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Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: Ironising Edwardian England

Parade’s End de Ford Madox Ford et l’ironisation de l’Angleterre édouardienne
Isabelle Brasme

Résumés

Parade’s End de Ford Madox Ford décrit la fragilité de la communauté nationale anglaise à l’époque edwardienne. Ford s’attache à y rendre les réactions contrastées de membres de l’« Establishment » aux changements idéologiques concomitants à la Première Guerre mondiale. Cet article explore la façon dont Parade’s End peut être simultanément considéré comme un « State of England novel » et comme un commentaire ironique, quoique nostalgique, sur ce genre romanesque. L’anglicité y est révélée comme une pure construction, et devient synonyme de la notion de « parade ». Elle ne peut être saisie que de manière périphérique. La négativité de ce concept est accentuée par la perspective ironique de la narration. Le caractère fuyant de ce qui constitue le thème central des quatre romans n’est pas sans conséquences sur le statut du texte : Parade’s End est un roman insaisissable parce qu’il traite d’un sujet qui ne peut être que constamment mis en question, et dont le sens n’est jamais fixé.

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1Between 1905 and 1907, Ford Madox Ford published a three-volume essay entitled England and the English, exploring what England and Englishness meant at the turn of the century. As Sara Haslam remarked in the introduction to her edition of the trilogy, ‘the “when” of Englishness is as stimulating to Ford as the “where,” the “why” or the “how”’ (Haslam xiii). With this work, Ford took an active part in the debates on the increasingly complex significance of Englishness, which were so prevalent during the Edwardian era; his essays were commended for their topicality. Ford’s focus on Englishness is one of the most consistent traits of his work, both fictional and non-fictional: it is no accident that one of the very first volumes to be published by the International Ford Madox Ford Society, and that was co-edited by Dennis Brown and Jenny Plastow in 2006, was entitled Ford Madox Ford and Englishness. That is where the most fruitful research can be found on the treatment of national identity in Ford’s work. The richest account of Englishness in Ford’s fictional work, one that may best work as a literary pendant to the theoretical England and the English, is probably his monumental Parade’s End, a set of four novels published between 1924 and 1928, yet whose narrative unfolds in Edwardian and post-war England.

2The dawn of the twentieth century, along with the rapid modernisation of transport, communication and technology, generated for many the uneasy feeling of a world shifting on its axis. The emphasis on identity, with its etymological meaning of the permanence of the same, was valued as a token of the present’s continued link with the past. On the scale of the English community, national identity was a major topic of interest in the early decades of the twentieth century. Fiction was one of the tools used in the reflection on and exaltation of England’s enduring national values. It is in this context that the ‘condition-of-England novel’ emerged. The Forsyte Saga, published by John Galsworthy between 1906 and 1921, remains one of the best-known examples of this type of literature. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End also explores the upper and upper-middle classes’ multifarious response to the ideological changes concurrent with the early 1910s and with World War One. The novels initiate an insoluble dialectic between the ideal of a past inhabiting the present and the unavoidability of newness, of a ‘modernity’ that is characteristic of the ‘Edwardian turn of mind’ (Samuel Hynes). Significantly enough, Ford’s editors suggested the title of the ‘Tietjens Saga’ for an omnibus edition of the four novels, a title Ford however rejected for the very links it implied with Galsworthy’s work. Ford thus wrote to his agent: ‘I do not like the title Tietjens Saga—because . . . booksellers would almost inevitably persuade readers that they mean the Forsyte Saga with great damage to my sales’ (Ludwig 197). This anecdote is telling of the ambivalence inherent in Ford’s own massive, four-volume novel. Common traits are easy to establish: these are both sets of multiple novels that span several generations, and centre on the fate of a dynasty whose legacy is threatened by modernity, with a house—and a tree—in both cases serving as a metaphor for the family. Yet in spite of these common features, reading Ford’s novels turns out to be a far different experience than reading The Forsyte Saga. In the ‘Tribute to Parade’s End’ that he wrote in The Guardian in August 2012, Barnes argued that ‘it is as modern and modernist as they come,’ which makes it a far cry from Galsworthy’s ‘materialist,’ traditional novel, if we are to follow the taxonomy offered by Virginia Woolf in her essay ‘Modern Fiction.’ In his introduction to the very recent volume of the International Ford Madox Ford Studies devoted to Parade’s End, the editor Rob Hawkes describes the set of novels as ‘a text that destabilises the distinction between modernism and the Edwardian family saga’ (Hawkes 15–16). What I wish to argue is that the text’s aesthetic instability is inseparable from its indecision as regards the representation of Englishness in the Edwardian era. Parade’s End is not strictly an ‘Edwardian’ novel. It is, rather, a modernist, post-war novel, looking back at the Edwardian era with the hindsight—and through the distorting lens—of World War One. My contention is that Ford’s ironical and unstable treatment of Englishness is an aspect of his modernist mode of writing. I propose to explore the way in which Parade’s End can be considered both as a State of England novel in its own right, and an ironical, detached, albeit regretful comment on this very genre. I will first argue that Englishness in Parade’s End is exposed as a construct that becomes synonymous with a parade, and is impossible to approach otherwise than peripherally. The concept’s negativity is deepened by the ironical perspective offered by the narration. Ultimately, the elusiveness of what is the central topic of the four novels has a direct effect on the status of the text itself. Parade’s End is an ungraspable novel because it tackles an ever elusive topic and refuses all attempts to fix its meaning.

