When I first attempted my Modern Library readthrough, The Good Soldier was the last book I was able to get through. I had to push myself through it: long exposition dealing with aristocratic drama is a trigger for me. There’s something visceral about it. I can’t even be in the same room when Christine is watching those low-talking British dramas. Visiting England is sometimes an exercise in healing through aversion therapy. It’s not my jam. I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book again.
But I’ve matured in the years since then, I’ve traveled Europe and I know now the setting. When John Dowell narrates his journey through Bad Homburg, I can imagine the surroundings, and if I find myself struggling I can simply imagine the characters' heart health problems being caused by the Deutsche Bahn. I can empathize. I, too, was brought to Germany in part because of problems of the heart.
This is not to say that the book avoids the aristocratic drama I hate so much. Polyamory would have saved three lives in this plotline: Florence Dowell, the wife of the narrator, killed herself after the man she was cheating with, Edward Ashburnham, fell in love with another woman; Maisie Maidan, a servant of the family who Edward is in love with; and Edward himself, who simply couldn’t stop screwing around with younger (and lower-class) women.
What makes the novel worthwhile is the depth and complexity of the unreliable narrator. John Dowell is a wealthy Philadelphia socialite (here, Ford’s lack of understanding of American culture proposes a totally wrong kind of aristocracy from what we have) whose primary trait is being hopelessly naïve: naïve about his wife’s affair with his friend, naïve about religion, and naïve about the affairs happening all around him. He tells the story in past, present, and future, truths of the story unfolding as the book moves on.
The effect of this is that Edward Ashburnham (the titular good soldier) swerves between detestable and sympathetic, helpless and influential. You’re not really sure what to believe: is Edward really just philandering, or is he trying to do good deeds with his wealth? Edward fakes a heart condition to follow Maisie to Bad Nauheim from India. Is he heartbroken or is he driven to misery by his Irish Catholic wife from an arranged marriage? Edward finds himself in what we today would call a cycle of self-sabotaging behavior. He needs therapy; instead he loafs around Europe drowning in the softest of all first-world problems.
Of course, part of the book’s commentary is in the hateful listlessness of the impossibly wealthy. It’s possible to read the book as a social critique of aristocracy due to the uselessness of the characters. But it’s more likely received as something as a farewell to a chapter in British history. The book was published at the outset of World War I, a moment which changed Europe in ways that cannot possibly be overstated. The original title was The Saddest Story, but Ford’s editors rightfully pointed out the incoherence of that branding with contemporary world affairs. 1913 wasn’t 2013: people then didn’t receive global horror with irony and ennui the way we do today.
Despite a subject matter which I normally find desperately dull and an oppressive degree of heterosexuality in the story, I did find myself burning through the pages. Maybe it’s because I read it on budget flights to/from Istanbul, or maybe it’s because I’ve overcome the trauma of witnessing British emotional unavailability, but I have to say I like the book and understand its context. I’m glad I read it again, but I’m also certain there won’t be a third time.
To read more about my Modern Library project, read this post.
The Good Soldier
Ford Madox Ford