Novel * Ford Madox Ford * The Final Decline of the 18th Century * 1924
This truly remarkable novel is, somehow, only the first installment of a four-part series that I have somehow failed to read until now. This fact is simply more evidence in the case I’m prosecuting which states that are simply too many books. I assume I will be vindicated on my deathbed when I can present my final list of shit I didn’t get to because there just wasn’t enough time. Seriously, I’ve taken countless numbers of courses on Modern literature and Parade’s End never came up. Not even when I read another Ford Ford classic, The Good Soldier. That book was fine, but I’ll be goddamned if Some Do Not… isn’t one of the best works I’ve read from this period. I would wax enthusiastic some more, but then I’d end up overselling this thing, and I should make this very clear: Some Do Not… isn’t going to work for everyone. It’s very Modern. It’s also very British. Ford is experimenting with form, and although he’s by no means as extreme as, say, James Joyce, this book isn’t an easy read. And the story itself is troublesome in that it works best if you have some background knowledge about the time and place.
That said! There are characters worth latching onto here, which is not always the case with Modernist lit. Some Do Not… is not a case like The Sun Also Rises were everyone sucks most of the time. The novel’s primary character is a man named Christopher Tietjens. He is a landed gentleman, and is very much a Tory. If you’re not British, the short explanation is that Tietjens is very conservative, in that he upholds the ancient social order and believes in its supremacy as the basis for civilization. In Downton Abbey terms, he’s the upstairs guy. As a protagonist, Christopher is not a sexy action man. He’s large, clumsy, conservative, and outwardly dull. However, he also has an exceptional math brain and is considered something of a genius. He also has a bad habit for a Tory, which is bluntly speaking his mind about unpopular and divisive things.
Tietjens is a gentleman with troubles. First of all, there is his querulous, vindictive wife Sylvia. When the novel opens, we learn that Sylvia has run off with another man, which would be deeply embarrassing if such a thing were generally known. There is a child, and it may not be his. So that’s a bummer for him. Sylvia quite clearly hates her husband, and while her spite seems to have no real basis there is an argument to be made that she is lashing out against the confines of the social order. Sylvia is a socialite and a beauty, and as we’ve seen Christopher is something of a lump. There’s also Sylvia’s Catholicism to consider when pondering why Sylvia is so awful.
Meanwhile, in addition to Tietjens and his marital troubles, we’re introduced to Christopher’s bestie, a man with the excellent name Macmaster. This dude is a social climber, and it is fairly obvious he’s riding Tietjens’ connections pretty hard to make a name for himself socially. Eventually he hooks up with a lady with another excellent name, Edith Ethel. She also kind of sucks. The other major character we meet in a chance run-in on a golf course. This is Valentine Wannop, a feisty young suffragette who accosts Tietjens while he is playing golf (against his will, because he thinks the game is stupid). She launches all sorts of accusations at him, and poor Tietjens is all like what is even happening. Well, as we learn later on, what is happening is fate, because eventually these two fall in love. This is… problematic.
It is difficult to write up a brief synopsis of Some Do Not… because the novel is not conventionally constructed or paced. Also, it’s the first book in series of four, and I’ve not read the other three yet. As a stand-alone novel, it actually still works. The various relationships these people have is the foundation of the book, all of which are set against a backdrop of significant social changes. The novel itself only features a few scenes, and the action and point of view don’t change all that often. Yet there is a major depth to each different scene, and Ford delves deep into whichever character’s POV at any given time. This means that even within a particular time and place, the action described can jump backward in time if that character suddenly remembers a thing that happened. Also, as the title might imply, there is an overabundance of ellipsis, which, whatever. They were experimenting. There is also a major time-shift which happens right in the middle of the novel, and there is no real warning that it is coming. Like, the first half of the book takes place before World War I, and then all of a sudden we’re in the middle of the war and Tietjens has already been injured and has returned to England. All of this is a longwinded way of saying that a lot happens in this novel in which very little happens. Modernism!
While I quite like Christopher Tietjens as a character, he’s also immensely frustrating to my 21st century sensibilities. As we see again and again with Modern literature, the early 20th century was a time of catastrophic technological and industrial change, which of course culminated in a brutal world war. While technology and science are advancing at such a rapid clip, human social structures are struggling to keep up. This is especially true in Europe, where most of the major players are still functioning under 18th century social structures, all of which were medieval holdovers to begin with. Modernity is chipping away at this, aided by industrialism and the technology boom. Suddenly people are getting wealth and influence who are not landed aristocrats and of course these folks don’t play by the same rules. Tietjens, however, does. And it makes his life a self-imposed hell.
Tietjens is a polarizing kind of guy, and not many people like him right away. Some folks come around, and other people just irrationally hate him. His own wife is one of these, and it’s easy to see that she blames her circumstance, which is really just a life bound by Byzantine social constraints, on her husband. As mentioned above, Christopher in his Toryism is to be held accountable for his situation. After all, all he needs to do is divorce his wife and hook up with Valentine. Bingo-bango, easy-peasy. This is not that kind of story, however. What Some Do Not… is doing is a total deconstruction of Tietjens’ world-view in order to, hopefully, reveal what the new world order will be in the future.
