Novel * Ford Madox Ford * The End of the Whole Mess * 1928
Welcome to the final installment of Parade’s End. The previous novels in this four-part series were Some Do Not…, No More Parades, and A Man Could Stand Up. If you’re down with Modernism and literature, I cannot possibly recommend these books highly enough. If Modernism ain’t your thing, which I totally understand, then I also recommend the BBC miniseries featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s the same story told in a more linear, conventional fashion and is cast exceptionally well.
After finishing the previous volume, A Man Could Stand Up, I thought the overall story of Parade’s End was pretty much complete. Turns out I was right. Last Post is the shortest of the four novels, takes place over a single afternoon, does not feature Christopher Tietjens directly, and all in all acts as a denouement rather than a climatic finish. The third novel ends with Christopher and Valentine finally casting off social expectations and embracing each other and in effect the new world order. As it happens, this touching final scene was but the first moment in a long, arduous, rather terrible evening that we only learn about as we work through Last Post.
It takes some time before we begin learning any details about the time which has passed since the end of A Man Could Stand Up and the beginning of Last Post, because ol’ Ford Ford is up to some serious Modern nonsense in this final book. As I mentioned, the entire novel takes place over a single afternoon, and while it begins with the viewpoint of a Tietjens, it is not Christopher whose mind we occupy. Rather, it is his brother Mark, who is unable to talk or move much, and seems to be getting ready to die. We’ve never been exposed to Mark’s point of view before, and up until now he has been an ancillary character. Even here he literally can’t speak to people. So when Christopher’s son rolls up with some American lady in tow, he can’t answer their frivolous nonsense with words. It’s all pretty funny, really. Last Post is basically a comic dirge.
We also get to spend some time with Mark’s longtime live-in girlfriend, who is French. She’s a very sensible woman and is happy to speak endlessly to Mark, who rarely speaks even when he is able. Ford commits to a very long bit early on, in which Marie indulges in an extremely long monologue but – and here’s the bit – she always comes back to the subject from which she began. In this case it is Parisian turnips. It’s a like a ten page long joke, which, you know, I respect. Anyway, once it becomes apparent that Mark is going to die, Christopher insists he marries the woman who has been living with him pretty much his whole life. Mark, despite being stringently anti-marriage, agrees. If only to keep Groby out of the hands of “that bitch Sylvia.” Mark really, really hates Sylvia.
Speaking of my now-favorite villain, she’s still terrible and amazing. Remember how nicely A Man Could Stand Up ended? Christopher coming back from the front to find his house stripped of furniture and his wife seemingly, finally, and at long last, gone. Then Valentine shows up and it’s almost too much, so he bails, excusing this breach of decorum because he needs some cash to begin his new life. Eventually both of these goofs realize that they’re free to love each other now and that’s nice. Well, there’s more to it. After Christopher and Valentine get their nice moment of realization, Tietjens’ army buddies insist on an Armistice Day party, after which Christopher’s ex-colonel keels over and dies. The loving couple finally deals with the unpleasant mess this presents, and end up back at Christopher’s house late at night. And guess who’s there? Why, Sylvia, of course. She announces she has cancer, and falls down the stairs, spraining her ankle. Valentine, who has quite clearly had enough of this bullshit, insists Christopher just leave her there and go. Which he does, because Valentine isn’t the only one sick of Sylvia’s narcissistic insistence of being the center of Christopher’s world. Their long-deferred union was a mess, but it’s all the more iron-clad for that.
Last Post does not deliver a “happily ever after” ending, because this is still Modernism and that’s not how they roll. Ford does, however, offer a “they live” ending, which is as much as anyone could hope for in a post-apocalyptic world. World War I happened and knocked civilization crooked. The foundation of civil society in Europe was permanently unmoored and as a result the rather staid and concrete code of ethics and morality were forever altered. For those who survived the war, it took a while for this new reality to sink in. We see this as Christopher and Valentine’s situation becomes clear toward the end of Parade’s End.
