Ford Madox Ford: The Rash Act
Ford’s somewhat quirky novel has generally been ignored by critics. This is unfortunate, as it has considerable charm and wit. Like some of his other novels, it takes its roots in the First World War though, apart from the fact that the two main characters both served in the same regiment in World War I, none of the action takes place during the war. Most of the action takes place over a relatively short period of time in 1931, with the Depression in full swing. The main character is called Henry Martin Aluin Smith (though he is generally referred to as Henry Martin throughout the book). He is an American, from Springfield, Ohio, the son of parents of Luxembourg origins, whose father owns a successful toffee factory, which continues to thrive despite or, perhaps, because of the Depression. At the beginning of the book, he is sitting in a small boat off the coast of France, wondering what will be written on his tombstone, as he is contemplating killing himself. He is not in a fit of depression. Indeed, he spends a good part of the book sitting in his boat contemplating suicide but does not seem too concerned about it. The novel tells the story of how he got to this position and why he does not, finally, kill himself.
He had served in World War I, at least in part to avoid his dominating father, who wanted him to join the family toffee business. He had been at university but, once his mother died, his father pulled him out at once. He tried the toffee business for a while but did not enjoy it at all, so headed off to Europe. After serving in World War I, he stayed on in Europe, despite his father’s exhortations to return home, living off the money left to him by his mother. He had had a succession of tawdry affairs. Wanda, a Norwegian, whom he met in America, was too much for him and when she returned to her husband, expected him to kill himself, even confronting him in bed with her successor, Alice. Alice was quite dull but they eventually married. Henry Martin’s father used Alice to try to persuade Henry Martin to return home, which he briefly did. However, Alice started a Lesbian relationship with Mrs. Percival, wife of a novelist from South Dakota, and everything fell through. Henry Martin returned to Paris, where a friend of a friend gave him sound investment advice which ended up losing him all his inheritance. His suicide is because he is broke – he spent his last money on a buying a drink for another dull woman and Hugh Monckton Allard Smith, former fellow officer – and because of his wife’s desertion for Mrs. Percival.
Hugh Monckton Allard Smith, known as Hugh Monckton, is English and very rich and comes from the family that developed the famous Monckton car. He is very glad to see Henry Martin and even tries to lend him a large sum of money to buy Monckton shares which are about to declare a 100% dividend. Henry Martin learns that Hugh Monckton is also about to commit suicide as his girlfriend left him for her husband. The next day, Henry Martin again tries suicide and again fails but, when he lands, he finds that Hugh Monckton has managed it. When help arrives, everyone assumes that it is Henry Martin that has killed himself and that the survivor is Hugh Allard. Henry Martin does nothing to dispel this illusion, particularly when not only the hotel staff but even Hugh Allard’s girlfriend makes the same mistake. Ford, of course, plays out the story and the mistaken identity to the end. It is certainly not a great novel but Ford manages to make it funny, while discussing the serious subject of how those returning from World War I struggled with adaptation and identity.
First published 1933 by Jonathan Cape