‘I only know that I am alone – horribly alone…’
I knew very little about Ford Madox Ford going into The Good Soldier other than the fact that he shares the pleasure of having an almost symmetrical name with fellow British writer Jerome K. Jerome and he once had a presumably sordid affair with the miserabilist writer Jean Rhys. After reading The Good Soldier, it is easy to see what Madox Ford and Rhys had in common. Namely, an overwhelming sadness…
You know that a book isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs when the opening line boasts ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’. And it is pretty sad. Two characters commit suicide, one of them ends up going mad and uttering the word ‘shuttlecocks’ over and over again, and the reader is left just as bereft and grief stricken as the other characters by the end.
John Dowell is a wealthy American and wholly unreliable narrator who is either a master manipulator or a clueless sap, depending on which academic paper you are reading. He becomes hopelessly entangled in a love triangle/square/octagon with the Ashburnhams – a similarly wealthy couple, and various other women who all seem to be dying for some reason or another.
This tone of melancholy and infinite sadness does become grating after a while. Particularly as while everyone is professing to be gravely unhappy they are still going boating and playing polo and lounging around in their mansions. In this respect it feels like a natural precursor to the first world problems portrayed by J.D. Salinger and Donna Tartt. It’s all a bit too emo, even for me; a man who owns every Fall Out Boy album.
On the whole I enjoyed The Good Soldier, despite the fact that I had to read it for Uni. This is testament to Madox Ford’s ability to turn melancholy into something worth reading.