This is a book I have tried to read previously but I just got so bogged down in the ‘wordiness’ of it, I gave up. However due to the miracle that is the internet, I recently watched, and very much enjoyed, the 2012 BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Once that was finished, off I trotted to the bookshelf.
I must have been in the right mood for a ‘meaty’ read on a rainy day last week though, resolute this time not to be overwhelmed by the colossal sentences and archaic language. Three pages in and I was trapped hook, line and sinker, couldn’t put it down! The cover has a quote from the Guardian review describing it as the ‘finest English novel about the Great War’. I don’t think it is – I personally believe Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy is finer, certainly more immediately moving for a modern reader or perhaps ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks, all of which I have previously reviewed and gifted forward – but both Barker and Faulks are modern novelists, writing in a completely different time and style. Ford Madox Ford, born Ford Hermann Hueffer, enlisted in the British Army in 1915 aged 41 and this novel is based around his experiences, and written in the way a man of his class would write – and when all is said and done he did publish over 80 novels during his lifetime, a successful author by any standard. Perhaps in it’s authenticity it is comparable to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. It was initially published in four parts, the first in 1924, pre-empting the finale.
The central character, Christopher Tietjens, is such a complex, interesting man. There’s no doubt at all in my mind that had he lived in the twenty first century he would have been diagnosed very early in life as being ‘on the top end of the spectrum’ – a savant, and his wife, although she is the obviously deliberately provocative partner, does garner considerable sympathy from me in light of her frustrations. But I jump ahead!
The book begins pre war, introducing and developing the characters we will take this journey with. Mostly a bit upper class or upwardly mobile, many with peculiar eccentricities – and Christopher is in an immaculate First Class railway compartment heading for a golf weekend in Rye and reflecting on the fact that Sylvia, Mrs. Tietjens, has run off to the Continent with Potty Perowne, a handsome bounder. Don’t worry, that’s really not a spoiler, and it won’t last anyway – it’s the simply most provocative thing she can do to try and provoke her husband out of his calm demeanour after the time she told him their son probably wasn’t his, which didn’t achieve her desired result.
(I must interrupt to say that I found the character development in the novel to be absolutely superb. As I mentioned earlier, wordy, but get past that and you understand why. A modern novelist would neither use such flowery language nor go into such depth, it would be left to we the readers to fill in the gaps.)
Watch out for Valentine Wannop, the passionate teenage suffragette and daughter of Christopher’s professor and a professional writer, on the golf course. This is the beginning of the love story that pins this book together and I personally am glad I knew that from the TV series because of the thrill of anticipation I felt when I approached that scene in the novel. So no apologies for that spoiler.
Throughout this book, issues were raised, considered, confronted, discussed which seem so far in advance of their time. Of course, people were homosexual, conducted affairs outside marriage, lived together without marriage then, but it’s not something one reads about with such clarity frequently, and I loved the depth it gave the characters.
One of my indicators of a book that I may well wish to read again for me is when I find myself still thinking about it days later, and with this, I am. Not an ‘easy’ read, but certainly a worthy one, and one I recommend. As always, I’m happy to gift this, Mum’s copy, forward – simply get in touch either here or on the Instagram or Facebook pages.