Ford Madox Ford’s Fourth of August

Ford Madox Ford, 1915

The Good Soldier: Ford in 1915 by E. O. Hoppé: National Portrait Gallery via New York Review of Books

4 August commemorates not only a flurry of artistic birthdays—Shelley, Pater, W. H. Hudson, Knut Hamsun, Louis Armstrong—and a clutch of significant dates for relatives of artists—the wedding of D. H. Lawrence’s sister Ada, the birthday of Stanley Spencer’s sister Florence, the birthday of Violet Hunt’s sister Venice, named after The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, her godfather—but, probably above all else, Britain’s 1914 declaration of war, Sir Edward Grey’s ultimatum to Germany having expired.

‘All that was left was to wait for midnight (eleven o’clock, British time). At nine o’clock the government learned, through an intercepted but uncoded telegram sent out from Berlin, that Germany had considered itself at war with Britain from the moment when the British ambassador had asked for his passports.’[1]

On the day that war was declared, the Bradford Daily Argus ‘suggested that “it will be in the kitchens that the pinch will be chiefly felt but that difficulty may be overcome by deleting the more dainty dishes”.’[2] An admirable prediction but, as things turned out, a little wide of the mark.

For readers of Ford Madox Ford, there are supplementary significances. In The Good Soldier alone, he mentions 4th August sixteen times; in other writings he refers to it more than a dozen times, frequently in conjunction with the name of the village of Gemmenich, the point at which German troops crossed the Belgian border that morning

blast1

The recurrence of the date in The Good Soldier is a well-established mystery. The novel was published in London and New York by John Lane, in March 1915. The first section of the novel, then still entitled ‘The Saddest Story’, had appeared in the June 1914 issue of Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Tantalisingly, although the published section includes one mention of ‘August’, the excerpt ends a chapter and a half before the novel’s first specific reference to 4th August, which comes at the very beginning of Part II of the published text.

We can’t be sure, and are unlikely to become so, exactly when the novel was finished. It seems likely that a coincidental mention of 4th August was, in the course of revision, and after the war had started, made central to the novel, as noted by two of The Good Soldier’s most recent editors.[3] As Martin Stannard remarks elsewhere, ‘Trying to reconstruct the textual history of a Ford novel is like trying to establish the details of a dream.’[4]

There are dreams enough in The Good Soldier. Early on in the novel, the narrator, in a wonderful passage, proposes to ‘imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars.’[5] (As usual, I’m tempted to analyse and comment upon almost every word here with the possible exceptions of ‘at’ and ‘a’, though I’m not sure that even those can safely be left unexamined.) Spoken rather than written, an illusion maintained until very near the end (‘I am writing this, now, I should say, a full eighteen months after the words that end my last chapter’).[6] Intriguing, then, to find this:

‘But the fellow talked like a cheap novelist.—Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly. And I tell you I see that thing as clearly as if it were a dream that never left me.’[7]

Carcassonne

Carcassonne, late 19th century: Fonds Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia

And this, the wonderful conjunction of the specific (‘Carcassonne’) and the indefinite (‘some people’):

‘I don’t mean to say that I sighed about her or groaned; I just wanted to marry her as some people want to go to Carcassonne.

Do you understand the feeling—the sort of feeling that you must get certain matters out of the way, smooth out certain fairly negligible complications before you can go to a place that has, during all your life, been a sort of dream city?’[8]

Yes, suffice to say that there are plenty of mysteries and diversions in this short novel other than the date of its completion or its repeated reference to 4th August.

 

References

[1] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August and The Proud Tower, edited by Margaret MacMillan (New York: Library of America, 2012), 155.

[2] Denis Winter, Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London: Penguin Books, 1979), 23.

[3] Ford, The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), xxxviii-xl; edited by Martin Stannard, second edition (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2012), 192-193 and ‘Textual Appendices’, 216, 220.

[4] Stannard, ‘The Good Soldier: Editorial Problems’, in Robert Hampson and Max Saunders (eds), Ford Madox Ford’s Modernity, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 147.

[5] The Good Soldier, edited by Max Saunders, 18.

[6] The Good Soldier, 178.

[7] The Good Soldier, 89. The phrase ‘to make you see things clearly’ is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Preface’ to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”’, in Typhoon and Other Tales (New York: Signet Classics, 1962), 21.

[8] The Good Soldier, 97. See my ‘“Speak Up, Fordie!”: How Some People Want to Go to Carcassonne’, in Sara Haslam, editor, Ford Madox Ford and the City, International Ford Madox Ford Studies 4 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 197-210.

 

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