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Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier

Called the finest French novel in the English language by Ford’s friend, John Rodker and probably one of the finest novels of our century by Graham Greene, Ford’s novel is certainly one of the finest novels in English, French or not. It was originally to be called The Saddest Story but his publisher did not like the title. The story is narrated by John Dowell, an American, who is travelling in Germany with his wife, Florence, to take the waters. There they meet an English couple, John Ashburnham and his wife, Leonora. They become friends though, unbeknownst to John but not Leonora, Florence and Edward have an affair. Eventually – but only eventually – it all comes out, leading to tragedy. The plot is simple but the book is not.

The eponymous good soldier is Edward Ashburnham, a man full of decent English virtues, caring for the underdog, behaving like a true English gentleman should behave and generally acting in a proper manner. Yet, despite this, he has several affairs, not just with Florence Dowell, which leads to his own destruction and the destruction of others. Dowell does not, cannot fathom why a decent person such as Ashburnham could behave in such a self-destructive manner and part of the charm of the book is Dowell’s failure to grasp this while we must try to do so. But, as with any fine book, it is not the plot that makes it work or even, in this case, the psychology of the characters but Ford’s fine writing. Critics have called it impressionistic which is a fair assessment, given that the opening chapters were first published in Wyndham Lewis‘s Blast!. Ford’s technique is far from a realist one but rather to gradually build up a picture of the inevitable tragedy that will ensue and he does this brilliantly. His use of Dowell – naive, innocent and, even by the end of the book, unclear as to what happened and why – is masterful. It is the first major modernist English work and remains a classic, although a surprisingly underrated one.

Publishing history

First published 1915 by John Lane