This novel has an utterly misleading title. Ford claimed ‘The Good Soldier’ was his publisher’s idea, as an alternative to ‘The Saddest Story’, which may not have caught the public mood, but the commercial appeal of a novel published in 1915 about a ‘good soldier’ must have been hard to resist. Why not go the whole distance and call it “Brits beat the Hun”? It would have had as much relevance.
My main reaction while reading, and on completing, this novel, was one of irritation. The fallible narrator may have been innovative for its time (was it really?) and the fractured timescale may even have seemed daring, but 100 years on these features cannot disguise the novel’s many weaknesses. The characters are spoilt, deluded, and ignorant, yet we are invited to admire them despite their manifold flaws. The narrative lacks pace and interest, and the language plods.
To take a step back, this novel tells the “saddest story” of two couples who meet on vacation in Germany. The Dowell’s are wealthy Americans on what develops into a long-extended honeymoon – having married without her parent’s permission, Florence develops a spontaneous heart condition as soon as she boards her transAtlantic liner, a condition that conveniently means she is unable ot consumate her marriage without the exercise putting her life at risk. Her husband, our narrator, relates this all with a straight face, seemingly unaware that he has been duped. They meet the soldier of the title, Edward Ashburnham, and his wife Leonara. Edward’s occupation is incidental of the events of the novel; he seems to have one of those Army positions that involve minimal amounts of soldiering. He is wealthy, but profilgate, a drinker, gambler, and womaniser. His wife detests him, but is forbidden by her Catholic faith from divorcing him, so instead devotes herself to torturing him. Deeply unhappy, Edward and Florence eventually separately kill themselves. The narrator insists to the bitter end that Edward is a good man, but the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.
This novel is about these two unhappy marriages. At the heart of their unhappiness is, inevitably, sex. Ford is unable to address this issue directly, so he employs a wide range of euphemisms to hint at the issue:
“It was the ship’s doctor who discreetly suggested to me that I had better refrain from manifestations of affection. (83)
“I must never enter her room without knocking, or her poor little heart might flutter away to its doom” (84)
“It will give you some idea of the extraordinary naiveté of Edward Ashburnham that, at the time of his marriage and for perhaps a couple of years after, he did not really know how children are produced” (136)
“he passed the night in her bed”. (147)
“From the moment of his unfaithfulness….she never acted the part of wife to Edward.” (163)
“Watching Edward more intently and with more straining of ears that that which a cat bestows upon a bird overhead, she was aware of the progress of his passion….She was aware of it from the way in which his eyes returned to doors and gateways; she knew from his tranquilities when he had received satisfactions.” (163)
I particularly like the last of these – note the plural ‘satisfactions’. Our narrator seems unperturbed by his wife’s machinations to avoid sex with him, hinting that this is because he may discover that she is not a virgin, and later in the novel accepts her infidelity without complaint. He is a deeply unappealing character, and is rewarded at the end of the novel with another ‘partner’ he is unable to sleep with.
‘The Good Soldier is in many ways a transitional novel, bridging the gap between the Victorian novels where sex was never mentioned, and anticipating Lawrence and the other authors who finally shrug off this constraint. He is also a modernist in his style. He adopts a very conversational style, attempting to mimic the way Dowling may have written a personal narrative were he to have existed. He anticipates any criticism of this style by explaining it thus:
“I have, I am aware, told this story in a very rambling way, so that it may be difficult for anyone to find their path through what may be sort of a maze. …I console myself with thinking that this is a real story, and that, after all, real stories are probably told best in the way a person would tell hem. They will then seem most real” (167). Apart from being rambling, Ford obviously also though that repetition was key to this conversational style. (If he is right, conversations with him would have been pretty dull!) Time and again Dowling repeats himself without variation, as for example here:
“I should marry Nancy if her reason were ever sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service. But it is probable that her reason will never be sufficiently restored to let her appreciate the meaning of the Anglican marriage service” (212). The difference between bad writing, and deliberately bad writing to convey character is of course important, but over the course of a whole novel the point is lost. The novel also uses the technique of telling the reader the eventual fate of the characters early on, rather than leading up to this, a technique which strangely seemed quite new when Muriel Spark used it in the “Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” fifty years later, but which here simply seems confused.
One last thought: there’s very little humour in this novel, but one line did stand out, when the narrator comments on Edward’s soldiering:
“Edward ought, I suppose, to have gone to the Transvaal. It would have done him a great deal of good to get killed”. (156/7)