Ford Madox Ford's extraordinary novel of passion and betrayal, "The Good Soldier", is edited with an introduction by David Bradshaw in "Penguin Classics". The Dowells, a wealthy American couple, have been close friends with the Ashburnhams for years. Edward Ashburnham, a first-rate soldier, seems to be the perfect English gentleman, and Leonora his perfect wife, but beneath the surface their marriage seethes with unhappiness and deception. Our only window on the strange tangle of events surrounding Edward is provided by John Dowell, the husband he deceives. Gradually Dowell unfolds a devastating story, in which everyone's honesty is in doubt. "The Good Soldier" is a masterpiece of narrative skill and emotional depth. David Bradshaw's introduction discusses John Dowell as the classic unreliable narrator and as English literature's most fascinating enigma, and shows how Ford Madox Ford's unconventional narrative structure makes "The Good Soldier" a modernist masterwork. Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), born in Surrey and educated in England, Germany and France, changed his original surname, Hueffer, in 1919, after having served with the British army in World War I. As well as founding both the "English Review" and the "Transatlantic Review", home to such writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, Ford was the author of more than sixty works including novels, poems, criticism, travel writing and reminiscences. "The Good Soldier" (1915) is considered his masterpiece. If you enjoyed "The Good Soldier", you might like Ford's "Parade's End", also available in "Penguin Classics", and now the subject of a major new BBC/HBO television miniseries. "A masterpiece". (Julian Barnes, Booker Prize-winning author of "The Sense of an Ending"). "I don't know how many times in nearly forty years I have come back to this novel". (Graham Greene).
First published in 1915, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier
begins, famously and ominously, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." The book then proceeds to confute this pronouncement at every turn, exposing a world less sad than pathetic, and more shot through with hypocrisy and deceit than its incredulous narrator, John Dowell, cares to imagine. Somewhat forgotten as a classic, The Good Soldier
has been called everything from the consummate novelist's novel to one of the greatest English works of the century. And although its narrative hook--the philandering of an otherwise noble man--no longer shocks, its unerring cadences and doleful inevitabilities proclaim an enduring appeal.
Ford's novel revolves around two couples: Edward Ashburnham--the title's soldier--and his capable if off-putting wife, Leonora; and long-transplanted Americans John and Florence Dowell. The foursome's ostensible amiability, on display as they pass parts of a dozen pre-World War I summers together in Germany, conceals the fissures in each marriage. John is miserably mismatched with the garrulous, cuckolding Florence; and Edward, dashing and sentimental, can't refrain from falling in love with women whose charms exceed Leonora's. Predictably, Edward and Florence conduct their affair, an indiscretion only John seems not to notice. After the deaths of the two lovers, and after Leonora explains much of the truth to John, he recounts the events of their four lives with an extended inflection of outrage. From his retrospective perch, his recollections simmer with a bitter skepticism even as he expresses amazement at how much he overlooked.
Dowell's resigned narration is flawlessly conversational--haphazard, sprawling, lusting for sympathy. He exudes self-preservation even as he alternately condemns and lionizes Edward: "If I had had the courage and the virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did." Stunningly, Edward's adultery comes to seem not merely excusable, but almost sublime. "Perhaps he could not bear to see a woman and not give her the comfort of his physical attractions," John surmises. Ford's novel deserves its reputation if for no other reason than the elegance with which it divulges hidden lives. --Ben Guterson