The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The first time I heard of Ford Madox Ford was when I was reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I can’t remember the exact quote, but essentially Hemingway said readers shouldn’t bother with Ford’s novels. Then a few months ago I read J. M. Coetzee’s Youth. The main character of this novel is so impressed by one of Ford’s books that he decides to write his Master’s thesis on all of his novels. Unfortunately for the character in the book he realizes that many of Ford’s writings are rubbish.

Given this background I was surprised to see that Ford has two books on my 1001 list. And I actually owned a copy of one of them: The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Ford’s original title for the novel was The Saddest Story. However, the novel’s release coincided with the start of World War I and the publisher didn’t think people would pick up a book with a title like that during a time of chaos and grief. Ford then sarcastically proposed, The Good Soldier. The publishers loved it.

Right from the outset I want to say if you are expecting a juicy story about love and passion, this isn’t the book for you. The word passion is in the title, but this book, for me at least, was depressing. The novel is about two couples. Both the English and American couples are rich and sophisticated. Edward Ashburnham, the soldier, from the outside seems to be the perfect gentleman with the perfect wife. Edward and Leonora meet the American couple, John and Florence, in Germany. Edward and Florence are receiving spa treatments.

It doesn’t take the reader long to suspect that both marriages are in trouble. John narrates the story and most of the novel jumps back in forth in time with little rhyme or reason. To add another layer to the complexity of this short novel, John is an unreliable narrator. Another aspect of the novel that is difficult to stomach is that none of the characters are all that likable. This novel is about adultery, jealousy, and social expectations.

You may think from the paragraph above that I didn’t like the novel. I didn’t. I mean I didn’t like the characters. However, Ford’s novel is brilliant. The confusion of jumping back in forth in time and the unreliable narrator came together perfectly. While I hated the characters, this novel is a wonderful character study. And if you like flawed characters, this novel has many. I won’t say everyone should rush out and buy a copy. It’s hard to recommend a book like this. I will say I won’t forget Ford’s abilities. He has one more book on the 1001 list and I’m curious to see if I’ll like that one.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American living in England. When she isn’t writing, she’s traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs, or reading. Not necessarily in that order.
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32 Responses to The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

  1. There is something almost tempting about hearing another author ‘say’ that you shouldn’t bother with a certain author’s work, isn’t there? Just from a pure curiosity sake. I was going to say that I’m not big on flawed characters but then that is so far from reality when I think of stories with flawed characters, even characters that I couldn’t stand, that are still excellent stories in my opinion. I’m not sure I’ll rush out to read this, but I enjoyed your review and am glad you gave his work a try for yourself..and knocked another book off your list.

    • TBM says:

      Especially when it’s Hemingway. I’m a fan of his works, but the man was no saint and was flawed himself. It’s refreshing on one level that the characters in this book are so flawed. I hate perfect people. and what made this interesting was that on the outside, they all seemed perfect. Saying that, I don’t blame you for not wanting to read it. It’s a brilliant novel, but very unpleasant to read.

      • I keep meaning to pick up a copy of The Moveable Feast. I’ve not read much Hemmingway, but what I’ve read I’ve liked.

      • TBM says:

        It wasn’t my favorite by him, but it’s an interesting read. He bashes a lot of people in that book. My favorite by him is A Sun Also Rises. That’s a brilliant novel.

      • I remember reading that the character Braddocks in The Sun Also Rises was based on Ford Madox Ford. That novel is on my list to read again.

      • TBM says:

        It would be interesting to know the full history behind all of these writers. So many of them got along for a while and then had a falling out. I love the Sun Also Rises!

      • What I wouldn’t give to have been in Paris in the 1920s with the “Lost Generation” writers and artists!

      • TBM says:

        Can you imagine! That is one of my favorite time periods to read about.

  2. Vishy says:

    Nice review, TBM! I read Coetzee’s ‘Youth’ a few years back and I remember the main character of the story trying to read all of Ford’s novels. When I read the title of your post, I remembered that, and a few lines into your post, I read your Coetzee reference too 🙂 It is sad that most of the characters in the story are not likeable, but I liked what you said about the book – that though the characters are not likeable, the book is brilliant. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • TBM says:

      It is rare when I don’t like at least one of the characters. Usually I feel for some of them, even though they are flawed. This one, though, I marveled over the writing and hated all of the people in it. I would love to know your thoughts on it if you read it.

  3. Sounds like a book I might enjoy 😉
    Incidentally, I LOVED A Moveable Feast! Though, while reading it many years ago, I realised for the first time that Hemingway must have been a total dickhead. Great writer, but we would sooo not have got on.

  4. i read the good soldier back in 2006 and remember enjoying the read but don’t remember much else about how i felt about it. i think this is a book i’d benefit from re-reading.

  5. I’ve always liked his short stories more than his novels. However, I really love For Whom the Bell Tows….nice review!

    • TBM says:

      That is a great book as well. I’ve only skimmed the surface of Hemingway’s short stories but just the other day I mentioned that I wanted to buy a collection of them.

  6. Great review but I think I’d have to be in the right frame of mind for this book.

  7. poppytump says:

    I read this after watching Parades End earlier this year TBM . I started it so I had to finish it is how I felt about this novel . What a bunch of characters , flawed .. oh yes . I did like his descriptive style in many parts of the book but did lose patience with alot of the behaviour and goings on . Maybe I missed something I’m not sure .. but as you said only a short book 😉

    • TBM says:

      The characters are so frustrating. I kept hoping one would make a good decision but I don’t think any of them did. Horrible people.

  8. Novroz says:

    It’s about adultery and social expectation…where does it relate to good soldier ?

    • TBM says:

      Edward is a soldier and is known for being brave. That’s how many people view him, when in fact, he gets himself into a lot of trouble when it comes to women.

  9. Caroline says:

    I’ve got this and wanted to read it before but then it was chosen by someone’s online book group and they didn’t get along with it at all, that threw me off a bit but I’d like to read it sooner or later. I enjoy unreliable narrators and flawed characters, as you may know.
    I seem to remember that Mel U loved Parade’s End I often like the books he likes. Maybe I should read that first…. but it’s long.

    • TBM says:

      I didn’t know Parade’s End was over 900 pages! After all the Dickens I read last year, I’m selecting smaller works lately. It will be a while before I read that one. I actually think you would like this one for the writing style, but I could be wrong.

  10. I felt the same way after reading The Sheltering Sky. Depressing story, unlikable characters, but worth reading. I may tackle this one when I’m in the mood for something dark. That comes about once a year. 🙂

    • TBM says:

      Haven’t heard of The Sheltering Sky. I just read the description on Amazon and I think it’s something I would like. Thanks for the tip!

  11. lynnsbooks says:

    Well, to be honest this doesn’t sound like one for me. Thanks for the review though.
    Lynn 😀

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