Steven Mcgregor

The Hamlet of the trenches: Parade’s End reviewed

The Hamlet of the trenches: Parade's End reviewed
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Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is being republished as well as adapted for the screen by the BBC.  I first discovered the tetralogy when, in an attempt to improve my chances, I asked my future mother-in-law for a list of must-read novels.  Parade’s End and The Good Soldier featured near the top of the list.

The Good Soldier is Ford’s most remembered work and at one time he considered it his first and last novel.  In his memoirs, Return to Yesterday, he recalls that on the 28th of June 1914, ‘there was to be no more writing for me—not even any dabbling in literary affairs.’  But then there was the war and he found himself in the Welsh Regiment, at forty-one years of age, living through what he termed ‘Armageddon.’

While The Good Soldier coils around the final tragedy, Parade’s End wanders freely.  It describes the social transformation caused by war, the grind of the trenches, the dissolution of a marriage.  There is one central character, Christopher Tietjens, but the point of view shifts almost imperceptibly; introspection and private thoughts feature largely in the narrative.  This is the charm of Parade’s End.  You’re inside Tietjen’s head when he awakes to observe the enemy line and drink his cuppa.  You’re inside his mistress’s head when she receives news of his safe return.

Tietjens is based on a university mathematician that Ford knew before the war who, again quoting from his memoirs, ‘possessed the clear, eighteenth century English mind which has disappeared from the earth.’  He is a kind of gentlemanly elephant, both in his physical presence and his memory.  The infidelity of his wife and the brutality of war become the objects of his calculated study.  He often speaks with unintentional humour in short, declarative statements.  ‘Damn it.  What’s the sense of all these attempts to justify fornication? England’s mad about it,’ Tietjens says in the opening scene on a train carriage. It’s a long way from the whoring and drinking of Hemingway’s Italian front.

And the war causes Tietjens to change.  In A Man Could Stand Up, the third novel, he reclines on the ‘reverse slope’ of a trench ‘to reflect on his sentimental situation and his machine guns’:

‘He had been the Younger Son, loafing, contemptuous, capable, idly contemplating life, but ready to take up the position of the Head of the Family if Death so arranged matters… Now: what the Hell was he?  A sort of Hamlet of the Trenches?  No, by God he was not…He was perfectly ready for action.’

The final novel, Last Post, shows us the result of his newfound inertia.

All of which is to say that the BBC have their work cut out for them in dramatizing such an introspective set of novels.  Graham Greene once said, ‘there is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.’  I certainly agree as my mother-in-law’s recommendation proved invaluable in my own experiences with both love and war.  It was one of the first novels I read as a newly commissioned army officer.  And as Tietjens wished for himself, I married soon after my return from the front.

Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford is published by BBC Books (£7.99).

Parade's End will be on BBC 2 tonight at 9pm.