; he had not objected to the fact that Macmaster had been the son of a Scotch grocer. …for a little shivering, artistic Jew, as of old for Macmaster, he was quite capable of feeling a real fondness — as you might for an animal.
Now if you thought I was a bit harsh when I called Christopher an asshole way back when, I ask you to consider the words from the novel quoted above: Christopher regards Jews and his friend MacMaster as pets, panting about his feet, waiting for their ears to be scratched.
MacMaster and Mrs. Duchemin are both Scots and each of them is very ambitious. Their union is a matter of using one another to climb the ladder of success and — mirabile dictu! — this works for them. MacMaster gets knighted, Mrs. Duchemin/MacMaster is a leading social light. These two grasping people are presented as Semitic, if you accept that Jews are constantly manuvering to enter English society and are grasping, greedy, etc. Scots are Jews-lite. You can indulge Scots and allow them into society (though they will always be on a lower rung than you) and perhaps, in a century or two, they will be as much English as Tietjens, who is three centuries past his own ancestors arriving in this green and pleasant land. Jews… Well, ask after a millenium has passed.
Last Post: Mark is lying in his bower which has been set up so that he will be entertained by the songbirds all around. He lies there and never says a word because he has made up his mind not to speak. That doesn’t mean that Mark is silent to the reader, no, we are treated to lengthy streams of conciousness. And, even though Mark pretends not be interested in small things, he does watch the birds. (Slow percussion for Mark, perhaps in cardiac time, with a snap on the snare for “No” when Mark blinks once, two snaps when he blinks twice for yes — that’s right, it takes less effort for Mark to say No than to say Yes which, I think, is a nice touch. So, some percussion with the flutings of birds all about.)
Besides Mark, who narrates most of the last book, Marie Léonie has a turn: stolid and Norman, France’s version of a Yorkshireman, she will bottle cider her own way, thus upsetting the Sussex locals, who also have a small section to narrate. This back-and-forth is amusing (woodwinds, mostly oboes, I think) and it happens at about the place where a symphony might also have a bit of lightness. Now the peasants scatter… Wait! I see. This should be opera!
Now the peasants scatter as a group of riders appear on the road overlooking the farm Tietjens is renting, one of them is the person Sylvia rented Groby Great Hall to, Mrs. de Bray Pape, an unsuitable American. This woman is here to talk about Groby Great Tree, that she has had taken down. Taking out the Groby Great Stump (with explosives) caused a Groby Great Hall wall to cave in, and there is now a Great Hole in Groby Great Hall wall, so this lady has quite a bit of explaining to do. Sylvia takes credit for getting Mrs. de Bray Pape to wreck Groby Great Hall, now she is using the woman to torment Christopher and Valentine. Mrs. de Bray Pape plunges into things in a heedless, reckless manner. She plows straight through the hay field, rather than go around. She is wearing an old-fashioned women’s riding get-up for side-saddle, with huge, sweeping skirts that devastate the hay. See, she pretends to be an English Lady, but she doesn’t know better than to trample the hay.
Also in this group are young Mark Tietjens and Sylvia. Sylvia has begun divorce proceedings, sort of, but she has yet to turn in the key papers and has still not decided if she will do so. The thing is, if Sylvia divorces Christopher, then she can marry General Campion who she believes will get a major posting to India as head of the Raj or whatever the deal is in 1919. Campion has already refused this proposal but Sylvia has reminded him of her own wealth and how rich Campion could be if he married it. We don’t know if that has changed General Campion’s mind but Sylvia is confident that she will have her own way whenever she decides what that is. Meantime, she enjoys fantasizing about the affairs she will have after marrying Campion. She pictures herself in stunning Orientalish costume while some young subaltern or other crawls at her feet begging for her precious love. Really!
Sylvia and young Mark come across old Mark’s bower. He reflects that this boy is definitely his brother’s son, no matter what the gossipers say. (In an earlier volume, Christopher told Sylvia that he spent a great deal of money on private detectives to ascertain that very fact. Sylvia may have been surprised. Anyway…) Mark does not speak and an awkward time is had by all.
(BTW, Ford’s disregard for young Mark begins in the first volume where Christopher’s son is named “Tommy”. When we finally meet the young fellow, he is called either Mark or Michael. Ford’s explanation for that? Sylvia. I think this is totally unfair — Sylvia is evil, sure, but it wasn’t her who forgot her son’s name, it was the author, and he has a lot of nerve, laying the blame on one of his characters like that!)
Mrs. de Bray Pape charges into Christopher’s house, confronting Valentine. Valentine is pregnant and not doing very well. Apparently she fears a miscarriage. “Too much horseback riding,” people mutter. The doctor is coming. Valentine has always been proud of her strong, healthy body, but now finds childbirth may be too much for it.
