The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 31 July 2002

The Good Soldier

A Tale of Passion

by Ford Madox Ford

British author, Ford Madox Ford originally entitled this brutal, and classic, little novel The Saddest Story, but the words pathetic and misguided come most pressingly to mind. It is difficult to be certain, however, until the very end, if Ford meant this to be more an explication of bad behavior, or an exposé of the amoral ways of the leisured elite at the turn of the 20th century. (Ford selected the more ironic title when his editor made the suggestion that the original sounded unlikely to sell in the depths of World War 1.) The narrator tells the story as if sitting by a fireside with a friend, and thus the tale rambles a little, and requires some attention. He married Florence, a Connecticut woman with ambitions to minor nobility in England. She soon detects the weaknesses in his character, though. Florence malingers a heart ailment, thus keeping him at her beck and call, with no sexual requirements to the marriage. Meanwhile, she carries on one or two dalliances almost right beneath his nose. Our narrator is a bit out of touch, it would seem.

The unhappy couple spend their "seasons" at a spa in Nauheim. There they meet another couple, Edward and Leonora, who have their own disturbed past. Edward is an extravagant British soldier and his wife a long-suffering Catholic with strong views on marriage. She becomes Edward's facilitator and protector as he carries on numerous affairs with younger women. One such younger woman would be Florence. Again, our narrator is oblivious, generally due to Leonora's machinations. But he is also generally forgiving of Edward, excusing him for an excess of sentimentality. While he sarcastically declares this saddest story has no villains, pretty much nobody is likable here. The book must be read within its context of early 20th century leisure living of the terribly wealthy and bored. And Ford writes with an acute awareness and perhaps a touch of prejudice on the division between a Catholic and Protestant "character". This can be distracting for modern readers. The book is somewhat frustrating, but Ford redeems his intent in the end. A dark, pathetic, but good story.

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