The four novels of Parade’s End together form a nice cross-section of World War I as a catalyst for drastic change. The war is the apocalyptic event, the revelation, after which definite change is the only possible outcome. Some Do Not… provides the background, and depicts a society on the cusp of change, the eve of war. In Christopher Tietjens, Ford introduces the most conservative personality he can conceive of. At the beginning of the tetralogy, Tietjens is the last Tory, the last True Believer in the English Aristocratic Tradition, the upholder of the 18th century. However, we quickly see that his worldview is under considerable attack, even before the outbreak of war. The social standards by which Tietjens lives are coming undone, and the more he digs his heels in to uphold his standards, the more society casts him in shameful shadow. By doing things the right way, he sets himself up to be perceived as a hypocrite and a liar.
When the apocalypse arrives in No More Parades and is concluded in A Man Could Stand Up, Tietjens is utterly debased in social terms. His reputation is completely destroyed because Tietjens was determined to be the ideal Tory instead of managing his image. The corruption of the decaying social structure was set in direct opposition to how Christopher was determined to conduct himself as a gentleman, and in the end this determination to be loyal to his ideals unmade him. World War I was a violent disaster that killed millions and destroyed vast swaths of land, but it was also a social disaster for those who lived according to an outmoded code. The war was abjectly amoral. Things blew up and people died and those involved in the war (such as General Campion and the shadowy beings mentioned in the various government ministries) treated the apocalypse as an abstract game to be won. Those in charge lost sight of the scope of the war, and vastly underestimated the repercussions such willful negligence for the society they were destroying sowed in the populace.
As a result of these apocalyptic conditions, Christopher Tietjens was absolutely and irrevocably disillusioned. He has been upholding these archaic Tory standards alone and to his detriment. No more. He loves Valentine Wannop and fuck every other thing in the world. He’s done. He’s done with Toryism, he’s done with being a Tietjens of Groby, he’s done with his terrible wife, he’s done with the 18th century. All that said, simply being able to have and hold the true love of his life will not and could never be enough to exist in a post-apocalyptic world. Much of the social order may have knocked off its foundation, but there are still certain truths to living in a civilization. In other words, Tietjens still needs a job.
Since Christopher Tietjens is so goddamn inflexible when it comes to taking money from his brother and/or staking his claim on his ancestral holdings – which are still quite valuable – he finds himself making a meager living as an antique furniture salesman. This occupation, while totally respectable, is further hampered by Christopher’s inability to say no to people, and so he’s ruthlessly taken advantage of and is therefore generally short on money and reputation. Meanwhile, he’s still being attacked by Sylvia because she’s all the more pushed to distraction by the mere thought of her husband being anything but miserable. Toward the end of Last Post, we discover that she’s finally pulled the right trigger, and has Groby Great Tree cut down. Burn it all, motherfuckers.
If anything in Parade’s End is a true literary symbol, it’s that tree. It represents the final destruction of the 18th century, you see. It’s the last post. Oh, and you know Ford continues to use his title throughout the text of his novel. It’s a fun game at this point. Anyway, the felling of that damn tree is the final nail in the coffin of the old social order. Christopher – who again is totally absent from this final novel – is hurt by its destruction, but at the same time it’s understood that this was inevitable. He willingly gives up his ancestral birthright in order to pursue happiness in the name of Valentine Wannop.
My feelings about Valentine Wannop are clear. Tietjens made the right choice, and he should have made it three books ago. That might have mitigated the impact of Parade’s End somewhat, but then I come from a very different society than Christopher. In the end, Valentine is well and truly pregnant with Christopher’s child, and it’s this revelation that causes Sylvia to finally lay the fuck off. It seems apparent that what she’s been doing this entire time was violently fighting against the changing of the social world. That social structure is the only reason she’s of any note, by virtue of her own upbringing and more importantly, the status of her aristocrat husband. Now that he’s cast all that aside and is determined to make his life his own, she has no real reason to continue her personal war. Instead it’s assumed that she’ll move to India, where Sylvia can at least entertain the notion that the 18th century has never ended.