Sylvia advances into the scene. She kicks out Mrs. de Bray Pape and confronts Valentine face-to-face. Young Mark comes in as well continually asking his mother if what she is doing is “sporting”. But what’s this? Sylvia’s eyes mist over, she almost apologizes to Valentine for screwing up her life, she says that she will give Christopher that divorce, she has already begun the process… She is crying and… No! No! NO! You’re telling me that this wicked person who combines the worst traits of Lucrezia Borigia with those of Cruella deVille, that this paragon of evilness is so moved by the sight of her husband’s pregnant mistress, that she weeps and gives up her terrible ways? I don’t believe it, not for a minute. Your fault, Ford, if you want me to believe that Sylvia has a soft center, then show her practicing a little humanity in the previous 800 or so pages. The only way to take this is that Sylvia has had a brain fart and may do something out-of-character for a day or two, but she has not reformed. No.
Mark Dies: Mark has thought of a day when he went hunting with his father and bagged four birds with one shot, It was all luck, but Mark’s father has the birds stuffed and mounted. “Mark’s Bag” stood in the nursery for the younger siblings to wonder over. It occurs to old Mark that the group of stuffed birds is the closest thing to a monument he will ever have. He naps a bit and when he opens his eyes, Christopher is standing there. He has been to Groby and flown back, then bicycled from the airfield to his brother’s side (which may be contrasted with Sylvia’s horseback riders who have invaded the place, 19th vs. 20th Century, etc.). Christopher tells his brother that Groby Great Tree is down, that a chunk of wall has gone, too, taking out the nursery, but that he has rescued Mark’s Bag from the rubbish heap. Meantime, Valentine has recalled a bit of poor business that Christopher concluded and rails at him because he has chosen to be poor and they have a child on the way and so on. Mark utters his first words in months, “Now, I must speak.” He recites a bit of a poem:
” ‘Twas the mid o’ the night and the barnies grat
And the mither beneath the mauld heard that…’
“An old song. My nurse sang it….Never thou let thy child weep for thy sharp tongue to thy good man.”
Mark takes Valentine’s hand and dies and Valentine mellows out and the book ends.
What! What is that last bit about? Mark recites a few lines about a dead mother — is this a foreshadowing of Valentine’s death in childbirth? Is this prophecy? Christopher thinks of Ophelia and Mark thinks of dead mothers when they consider Valentine. Ford, unconsciously perhaps, is letting us know that Valentine is doomed. Perhaps she’ll OD on laudanum like Elizabeth Siddal or chloral hydrate like Rossetti!
Anyway Mark chides (?) Valentine for attacking her husband because it will upset the children. And Valentine feels so good for having heard this! I have been over this ending quite a bit and still cannot make sense of it though some — many, in fact — claim they are moved to tears. I am completely befuddled here.
Happily Ever After: Now I have read that some folks, including scholars, believe Sylvia when she says she will get a divorce. This is part of her scheme to marry General Campion, who may just get a posting in India, where Edwardian manners still hold sway. But General Campion has already said No and anyway I trust Sylvia about as far as I can pitch a post-hole. Even if she does do the divorce and go off to India, she’ll be back. She still has a son she can use to torment Christopher and, what exactly is her position concerning Groby? Again, blithe souls claim that young Mark (the communist) will give up his claim on Groby, but I don’t see that necessarilly taking place. Perhaps Christopher will decide to move back to Groby and run the place and be rich. (I believe that Ford has hinted at this from the first novel.) That will give young Mark more time to give up his claim and become just another Cambridge Red waiting to be recruited by Soviet agents. Marie Léonie has a place on the Groby estate which old Mark figured she might move into, but if Christopher continues to rent this farm in the south, she may stay on there. Or she might decide to go back to Normandy. In other words, I don’t think that Ford means us to see any character as settled. There are lots of changes being made and all these characters will have to adapt.
Graham Greene said that Last Post doesn’t belong, that Parade’s End should be a trilogy ending with Christopher and Valentine dancing at the close of A Man Could Stand Up. Perhaps the fact is that Ford contracted for three books, squeezed out a fourth, but couldn’t get an advance to keep the series going. Maybe he wanted to do a Galsworthy/Forsyte Saga thing and pump out novel after novel for years and years. There are unfinished plot lines dangling like shower-bath strings all across the ending of Last Post. But that is sheer speculation.
Summary: Ford has created a very structured work, whether or not you accept my notion of music. There is some good stuff here, and I mean that. This post, long as it is, has been cut to half its original length and there is no way I could say so much unless there was something to talk about. But the characters! Ford and Joseph Conrad had discussed the idea of a novel taking place in a time of historic change which we see through the characters’ eyes. Fine. Good plan. But Christopher is such an unyielding asshole and Sylvia is such a rotten bitch, it’s a little hard to take them seriously. A writer who did accomplish the kind of historic novel that Ford and Conrad discussed was Joyce Cary. Cary’s characters embrace. All the time. But since, for me, the problem with Parade’s End is the characters, perhaps the TV version will be good — after all, there are some good actors playing these roles and Tom Stoppard writing their lines. So, we’ll see.
I used a Signet paperback edition of Parade’s End published in the 1960s. I notice that there are certain differences between that edition and others cited on-line. In his last words, Mark says “child” in my book, “bairn” in others, for instance.
I know very well that King Edward VII ruled only from 1901, when Victoria died, to 1910, so that it may be an error to call any of this period “Edwardian”. Here I follow critics who are trying to champion Ford as the chronicler of a vanished era. Perhaps it would have been better to describe this era as Victorianism gone bad, but that opens a different can of worms.