Guide: an A to Z ramble through the peaks of great literature (abridged)

F is for Ford

The Good Soldier

by Ford Madox Ford

This is the saddest story I have ever heard and the saddest part about it is that I'm in it and didn't even know!
My wife and I knew Captain and Mrs Ashburnham as well as it was possible to know anybody, and yet, maybe not, as you'll soon discover. Being a rich American married couple, Florence and I found ourselves in Europe flittering away our time visiting the haunts of the idle rich and spending July to September each year in the health spa of Nauheim, Germany. From this you'll guess that one of us had had a heart condition. No? Well it was Florence who had had the heart condition and it was in order not to exacerbate that condition that, after crossing the wide Atlantic to France, we were unable to step cross the narrow English Channel to England, our original destination. You'll guess from my use of the past tense that Florence is now dead. Well she is! Do pay attention to the nuances.

Captain Ashburnham also had a heart condition which is why the four of us used to meet up each year at Nauheim, all being disgustingly rich with inherited wealth and suitably idle as good people usually are. The Ashburnhams were from Hampshire where Florence's ancestors came from originally and it's from there that I'm telling you all this stuff now but I'll explain why that is by and by because I feel the need to skip forward to the past again.

The four of us: Florence; Leonora and Edward Ashburnham; and myself, were so well suited, so contented in each other's company. How then could it all have come crashing down? Such a perfect, refined group, with the same tastes, the same values, the same unearned wealth, what an exquisite step we danced together– a minuet no less. No! It was all false, false! It was all a mad gig, a salacious tango, a lewd samba, a…..oh you get the idea.

How could it have happened? Edward was such a good sort, an excellent magistrate, a fine soldier, a man you could trust with your wife. And I did, damn it.
How could Florence have done this? How could she have managed it in the time? The only occasions she was out of my sight was while I was taking my Swedish exercises. Let that be a lesson to all you men. I just didn't see it coming. As it turns out, Florence didn't have a heart condition after all. Now poor Edward is dead too. As it turns out Edward didn't have a heart condition either. Are you keeping up so far? This is complicated for me too, you know!

I'll tell you what, why don't you sit down by the fire opposite me and I'll make you a nice cup of tea while I work out how to tell this tale properly.

Florence's family lived in Stamford, Conneticut though I first met her in New York. Her uncle Toby was an extraordinary loveable man, a factory owner who, when he retired, decided to undertake a world tour. He was accompanied by Florence and a young man called Jimmy whose purpose was to keep Uncle John out of any stressful situations. This was because Uncle John had a heart condition just like Florence. He died at the age of eighty-four. I inherited all his wealth when Florence died just five days later. It turns out that Uncle John didn't have a heart condition after all, just like Florence. He had bad lungs. Now there's a thing.

What? Yes, I know I'm digressing again but this is 1929 and we modern story-tellers have to abandon those false gods like structure and chronology in order to make our tales more believable And if you've got a problem with this just wait until you read Finnegan's Wake!

Why don't you have a nice toasted teacake to go with your tea? So, where was I? Oh yes, how we first met the Ahburnhams. Well that happened one night at diner in the hotel at Nauheim. Edward and Leonora joined us at our table. They were such a perfect couple. A perfect, perfect relationship. They were the model of morality. Edward was extraordinarily good-looking, with fair hair and a perfect uniform. He had equisite taste and always knew where to aquire the very best of everything. Leonora was his perfect partner, gay and beautiful. Perfection itself.

So began those nine years of uninterrupted tranquillity. You can imagine my surprise when Leonora told me at the end of those nine years that her husband had been a sexual philanderer who had been involved in numerous affairs with women of all stations and had actually come to Nauheim from his army posting in India in pursuit of his latest passion.
These dalliances had led to him being blackmailed and Leonora had had to take charge of their affairs – financial affairs that is, in order to stop them being declared bankrupt and to keep up appearances. Not only had I been completely mistaken about the perfection of their marriage, I had to contend with the horrible thought that they weren't rich after all!

So how had this all come to pass? Florence had insisted that we should travel to Europe when we agreed to marry. No sooner had we boarded the ship to France than she confronted me with some news.

"There's something I forgot to mention before you married me"

"Oh yes?"

"I can't possibly have sex with you."

"Oh? Headache?"

"Weak heart"

"Fair enough.

"To be honest, I'm not really interested in sex".

"Me neither."

"And I don't really love you anyway"

"Me neither. We're so perfectly matched, aren't we! Does make this a potentially dull story though" "I'm not really interested in stories".