From Nostalgia to Construct

3The reflection on Englishness in Parade’s End is unavoidably retrospective—it is inseparable from a celebration of past values. This process is most manifest in the section of the narrative that takes place during the war. While posted on the trenches of Northern France, the main character Tietjens hears a musical piece from the seventeenth-century being played by a key-bugle. Here is his response: ‘A sudden waft of pleasure at the seventeenth-century air that the tones gave to the landscape went all over Tietjens. . . . Herrick and Purcell! . . .’ (Ford 1926, 564). Tietjens senses that the seventeenth-century English music produces an anamorphic effect over the landscape: ‘That fellow spread seventeenth-century atmosphere across the landscape over which the sun’s rays were beginning to flood a yellow wash’ (Ford 1926, 565). The French trenches of 1918 thus briefly shift into a seventeenth-century painting in Tietjens’ mind. His delight leads to a broader meditation on England’s past: ‘What had become of the seventeenth century? And Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan, the Silurist?’ (Ford 1926, 565). The choice of these figures is of course meaningful: Tietjens mentions metaphysical poets who were almost all fervent Anglicans, and were politically active under James I in order to build and preserve a specifically English identity that would resist continental influence. Vaughan’s claim as a ‘Silurist’ refers to the Celtic tribes of the Silures who fought fiercely against the Roman conquest in the first century AD, and thus symbolises the age-old resistance of insular values to continental invasion, a theme that was reactivated at the time of the First World War. The evocation of these paragons of Englishness is followed by a wider nostalgic meditation on Englishness and on its meagre chances of surviving the war:

The only satisfactory age in England! . . . Yet what chance had it to-day. Or, still more, to-morrow. . . . What chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedge-rows, slowly creeping plough-lands moving up the slopes? (Ford 1926, 566)

4As often in these novels, Englishness is depicted in a dense metonymical list of features. We find an echo of these lines at the very end of the tetralogy, which takes place after the war: ‘What a lovely glimpse under the trees. Sweet-williams along the path. Light filtered by boughs. Shadow. Gleams in the little window-panes. Wallstones all lichen. That’s England’ (Ford 1928, 715). In both cases, what is regarded as quintessentially English is rendered in a markedly poetic manner. These short nominal sentences, marked with liquid sounds, may evoke a poem in blank verse, itself reminiscent of Ford’s own poetry. The highly visual details in both passages generate a vignette of England, or might even be read as ekphrases of paintings by the canonical English painter Constable. Yet just as with Constable’s paintings, such an idyllic description is of course a mere construct: it only exists in the collective imagination. One may think here of Eagleton’s analysis of the way in which the aesthetic feeds into the political. Here is how Eagleton describes the effect of the beautiful on a community:

