Novel * Ford Madox Ford * Post-War Malaise * 1926
Once, long ago, I was an undergraduate student. I had the fortune of attending an excellent university with a strong liberal arts college, and as such most of my professors were very good at their jobs. Of course, not all of them could be superstars. I had one whose name I honestly don’t recall because the only memorable thing that happened in his class was, after reading the Henry James novella “Daisy Miller,” this dude started roaming the aisles like a maniac asking everyone if we were in love with Daisy. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised he didn’t ask us to stand on our desks. Anyway, I was emphatically not in love with Daisy Miller because I do not believe Henry James is very good. Yes, yes, he’s an important canonical writer but I just don’t care about anything he ever wrote since he is just so ass-achingly dull. Make a new paragraph, Hank, goddammit. So no, I was not ever in love with Daisy Miller.
I bring this up because I am absolutely in love with Valentine Wannop. She’s the best character in the whole of Ford Madox Ford’s four-part Parade’s End, and her absence was sorely felt in the previous volume, No More Parades. That’s okay, though, because A Man Could Stand Up begins on Armistice Day, with Valentine receiving a telephone call. Like the rest of Parade’s End, the third novel features a few scenes that skip and jump all over the place. The first part of this volume catches us up with what Valentine’s been up to, which is mostly trying to forget about Tietjens and engaging in something called “Physical Jerks.” It is clear by context that such a thing is something British people did in the early 20th century. Essentially, Valentine makes a modest living by being a P.E. teacher to young ladies. When the book begins, her day is interrupted by two things. The first is the war ending, and the general public hoopla that surrounds the news. The second is an upsetting phone call from her old frenemy Edith Ethel.
This phone call is just the most ridiculously passive aggressive attack. Lady Macmaster, upon learning that Tietjens was vexingly not dead and returned from the war, is freaked out that he’s going to call in Macmaster’s sizable debts. Tietjens he is broke and his wife has taken all the furniture and left. Also maybe he is crazy now. Valentine, who is rad, absorbs this news while firing a few shots of her own. In the aftermath of this, she has to assimilate the news of the return of Tietjens, her forcibly repressed feelings for him, and her life in general now that the war is finally over. It is difficult to demonstrate my affection for Valentine Wannop by directly quoting the text, largely because Ford’s stylistic choices make short, pithy quotes damn near impossible. That said, here’s one, as she slowly comes to terms with the difficulty of pursing a life with Tietjens:
“But if I let him kiss me now I should be… She would be a, what was it… a fornicatress? … trix! Fornicatrix is preferable. Very preferable.”
That’s my new favorite word. And actually, the rambly, semi-stream-of-conscious structure is the main source of Wannop’s appeal. Her viewpoint chapters are almost entirely self-contained, taking place in a very constricted time (like maybe half an hour), and consisting almost completely of her own thoughts. Mixed into her thoughts are conversations with people she doesn’t like very much, and it can be a challenge at times to discern what she is saying out loud to actual people and what she is saying in her brain to herself. This blurring of external and internal is at times a mystery to Valentine herself, and she occasionally says things that probably should be kept inside. However, she’s so earnest and forthcoming, and is of such a strong, independent spirit that it’s impossible for me to not be completely smitten.
In less personal terms (although why else read fiction if you’re not going to take it personally?) Valentine Wannop’s chapters provide insight into the rapidly changing social structures of the time. As noted in Some Do Not… Valentine is a young suffragette. She has a job and doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in chasing husbands. She certainly has no time for mindless socializing. Yes, she’s hopelessly in love with Christopher Tietjens, but since he hasn’t bothered to write her while he’s been at war she’s trained her brain to not even think of his name. It should be noted that this is a mental trick, something that Valentine is quite adept at, and her unconscious mind has a habit of protruding onto reality during moments of stress. For instance, after receiving an upsetting phone call from Edith Ethel which almost reminds her of a certain someone’s name, Valentine composes herself and thinks about a good many things that aren’t Christopher Tietjens. Also she breaks the damn phone while saying out loud to no one in particular “Steady the Buffs!” Goddammit, she’s the best.
Ford Madox Ford has an odd habit with these books in which he repeatedly breaks an unwritten rule of writing: don’t conspicuously use your damn title in the text. The vast majority of the time it’s a hack move. Ford clearly didn’t get this memo, because using the title in the text is like his favorite thing to do. I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure a character thought or said the phrase “a man could stand up” about fifty times throughout. The same could be said about the previous two novels. Actually, the title is a truncated version of the repeated line: “a man could stand up on a hill.” While that sounds vaguely literary, what it actually refers to is the war. The phrase is first said by a wistful soldier who is exhausted of life in the trenches. In this life of mud and blood and death from above, anyone foolhardy enough to stand up would immediately be cut down. Once the war is over, well, a man could stand up on a hill and not die. Luxury!
