Winston Churchill described the Victorian Age, which ended, not with the death of Queen Victoria, but in l914 with the First World War, as a time when “the world belonged to the few, and the very few.” Thirty years later, in l944, the fact that the pilots who fought the Battle of Britain had not been the sons of the British aristocracy who attended Cambridge or Oxford, but the sons of the British middle class, showed Churchill that the few, the very few, had lost the moral authority to govern the nation. It had been a very long time since they had been able to rule themselves.
The last one who knew, not just how to rule himself, but what it meant, may have been Christopher Tietjens, the central character in the four novels that together are known as Parade’s End, the extraordinary attempt by Ford Madox Ford to describe England as it really was when the world decided to destroy itself. The first novel, ‘Some Do Not…’, was published in l924; the second, ‘No More Parades’, a year later, in l925; the third, ‘A Man Could Stand Up—‘, the year after that. The fourth and concluding volume in the quartet, ‘The Last Post’, came out in 1928. They were published together as ‘Parade’s End’ in l950 by Alfred Knopf in a volume that runs a little more than eight hundred pages. The novels, either individually or combined into one long consecutive story, would never be published today.
Parade’s End is too far outside the normal experience. It is a novel about war and sex in which there is not any violence, and there is not any sex. There is not, in the way we have, at least most of us, learned to understand things, any action at all. Or so we think at first. But then, suddenly, somewhere in the back of our mind, we remember that while everything, every word, has to advance the story, conversation, what people say to other people, what they say to themselves, is the most compelling form of action there is. And then we begin to realize that ‘Parade’s End’ captures, like nothing else we have ever read, a vanished civilization, what life was like before the First World War, the Great War, destroyed the last vestiges of what the world once thought decency and honor.
‘Parade’s End’ is a love story in which sex becomes more a human failing, love’s poor substitute, for those who never learn love’s meaning. It is a novel in which nearly everyone hates the novel’s main character, precisely because the main character is so much better than themselves. He makes no sense to them, and half the time he makes no sense to himself. In all of English literature, Christopher Tietjens is unique. Considered by some to be the most brilliant man in England, his wife, Silvia, one of the most beautiful women anywhere. They were married because she was pregnant; Tietjens is almost certain she was pregnant by another man.
Silvia, according to her own mother, “hates her husband,” and, though she may have slept with a number of them, regards all men as “repulsive.” At the very beginning of the novel, Silvia has left Tietjens to go abroad with another man. She has been gone for four months when, one day at breakfast, Tietjens receives a letter from her asking, “without any contrition at all, to be taken back.” Asked by a friend, if he will do so, he replies simply, “I imagine so.” When his father asks him if they might divorce, he replies, with what today would be thought utter madness: “No! No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.”
Tietjen’s father may be the head of Groby, a baronial estate that for centuries has been part of the established order, but, though the youngest but one of his children, Christopher is the one who has that order, that sense of duty and obligation, in his bones. He does not read novels, because nothing worth reading has been written in England since the l8th century, “except by a woman.” An old woman who happens to be the mother of Valentine Wannop, a suffragette, a pacifist, and, in her twenties, a woman who still believes that somewhere, far away from the dismal necessities of men who “over-ate and neighed like stallions, there were bright colonies of beings, chaste, beautiful in thought, altruist and circumspect.”
Instead of the world she dreams of, the world she lives in has entered upon the Great War, a war Tietjens has predicted and which he believes will do nothing but bring “unnumbered deaths.” If he stays in England, he will be one of those planning and directing the war, and rather than do that, he will go to France as a soldier. His conscience will not let him use his “brain in the service,” but he has “a great hulking body,” which he is willing that his country should use. As he explains to Valentine, he has “nothing to live for: what I stand for isn’t any more in the world.” He is an idealist, and idealists “must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable.”
Tietjens tells her this, and more; he tells her that he will “put to you things I have put to no other human soul.” They are drawn to each other. Ford describes this in a way that makes you believe something like this was then really possible, and makes you wish that it still was: Valentine, he writes, had “beautiful inclinations toward Tietjens, for she could not regard it as anything more…” And Tietjens, she knows, has “beautiful inclinations toward her.” And still, underlying it all, is a passionate longing made all the more intense by the fact of its suppression. All Tietjens had to do was “approach her to make her feel as if her whole body was drawn toward him….The moon so draws the tides.” The word love was never mentioned; every word they spoke confessed it.
Tietjens has one night left before he goes to France. He asks Valentine to be his mistress, and she says yes. “But we didn’t. We agreed that we were the sort of persons who didn’t. I don’t know how we agreed. We never finished a sentence. Yet it was a passionate scene.” For Valentine, “abstention not only strengthened her in her predilection for chastity; it restored to her her image of the world as a place of virtues and endeavours.”
Tietjen’s wife, Silvia, is waiting for him when he comes home at two in the morning. He had “never been spoken to with such hatred.” Not because he had been unfaithful, but because he had not. She wanted him to sleep with Valentine, because that “might satisfy my affection for the girl…and feel physical desire for her….But she knew, without my speaking, that I had not….” Silvia threatened to ruin him, to drag his name “through the mud….I never spoke. I am damn good at not speaking. She struck me on the face and went away.”
Later, after suffering shell shock and losing, for a time, half his memory, he again goes to France, now certain that he will be killed. Before he goes, he has another scene with his wife, who blames him for everything that has happened.
“If you had once in our lives said to me: ‘You whore! You bitch!….May you rot in hell!….’ If you had only once said something like it…you might have done something to bring us together.” Worse than his failure to call her the names she deserved, which would at least have shown some real feeling for her, is his near perfect rectitude. He has never done a dishonorable thing in his life. In “the name of the Almighty, how could any woman live beside you…and be forever forgiven? Or no: not forgiven; ignored!”
In France, waiting for death, Tietjens tries to write down, to get straight in his no longer reliable mind, a clear account of what had happened. He has no doubt that he has developed “a sympathetic, but not violent attachment for Miss Wannop,” a feeling she returns. However, and this is a measure of how much the world has changed, “Neither Miss Wannop nor myself being persons to talk about the state of our feelings, we exchanged no confidences.” He saw Miss Wannop sometimes at his mother’s house or on social occasions. “No expressions of affection on the part of either of us ever passed. Not one. Ever.”
Shortly before he left for France this second time, Tietjens was walking along a railing above some tennis courts. For a few brief moments, he watched white clad players who look like “marionettes practising crucifixions.” And with those three words, Ford Madox Ford captures perfectly the scenes of slaughter in which millions, an entire generation, the best of England, did what those who held the strings of power told them to do, and in the fields of Flanders played their final deathlike game. Quite willing to be one of them, Christopher Tietjens somehow survives the war. What he and Valentine feel for each other survives as well, but nothing else is the way it was. Whether for the better or the worse is a question that, whatever you and I might think a hundred years later, Christopher Tietjens would not have had the slightest doubt how to answer.