Certain objects stand out in a sort of perfection dimly akin to reason, and these are known as the beautiful. . . . Because these are objects which we can agree to be beautiful, not by arguing or analysing but just by looking and seeing, a spontaneous consensus is brought to birth. (Eagleton 17)

5Aesthetics thus makes an ideological consensus possible not by an exterior command, but as if naturally, through the spontaneous pleasure of each member of the community.

6Beyond this derealised, aestheticised representation, Englishness in the novels is approached peripherally: it is indeed defined above all by what it is not. Tietjens thus remarks to colonel Levin, who is of Armenian descent: ‘You betray your non-Anglo-Saxon origin by being so vocal’ (Ford 1926, 454), a statement through which we may infer that Englishmen, conversely, are not effusive. Englishness in these novels is, predictably, embodied by the gentleman. Yet gentlemen are first and foremost defined by what they are not, and do not do. This notion is made explicit in the following stream-of-consciousness passage rendered from Tietjens’ perspective: ‘Gentlemen don’t earn money. Gentlemen, as a matter of fact, don’t do anything. They exist. Perfuming the air like Madonna lilies’ (Ford 1926, 589).

7The fundamental negativity of the English gentleman is encapsulated in the title of the first novel, Some Do Not . . ., where ‘some’ refers to the ‘true,’ unadulterated—and indeed non-adulterous—gentlemen. The pendant to this underlying negativity of Englishness is the necessity to uphold a constant parade. The typical English soldier is thus described and valued above all for the indispensable role he is made to play within the nation’s pageant: ‘soldiering in the English sense’ is considered to be ‘the real soldiering of peace-time, parades, social events, spit and polish’ (Ford 1926, 578). Parade here appears, quite tellingly, as what is ‘real.’ The very first words of the tetralogy can also be read along these lines: ‘The two young men—they were of the English public official class’ (Ford 1924, 3). The words ‘English,’ ‘public’ and ‘official’ seem connected by a deep-seated logic, and appear as interchangeable. Englishness implies publicity. Eagleton also emphasizes the importance of the public sphere in maintaining national ideology:

The idealized self-image of [the] ruling social bloc is less of itself as a ‘state’ class than as a ‘public sphere’—a political formation rooted in civil society itself, whose members are at once stoutly individualist and linked to their fellows by enlightened social intercourse and a shared set of cultural manners. (Eagleton 32)

8The notion of parade is inseparable from that of reticence, of negativity: this openness is an efficient way of masking the inner being. Ford seems to develop a specifically national version of Freud’s theories—Englishness working as the controlling force, the superego that silences the subconscious. This also matches the analysis of Englishness from the outside, by a foreign character in the novels. Here is how Marie Léonie, Mark Tietjens’s French maîtresse en titre, considers him:

He was the English Milor with le Spleen. She had read of him in the novels of Alexander Dumas, Paul de Kock, Eugene Sue and Ponson du Terrail. He represented the England that the Continent applauded—the only England that the Continent applauded. Silent, obstinate, inscrutable, insolent, but immensely wealthy and uncontrollably generous. (Ford 1928, 699)

9Additionally, Marie Léonie’s perception is filtered by literature, which underscores once again national identity as an aesthetic construct. Yet the very notion of parade as a defining feature of Englishness is instrumental in undermining and eventually bringing down the ideological system at work in Parade’s End.

