Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)

When The Good Soldier was first published in 1915, its pitiless portrait of an amoral society dedicated to its own pleasure and convinced of its own superiority outraged many readers. Stylistically daring, The Good Soldier is narrated, unreliably, by the naïve Dowell, through whom Ford provides a level of bitter irony. Dowell’s disjointed, stumbling storytelling not only subverts linear temporality to satisfying effect, but it also reflects his struggle to accept a world without honor, order, or permanence. Humorously called, “the best French novel in the English language,” The Good Soldier is both tragic and darkly comic, and it established Ford as an important contributor to the development of literary Modernism.

As a pioneer of modernist innovation, Ford Madox Ford challenged traditional social structures, moral codes, and literary forms with The Good Soldier, a novel. Broaching subjects such as adultery, betrayal, and moral confusion, Ford dealt directly with issues generally left unmentioned in polite society. Yet his innovative narrative style, which employed a narrator to deliver the story to the reader, shielded him from the necessity of condemning immoral acts, as was the tradition with former narratives of adultery. The Good Soldier, Ford’s best known work, firmly established him in the literary world as an author on the cusp of modernity.

Born in Merton, Surrey, in 1873 under the name Ford Madox Hueffer, he was brought into the world with significant literary and artistic connections. Ford’s mother was the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown; his father was a German music critic, Francis Hueffer, who moved to England in 1869. As a young man, Ford traveled on the Continent to France and Germany often with his parents. When his father died, the family moved to London and Ford was sent to be educated at University College School. Ford showed interest and talent in writing early in life. His first book, The Brown Owl, was a fairy tale illustrated by his grandfather and published in 1891, when Ford was only 18.

Professionally, Ford was assisted by his friendship with novelist Joseph Conrad. Ford and Conrad collaborated on The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). Ford proceeded to publish poems and essays and in 1908 founded The English Review which attracted contributors such as Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Anatole France. However, Ford lost control of the Review in 1910.

In 1915, at the age of forty-two, Ford published The Good Soldier, which is generally considered to be his best work. In the same year, he left to serve in World War I as an infantry officer. After being gassed in France, he returned home for a short time before moving to Paris, where he founded The Transatlantic Review and associated with such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings and Jean Rhys. In 1919, he changed his name from Ford Madox Hueffer to Ford Madox Ford. Then, between the years 1924 and 1928, Ford published his most ambitious work, the four-volume novel Parade’s End. He died in France in 1939.

Ford’s personal life was marked by turbulence and upheaval. These stressful incidents may have influenced the married life portrayed in his work. In 1894, Ford married Elsie Martindale, but the marriage failed after he had an affair with his wife’s sister. In 1904, he suffered a nervous breakdown from the anxiety and ostracism caused by his failed marriage. His romance with the writer Violet Hunt, in 1910, brought further scandal when his wife sued him for the restitution of conjugal rights. Ford was horrified that newspapers which printed “divorce court journalism” would bring his scandal to the public eye. After the war, Ford ended his relationship with Violet Hunt and moved with an artist, Stella Bowen to France. Ford addresses his dedicatory letter to her in The Good Soldier. At the end of his life, Ford lived with a much younger artist, Janice Biala, an American. Ford’s novels, about betrayal and deceit in marriage, reflect his own unorthodox and tumultuous romantic life.

Background on The Good Soldier

Written in 1914, The Good Soldier addresses what was perceived at the time to be society’s shifting morality and loss of steadfast social rules. The late-Edwardian period of 1910–1914 was a time of heightened uncertainty in England. As war with Germany grew increasingly imminent, Britain faced domestic crises: the Irish fighting for independence, industrial workers threatening strikes, and women violently demanding the right to vote. It was a period in which traditional authority was challenged from every side. Although World War I seemed to restore some order and stability to this upheaval, it left in its wake a generation horrified and morally confused.

The Good Soldier introduces a modernist man in its narrator, John Dowell. Dowell is a character with a naïve faith in appearances and in the traditional system. Because of their manners and dress, he takes for granted that the Ashburnhams are merely “good people.” His entire world is overturned when he realizes that appearances are not as they seem. Ford’s novel describes Dowell's struggle to make sense of a world that is disordered and morally chaotic.

To achieve the reality of Dowell’s confusion, Ford employs Modernist innovations in his novel. The plot is disjointed, non-chronological, and infused with reflective commentary from the narrator. Dowell’s unreliable narrative is the result of Ford’s attempt to mirror real thoughts. Because it challenges traditional social customs and literary forms, The Good Soldier is considered by most of Ford’s readers to be his best work, a novel which trailblazed a revolution of literary form.