"Me neither. That should make my telling of it easier, or maybe not "

Leonora knew all about Edward's affair with Florence as she was to tell me all those nine years later.
She also knew about Florence's affair with Jimmy. Jimmy who had accompanied Uncle John and Florence on their world tour as I've mentioned earlier, or if I haven't I will later, was the real reason why Florence wanted me to travel to Europe with her. They had resumed their affair right in front of my eyes and I hadn't even noticed. Isn't that a surprise. I looked at Leonora after she told me the terrible truth.

"She must have been having sex with everyone except you and me!"

Leonora gave me a sheepish look but said nothing.

"You didn't!"

Of course, I was much more appalled by the revelation that Jimmy had been Florence's lover than I had been by hearing of her affair with Edward. Well, Jimmy was poor! Yes I know Edward was too as it turns out but I'm losing track of what I do know and when I came to hear about it.

I recalled the night that Florence died. She came rushing into the hotel where I was having a drink with this perfect stranger, Mr Branshawe. She stopped dead when she saw Mr Branshawe sitting with me then rushed off to her room. Mr Branshawe then told me he recognised my wife and that he'd seen her coming out of Jimmy's room late one night when she was on her world tour with Uncle John. How unlikely is that then, meeting this perfect stanger who had witnessed my wife's infidelity? But that's how things happen in real life, you know. Anyway, Florence died that night of her weak heart as I thought, but which actually she never had as I've said and which Leonora told me all those years later was actually suicide which I never once suspected. As I looked at Florence's poor dead face I said, "Now I'm free to marry the girl!"

Oh yes, the girl. I was getting to that. Nancy Rufford was the ward of Leonora and Edward. A beautiful nubile young lady who adored Edward and whom Edward lusted after. You might suppose that it was a little unwise for Leonora to volunteer to be young Nancy's guardian knowing what she did about her husband. But I'm glad that she did because I lusted after the luscious little minx too, realising suddenly that I was interested in sex after all. And in actual fact Edward exercised remarkable restraint with Nancy, no doubt aware that Leonora would cut his bollocks off if he so much as smiled at her.

So it was that when I returned from America following Nancy's death, having sorted out Uncle John's affairs and transferred Florence's property into my name, I went to see Leonora and Edward at their estate in Hampshire. Yes, he was still alive at this point but not for long. Be patient! Edward told me how his love for Nancy was tearing him apart. I didn't tell him that I had my eye on her too and planned to marry her as soon as I could. Shortly after, Edward committed suicide. There, told you.

It was following Leonora's revelations about Florence and Edward and Edward and Nancy and Florence's suicide that I managed to piece together what must have happened.
Leonora had, inexplicably, come to trust Edward with Nancy and allowed them to go to a concert at the Casino together. Then, suddenly having second thoughts, she asked Florence to go along to chaperone them. Yes, Florence was still alive at this point but not for long. I'm getting to that. Edward and Nancy had decided not to go to the concert, surprise, surprise, and sat down in the park instead where Edward told Nancy of his love for her. Florence overheard all of this, came dashing back to the hotel in a fit of raging jealousy, saw me talking to Mr. Branshawe, recognised him and went dashing off to our room in even more distress to commit suicide by swallowing prussic acid. Happy now?

What do you mean I couldn't possibly conclude all that when Nancy was dead and neither Leonora nor Edward had known she had overheard Edward's expression of love for Nancy? The last thing you can accuse me of is having an over-active imagination after failing to spot so much that was happening right under my nose. Come on!

Such an unhappy tale. Fooled by my wife into thinking she had a bad heart so that she didn't have to have sex with me. Fooled into thinking she was constant when she was having it off with everyone around, even poor people. Fooled into thinking she had died of a heart attack when she had committed suicide. Fooled into thinking that Uncle John had a bad heart when really he had bad lungs. Fooled into thinking Edward had a bad heart when he was busy chasing everything in a skirt. Fooled into thinking Leonora and Edward were a perfect, perfect couple. Fooled into thinking Edward was both good and rich when he was actually poor and therefore not good. Is it any wonder that young Nancy ended up going mad? Didn't I mention that? Well she did. Poor me.

So isn't this the saddest story you've ever heard? Then again, I did inherit Uncle John's fortune as well as Florence's property in England after her unfortunate suicide. A suicide that rid me of a loveless marriage and left me free marry to the beautiful, pubescent Nancy after Edward's unfortunate suicide. And Nancy's so gaga that she doesn't even realise she's married to a ridiculous old fool. When you come to think about it, things couldn't have worked out much better for me if this story had been planned!