Parade

10A shift is indeed noticeable in this State of England novel: rather than upholding the permanence of what is considered as archetypal English values, the characters are attached above all to the appearance of such values. This is illustrated most clearly—and scathingly—through the Duchemin-Macmaster couple. Edith Ethel Duchemin and Vincent Macmaster can be considered as embodying the dominant ideological stance within the novels—not, of course, that espoused by the main characters and implicitly favoured in the narration, but the position that matches society’s doxa. Their budding relationship, which is in effect adulterous, is described as ‘a sort of parade of circumspection and rightness’ (Ford 1924, 241). This is where the shift occurs in respect to the work’s status as a condition of England novel. Ford’s tetralogy, after all, was entitled Parade’s End, not The End of England or indeed The Last of England, after the painting by Ford’s grandfather, Ford Madox Brown. The title is itself re-echoed in that of the tetralogy’s second volume, No More Parades. The notion of parade is at the core of Ford’s reflection on Englishness—and acts as the linchpin of the ironical perspective Ford offers on his fellow countrymen. It might be worth noting that Parade’s End was written not in England, but from what felt like the safe distance of France, where Ford sensed he could finally live a full and happy life, after decades of feeling stifled by the constraints of English propriety.

11The characters’ relationship to tradition thus largely matches Eric Hobsbawm’s distinction between authentic practices and ‘customs,’ or ‘invented traditions,’ which he argues are the product of modernity. Hobsbawm underlines the fact that traditions are being invented at the very time when the continuity with the past is broken:

Such movements, common among intellectuals since the Romantics, can never develop or even preserve a living past . . . , but must become ‘invented tradition‘. . . . Where the old ways are alive, traditions need neither be revived nor invented. (Hobsbawm 7–8)

12To go further, Eagleton uses the metaphor of the mirror to describe the way in which a society builds and perpetuates itself:

What knits society together for Burke, as with Hume, is the aesthetic phenomenon of mimesis, which is a matter more of custom than of law . . . . The only problem is where all this imitating ends: social life for Burke would appear a kind of infinite chain of representations of representations, without ground or origin. If we do as others do, who do the same, then all of these copies would seem to lack a transcendental original, and society is shattered to a wilderness of mirrors. (Eagleton 53)

13Mimesis, which is so central to the lives of the characters dominating society in Parade’s End, thus eventually loses all touch with reality. The mirror imagery at the end of Eagleton’s argument is particularly relevant in the case of Parade’s End, as mirrors are a constantly recurring paradigm in the novels: surfaces in the decorous home of Mrs Duchemin-Macmaster gleam in an endless vortex of reflection and re-reflection: ‘a clear cut-glass chandelier from the rectory hung dimly coruscating in the centre, reflected and re-reflected in convex gilt mirrors’ (Ford 1924, 245). The two lovers, Mrs Duchemin and Macmaster, both appear as mirrors of one another. This culminates when they kiss for the first time:

[Macmaster] began to see himself: in the tall room, with the long curtains: a round, eagle mirror reflected them gleaming: like a bejewelled picture with great depths: the entwined figures.

14What matters to Macmaster is not so much what he is doing, as the way he can be seen and sees himself. It is unclear whether the subject of ‘gleaming’ is the mirror—‘a . . . mirror reflected them, gleaming’ or the characters themselves. The second hypothesis, which is supported by the absence of comma between ‘them’ and ‘gleaming,’ emphasizes the endless mirroring and re-mirroring effect of the scene.

15It is indeed through the notion of ‘parade’ that a split occurs between two conceptions of Englishness. Because Englishness is associated with the art of maintaining an impeccable and impenetrable façade, characters can in turn mimic an outward attachment to English values, without espousing them deep down.

  • 1 For further developments on the question of ethics in Parade’s End, see Brasme 2013.