The breakdown of Teitjens happens within the society he wishes to uphold. Sylvia had herself an affair. She ran off with some dude and made for the Continent. While this probably sucks for him on a personal level, it also reflects poorly upon Christopher’s social standing. Luckily, Sylvia’s family is willing to cover up the affair so that the socialite gossipers can’t ruin anyone’s reputation. Unfortunately, Christopher is terrible at playing this game. When he begins a relationship with Valentine Wannop – and to be perfectly clear, by “relationship” I mean a proper social one. Perfectly polite, and most of the time Tietjens is conversing with Valentine’s mother anyway. That doesn’t matter, however, because all it takes is someone seeing Christopher speaking with Valentine unchaperoned and suddenly in the eyes of society she’s his mistress. Oh, and Macmaster’s now-wife Edith Ethel is also rumored to be his second side-piece, even though she fucking hates Tietjens. It’s all very strange.
Things are further complicated by the fact that Tietjens would actually very much like Valentine to be his mistress. It actually seems like the novel is building up to his inevitability, but then we’re suddenly reminded there’s three more books to get through. The obvious answer is to divorce the horrible wife and marry the woman who actually likes you. Right? Tietjens is not to that point yet. As Ford points out (repeatedly): some do, and some do not. Tietjens does not. Yet. The entire final scene of the novel is an exercise in frustration. Christopher is on his way back to the war and has finally made up his mind to go ahead and have a night with the woman he loves. Likewise, Valentine is ready to just say fuck it and go after the man she loves. It’s all very touching. Then all kinds of realistic nonsense gets in the way. First, Christopher’s brother shows up and lets him know just how fucked socially Christopher really is. His own father figured Tietjens for a useless, skirt-chasing disgrace who spends his wife’s money on his mistress. Meanwhile, Valentine’s idiot drunk brother shows up, and instead of having a romantic final evening they have escort this hammered socialist jackass home. Then, finally, they’re alone. Tietjens very formally asks if Valentine will be his mistress, to which she replies: “I’ve arranged the cushions.” But it’s too late, and Christopher has to go to the war. Like, they don’t even kiss. It’s terrible.
Of course, the frustrating romantic aspect of Some Do Not… isn’t even the most important part. It’s engaging, obviously, but really the relationship of the would-be lovers is emblematic of the larger conflict waging across the social order. As noted above, Tietjens is about to head to the war for a second time. Because he is a landed aristocrat, this is entirely unnecessary. At one point in his career, Christopher was a rising star in the government bureaucracy, a genius with figures. Then came the war, and the home office suddenly wants Christopher to start faking numbers in order to essentially make certain people look good at the expense of the soldiers on the ground. He runs the figures, but refuses to hand over the work because Tietjens thinks this practice fucking sucks. However, his buddy Macmaster is happy to take credit for Christopher’s work. This move doesn’t exactly endear Tietjens to the powers-that-be.
By this point, it’s clear what Ford is doing with this novel, and what is likely going to continue going forward. These are novels of disillusionment. Tietjens is a conservative who is beaten and battered by the very system he’s spent his life championing. Playing by the rules, he has set himself up to be a victim of the rules. By the end of the novel, Tietjens is very nearly ruined, his name and reputation tarnished even though he’s done nothing. He’s broke and heading off to a war that he can’t begin to figure out. Tietjens says:
“I can’t reconcile it with my conscience,” he said. “In this affair there is nothing that any man can reconcile with his conscience. I don’t mean that we oughtn’t to be in this affair and on the side we’re on. We ought. But I’ll put to you things I have put to no other soul.”
This is followed by:
“He described the disillusionment it had cost him personally as soon as this country had come into the war…. Now there was nothing straightforward: for him or for any man. One could have fought with a clean heart for a civilization: if you like the eighteenth century against the twentieth, since that was fighting for France against the enemy countries meant. But our coming in had changed the aspect at once. It was one part of the twentieth century using the eighteenth as a cat’s paw to bash the other half of the twentieth. It was true there was nothing else for it. And as long as we did it in a decent spirit it was just bearable. One could keep one’s job – which was faking statistics against the other fellow – until you were sick and tired of faking and your brain reeled. And then some!”
This whirlwind of a not-quite-speech sums up the problem of World War I for many citizens. I suspect will get deeper with this stuff in the following novel, No More Parades, but this scene is witnessed from Valentine’s point of view. She is admiring the moral fortitude of her man, but she’s also like, maybe don’t go back to the war because I love you and don’t want you to die, you great idiot. Yet Tietjens has some more breaking down to do. He can watch the disintegration of the old social order and the rise of twentieth century bureaucracy – which we all know is terrible – but is still yet unable to disentangle himself from his own Toryism. Hopefully by the end of all this he figures out that no social order, no civilization, gives a shit about his own personal happiness.