After our delightful Valentine introduction, we are taken back in time and back in perspective to Christopher Tietjens in the waning months of the war. Since the last book dealt entirely with Tietjens coping with is role in the middle of the maelstrom, I’m not going to spend much time with this aspect of A Man Could Stand Up. This is not to say the middle bit of the novel is not important or engaging, but it thematically reiterates what happened in No More Parades. Tietjens finds himself in command of a unit after being second-in-command for some time. This is a problem because he’s been kept at a distance by the unit commander, so he has little idea of what’s actually happening on the ground. These problems are of course confounded by his ongoing mental wrestling with the Valentine Problem. Unlike Miss Wannop, Tietjens has no problem thinking about her name. While it seemed at the end of No More Parades that Christopher has accepted the new world order, it actually takes him some time to come to terms with what all that means.
Two important things happen to Tietjens before the end of the war. One is that his unit is attacked while he is off touring the trenches, something a commanding officer doesn’t usually do. When this happens, he saves the life of some of his men at great risk to himself, which is pretty much the definition of a war hero. Tietjens, being Tietjens, just does this without thinking about it much. However, while he’s off being heroic, General Campion is out for his head. Seems our friend is annoyed that Tietjens has managed to not die, which rather puts a damper on his plans to live in his house and marry his wife. The General is kind of gross. The war-heoring has fully messed with the General’s plans to efficiently remove him from service and thus out of his way. Of course, the General manages to “promote” Tietjens to an unsexy and thankless position away from the front.
But whatever. By the time we catch back up in time with Valentine, the war is over and Tietjens is home. In her own roundabout, meandering way, Valentine finally comes to the decision to throw caution into the wind and seek out Christopher in his furnitureless, wifeless home. Tietjens may or may not be suffering from shell shock, but he is absolutely ready to bury the social expectations which are keeping him miserable. Still, he’s so awkward and clumsy and yes, affected by his war experience, that when the moment of his reunion with Valentine arrives, he just leaves. Like, he doesn’t even look at her, just bang. Out the door. Poor Valentine is then just standing in this empty house waiting for Tietjens to return, trying not to freak herself out over the thought that maybe he went nuts and is going to return to murder her. Instead of leaving, she calls her mom. Eventually, Tietjens returns and doesn’t murder Valentine. Instead, he takes the phone from her and talks to Mrs. Wannop, his old friend, about his intentions going forward.
Okay, I’m going to drop a couple of quotes on you to illustrate where these two characters are at, and where they’re going, within a society that is falling apart. When I say “falling apart,” I do not mean riots and civil unrest. The world war, which is now over, was the apocalyptic catalyst. The rigid Edwardian social constraints – straight up leftovers of feudal, medieval society – are what are falling down. All the arcane, hypocritical constraints that have worked to make Tietjens so unhappy are quickly becoming irrelevant. Beyond this, women can do things now. Since so many young men either perished or became grievously wounded during the war, women had to step up and fill many of those niches left vacant. As such, they now have real political capital and a voice. Valentine, of course, is on the forefront of this movement.
“No more respect… For the Equator! For the Metric System. For Sir Walter Scott! Or George Washington! Or Abraham Lincoln! Or the Seventh Commandment!!!!!! [That’s the adultery one, just by the way] And she had a blushing vision of fair, shy, square-elbowed Miss Wanostrocht – the head! – succumbing to some specious-tongued beguiler! … That was where the shoe really pinched! You had to keep them – the girls, the populace, everybody! – in hand now, for once you let go there was no knowing where They, unlike waters parted from the seas, mightn’t carry You. Goodness knew! You might arrive anywhere – at county families taking to trade, gentlefolk selling for profit! All the unthinkable sorts of things!”
Valentine has a predilection toward exclamation points, as you no doubt noticed. Despite that, what this rather hurried and frantic stream of thought means is that the old social order is forever changing, and Valentine knows it. This is a part of her realization about what this means not only for her as an individual, but what it means for women in general as well as the previously entrenched social classes. Indeed, her entire rant here is a celebration of the new world order. From her impassioned viewpoint, no longer will people be locked down by social constructs such as measurement, or history, or science, or religion. Now of course we all know that this isn’t the case. But in this moment, Valentine is struck by the magnitude of the social shift, and specifically what it means for her. That’s why the concept of disregarding the adultery commandment gets six exclamation points.
Meanwhile, in Tietjens’ head, we get a similar enthusiastic rejection of the entrenched social order.
“The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things. At any rate from his equals! He counted Campion as his equal; few other people, of course. And what he wanted he was prepared to take… What he had been before, God alone knew. A Younger Son? A Perpetual Second-In-Command? Who knew. But today the world changed. Feudalism was finished; its last vestiges were gone. It held no place for him. He was going – he was damn well going! – to make a place in it for… A man could now stand up on a hill, so he and she could surely get into some hole together!”
Fuckin’ A, Tietjens! Tell Campion to go to hell, get your lady and do what you want. Burn it all down and to hell with the consequences. I actually don’t have much to add to the above passage, as it pretty clearly speaks for itself. By the end of A Man Could Stand Up, Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop have independently come to the same conclusion. Together, finally, the two would-be lovers are joined in a burgeoning new society. Joined by veterans from Christopher’s unit, the new couple share a dance while they have a party celebrating not only the end of the apocalypse, but the new and terrifying new world. The series could probably end here, but there’s a last novel to get through. I suspect the new life isn’t going to be particularly easy for the newly joined lovers.