16In contrast with most characters in the novel, Christopher Tietjens, and on a secondary level his brother Mark, represent the minority—‘the saving remnant,’ as was argued by Philip Davis in his eponymous essay—who is still attached to Englishness as a form of ethics,1 and not as sheer parade. Their presence in the novel constitutes a critical counterpoint to the dominant ideology, shedding light on the widespread pretence of English values that have been emptied of meaning. The metaphor of England as a crumbling edifice is brought forward by Mark Tietjens when he realizes England is ruled no longer by propriety, but by money: ‘it was to him almost unbelievable that a bank could make a mistake. One of the great banks. The props of England’ (Ford 1924, 218). The polysemy of the word ‘props,’ which is also a term used in drama, further underlines the theatrical dimension. This causes Mark to exclaim: ‘This is the last of England,’ in an explicit homage to the aforementioned painting by Ford’s grandfather. In their introduction to the collection of essays on Ford and Englishness, Dennis Brown and Jenny Plastow have underscored Ford’s vision of Englishness as an arbitrary and ever-changing construct:

Ford’s self-knowing literary rhetoric subtly suggests that there can be no Englishness-as-essence, only an imagined community conveyed by imaginative language . . . . Further, his work insists on the historical relativity of specific Englishnesses. . . . Englishness, Ford shows, is not a stable and unitary concept but a changeable ideal. (Brown and Plastow 18)

The plural used here with ‘Englishnesses’ is highly significant.

Irony

17The most efficient way in which Ford exposes the changing and arbitrary nature of Englishness is probably through irony, with caricature being a recurring mode of this irony. Since the narrative stance is impersonal, caricature is often achieved in stream-of-consciousness passages by the gradual introduction of hyperbole within a character’s perspective; this allows the tone to shift insensibly from earnest meditation to a grotesque and laughable depiction of the way in which Englishness is being invested. This is the case when Tietjens no longer considers Englishness as a sacred ideal, but rather turns these values upside down and contemplates the Trinity as specifically English. He thus pictures

the Almighty as, on a colossal scale, a great English Landowner, benevolently awful, a colossal duke who never left his study and was thus invisible, but knowing all about the estate down to the last hind at the home farm and the last oak; Christ, an almost too benevolent Land-Steward, son of the Owner, knowing all about the estate down to the last child at the porter’s lodge . . . ; the Third Person of the Trinity, the spirit of the estate, the Game as it were, as distinct from the players of the game; the atmosphere of the estate. . . . A perpetual Sunday with, probably, a little cricket for the young men (Ford 1925, 365–366).

  • 2 Burke’s model for the administration of the state is the family unit: ‘To be attached to the subdiv (...)

18Each person of the Trinity is here identified with a fundamental role in an idealised, obsolete, and essentially Tory English microcosm. This description bears a definite echo of Burke’s ideal community, a reference that is all the more relevant as Tietjens claims that he has ‘no politics that did not disappear in the eighteenth century’ (Ford 1925, 489).2 Yet the description becomes so inflated that the reader is made to pause and question Tietjens’s stance as entirely earnest; the shift towards satire is also enacted by the focus on material details, through the words ‘study,’ ‘hind,’ ‘farm,’ ‘oak,’ ‘the last child at the porter’s lodge,’ and so on. The ultimate, deflating mention of the cricket game dispels any doubt as to Tietjens’s actual position.

19The Tietjenses themselves are not spared in this denunciation of Englishness as empty posturing. As Austin Riede remarks in his article entitled ‘The Decline of English Discourse,’ also part of the collection of essays on Ford and Englishness, the Tietjens estate, Groby, is itself ‘stolen property, the Tietjenses having acquired it when Catholics were persecuted and run off their land with the succession of William III’ (Riede 220). The Tietjens line is thus born out of criminal actions, and as such, a malediction is said to threaten the dynasty. The prophecy is indeed realized since the estate is bought after the war by American Catholics—whose name is, in an act of open irony on Ford’s part, ‘De Bray Pape.’ As Riede remarks, this ‘in effect, end[s] Englishness at Groby, since, as Linda Colley has argued, Englishness was, in large part, defined as the antithesis of Catholicism’ (Riede 220).

20Not least ironical is the fact that every character in the novel who claims to uphold truly English values is, in fact, of non-English origin: the Tietjens line is of Dutch origin, and its settlement in England is relatively recent; Macmaster and Edith Ethel Duchemin are Scottish. Ford himself, of course, was much concerned with questions of national ‘purity,’ being half German, and suspected of German sympathies during the war. This sheds a paradoxical light on the characters’ self-identification as authoritatively English. The aforementioned comment by Tietjens on colonel Levin’s ‘non-Anglo-Saxon origin,’ with its touch of scorn, or at best, of condescension, may thus be examined afresh as an ironical sub-text to Tietjens’s allegedly authoritative conception of Englishness.

