The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915) is the story of an affair between two couples that ends quite badly. That is the shortest possible summary I can give to the novel, but it’s much more complicated and problematic than that. I first read this novel years ago and loved it; now I’m seeing it with a more critical eye. I think that’s because it’s easy to be drawn into the story itself, since the narrator who is addressing you is a character who participates in the plot and is telling his own story. It’s only when you come up for air that you realize how biased he is and that one of his real messages is the 1910’s version of “bros before hos.” How? The narrator’s wife has an affair with one of his closest friends and the narrator forgives the man but mercilessly blames his wife … even though he had developed feelings for his friend’s adopted daughter while he was married. If you’re already confused that’s probably the most normal reaction, the plot has a lot of twists.
Since it’s such a complicated plot, I should start with a character summary:
John Dowell is the unreliable narrator of the story, he is married to Florence Dowell and is friends with the Ashburnhams; he is closest with Leonora and falls in love with her adopted daughter Nancy Rufford. He is an American and a Quaker living abroad. The moment he hears that his wife is dead he blurts out that he wants to marry Nancy. He’s not exactly prince charming, but he was also in a loveless marriage, so it’s complicated.
Florence Dowell is married to John Dowell and is having an affair with Edward “Teddy” Ashburnham while trying to get him to reunite with his wife Leonora. She has mixed feelings, clearly. She picked John out of her pool of suitors because he was willing to have a sexless marriage, live a life of leisure, and move to England. You can’t say he didn’t know what he was getting into. She fakes having a heart condition so she can have affairs under John’s nose and kills herself when things begin to unravel. Specifically, she doesn’t want John to find out about her first affair, because the guy was a scrub.
Edward “Teddy” Ashburnham is the “good soldier” of the title. He has an arranged marriage with Leonora which could have been happy, but was strained, first by religious differences, and then by repeated infidelities (on Edward’s part). He is benevolent and charitable, but also ruthless about affairs, which he conducts so openly that Leonora is forced to orchestrate them in order to preserve appearances (and keep him from “ruining” an unmarried girl). This all unravels when he falls in love with Leonora’s adopted daughter, Nancy, who is regarded as his own child up until the moment he wants to sleep with her, which disgusts him (along with everyone else). Ford originally wrote him as a libertine (rapist) but downgraded him to rake (flirt) in the draft process to make him more sympathetic.
Leonora Ashburnham is one of the best* characters in the novel, she is married to Edward “Teddy” Ashburnham through an arranged marriage. They could have been in love at one point, but she desperately wanted to have children and Edward would have insisted on raising the boys Anglican. As a Catholic this is too much for Leonora to handle and she drifts away from him as he has numerous affairs that threaten to bankrupt them both because he keeps getting blackmailed like a fool. Leonora handles their finances and, since she cannot divorce him (she’s Catholic), she orchestrates his affairs as much as possible so keep him out of trouble and scandal. She also very much wants Edward to fall in love with her so they can be happy and so she can possibly change his mind about the children. By the time the Dowell’s arrive in their lives they do not speak in private. Leonora is depicted as highly intelligent, but icily cold. The last straw for her is when Edward becomes attracted to her adopted daughter Nancy, though Leonora approves of John’s desire to marry Nancy.
Nancy Rufford is apparently the hottest thing on two legs since everyone is crazy attracted to her even though they are much older than she is. Nancy is a trope; virginal, naive, innocent, and pure, she thinks so highly of Edward that she mistakes his declaration of love for fatherly approval of how she has grown up (she lives in a convent and comes to visit once a year). Leonora protects Nancy from Edward until she realizes that Nancy is in love with Edward too, at which point Leonora destroys Nancy’s image of Edward by filling her in on all his affairs. Nancy and Leonora then torment him for weeks before he commits suicide. Upon hearing the news of Edward’s death Nancy snaps and becomes a vacant shell (she goes mad). John wants to marry her, but ends up being her caretaker.
Really those character summaries could be a plot summary itself; since the structure of the novel is like a spiral with John revisiting events over and over again with increasing clarity, multiple summaries are almost appropriate. Within the span of the narrative John transitions from being oblivious to intimately aware of his wife’s affairs and suicide, mostly because of Leonora, from whom little escapes observation. He doesn’t seem to care much about Florence and feels tricked into being her nurse, even though she filled him in on her “heart condition” before they eloped; he then repeats this pattern with Nancy. Near the end of the novel, very near the end in fact, John declares that the only two people he’s ever loved are Edward and Nancy, take that as you will. He also allows both Florence and Edward to commit suicide. When Florence spots Edward declaring his love to Nancy she rushes back to the spa where they are all staying, sees John speaking to someone who knew about her first long-term affair, runs up to her room, (a pause where she has enough time to write a letter to her aunt), and drinks poison. The first telling makes it seem like the second the door was shut she drank the stuff, but upon the second telling John reveals that he could have stopped her suicide, but he just sat there, waiting:
It is even possible that, if that feeling had not possessed me, I should have run up sooner to her room and might have prevented her drinking the prussic acid. But I just couldn’t do it; it would have been like chasing a scrap of paper—an occupation ignoble for a grown man.