21Far from upholding the Englishness to which its characters are attached, Ford’s novels thus invite us to consider anew the pretence and fragility, if not hypocrisy, of national identity. Irony is used not only as a means to denounce the constructedness and instability of any definition of Englishness; but it also appears as the very antidote against the way in which English values are hollowed out and fossilised. The negativity of Ford’s constant, underground irony is what preserves the text from the fossilisation of a stable attachment to a single meaning. In The Act of Reading, Iser explains how, in an unstable text,

Thematically vacant positions remain present in the background against which new themes occur; they condition and influence those themes and are also retroactively influenced by them, for as each theme recedes into the background of its successor, the vacancy shifts. (Iser 202)

22Irony creates a dynamic relationship between past and future, since its untold and never quite definite meaning demands validation on the part of the reader: a validation that is always latent, and makes the reader an indispensible agent for the full potency of Ford’s text to be activated.

Conclusion

23In the wake of the heritage cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s, such as the Merchant-Ivory literary adaptations of condition-of-England novels, there has been a renewed interest of late in exploring Edwardian England through popular films or series, such as Downton Abbey. Parade’s End itself was adapted by Tom Stoppard as a mini-series for HBO and the BBC in 2012. It was Stoppard's first major TV work in almost thirty years and featured the highly popular actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. The question arises again, therefore, whether Ford’s work makes good material for popular consumption. Whilst the series received a great number of viewings, the answer remains a complex one. Several critics did compare the Downton Abbey and Parade’s End series, with a marked advantage to the latter. Parade’s End was thus dubbed ‘Downton Abbey for grown-ups’ in the New Republic as well as in several other newspapers.

24In an article published in The Telegraph on the occasion of the television series’ first airing, Neil Simpson made a salient point when remarking on the adaptation that ‘Parade's End . . . addresses the fallacy of presenting Edwardian England as an era frozen in time; a last huzzah for the old days before the oncoming war. It shows us that modernity was not simply forged from the slaughter of the Somme, but that deep undercurrents were already at work in England.’ With the necessary limitations of putting such a dense, convoluted narrative to screen, Tom Stoppard has indeed managed to encapsulate the driving force at work in Parade’s End: the fact that it is not only a reflection on Edwardianism, but also, and more significantly, a reflection on representing—or indeed misrepresenting Edwardianism.

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Bibliographie

Barnes, Julian, ‘A Tribute to Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford,’ The Guardian 24 August 2012, The Guardian online

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/aug/24/julian-barnes-parades-end-ford-madox-ford, last accessed January 2, 2015.

Brasme, Isabelle, ‘Towards an Ethics of Alterity: The Shattered Mirror of Identity in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End,’ Ethics of Alterity, Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th- to 21st–century British Literature, eds. Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Montpellier: PULM, Horizons Anglophones/Present Perfect, 2013, 97–106

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Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Davis, Philip, ‘The Saving Remnant,’ ‘Ford Madox Ford and Englishness,’ International Ford Madox Ford Studies 5, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006, 21–35.

Eagleton, Terry, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

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Notes

1 For further developments on the question of ethics in Parade’s End, see Brasme 2013.

2 Burke’s model for the administration of the state is the family unit: ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’ (Burke 47).

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Référence électronique

Isabelle Brasme, « Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End: Ironising Edwardian England », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 octobre 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/2611 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.2611

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Auteur

Isabelle Brasme

Isabelle Brasme is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nîmes, France, and a member of the EMMA research team at the University of Montpellier. She has written articles on Ford Madox Ford and recently completed a monograph on Parade’s End, to be published in 2015 and entitled: ‘Parade’s End de Ford Madox Ford: vers une esthétique de la crise’.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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