And, as it began, so that matter has remained. I didn’t care whether she had come out of that bedroom or whether she hadn’t. It simply didn’t interest me. Florence didn’t matter.
This is the second telling of the story where he admits that the “long time” that he spent in the lobby arm chair after his wife – ostensibly with a heart condition – rushes through the lobby, white as a sheet, with her hand over her start, and up to her room, is because he has stopped thinking of her as a person. Even though he “should have” gone after her, her first affair was just revealed to him by a stranger, and she becomes like an inanimate object to him. John even goes out of his way to exclude her from the narrative as much as possible. When he writes, “this is in all probability the last time I shall mention Florence’s name” it is only halfway through the text.
As far as Edward’s suicide is concerned it is undeniable that John knew about it. Edward’s suicide closes the text. He and John are standing in the stables, after Nancy has been sent away to her father’s house, when a note arrives. In it Nancy says she’s having a great time there, to which Edward takes a pen knife out of his pocket, turns to John, and says, “So long, old man, I must have a bit of a rest, you know.” John knows exactly what is about to happen and wants to say “God bless you,” but thinks Edward might not want acknowledgement that John knows what’s about to happen, so instead silently turns around and takes the note inside. The suicides are set up as polar opposites: John thinks of Florence as an object so he doesn’t stop her suicide because he doesn’t think she’s human enough for him to care about, while John loves Edward so much that he’s willing to let him go because he doesn’t want to see him endlessly suffering.
Unlike Leonora and Edward, and slightly less for Nancy, we are given almost no motivation for why Florence did what she did. Nancy is young, foolish, and a woman (we all know how those things stick together, harpies!); Leonora is religious to a fault but desperately wants Edward to fall in love with her, she believes that managing his money to make him rich again (she succeeds in that) will make him love her, which almost works until he meets Florence, and Leonora is even willing to divorce him to let him marry Nancy, though she is so conflicted and heartsick she tortures him in the process; Edward is a hopeless romantic and trusts women way more than men, he’s a bit empty-headed, but generous to a fault and dignified, he’s not the model gentleman but he has his limits, which he will not cross, and nearly kills himself with misery to stop himself from preying on Nancy. These are all rich, complicated character portraits. Florence, however, is depicted as having affairs for I don’t know what reason, casting herself as a tragic heroine, and tricking (which is debatable) John into being her nurse. In all fairness, we don’t get much of John either. He’s a fool for not seeing what is happening, but he has to be if the reader is to have events unfold before them. He has non-universal standards for conduct that he applies to people, loving Edward but hating Florence. He’s quite possibly in love with Leonora, saying he is jealous when she remarries, which is when they stop speaking to each other. He doesn’t want to be a sexless male nurse, but walks, with open eyes, into two consecutive arrangements where he is a sexless male nurse. Maybe he is a fool, or maybe that’s what he really wants, on some level. He also buys the house that his wife desperately wanted and lives there with the comatose Nancy, in part happy that he is spiting Florence in her grave. For Leonora, Edward, and Nancy, the reader understands why they are acting the way that they are. For Florence the reader understands that she has complex motivations, but they aren’t entirely clear, and for John the reader doesn’t know why he acts the way he does.
So what is the novel “about” anyway? The most outmoded message is that arranged marriages don’t necessarily work. Another is that religion can really harm people, as it does with Leonora and Nancy. I think the most resounding message in the novel is to be aware of one’s immense capacity to harm another. There are multiple deaths in this novel, one presumably caused by Leonora, and Florence’s death is complicated so it’s hard to assign blame, and Edward’s death was likely because of Leonora and Nancy combined. Of course all of these deaths could be blamed on the individuals themselves, who aren’t strong enough to stand against the waves of horrific pain that crash over them, but then how can you blame a person for that? While none of the characters in the novel are “good” people (minor character aside) you have sympathy for all of them because, as John notes, they all end up with what someone else wanted. That’s the real tragedy of the novel, why the narrator keeps calling it “the saddest story,” because if things has gone just slightly differently, they all could have been alive and happy.
I don’t know about you but I find that chilling. This is definitely a text that I would assign to a class because it’s so dense and there can be some really wonderful debates about it. If you’re interested in reading The Good Soldier which, incidentally, Ford Madox Ford originally wanted to call The Saddest Story until his editor vetoed him, is online at Project Gutenberg.
* When I say “best” I mean complex, compelling, and fascinating.