Monday, November 25, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's LAST POST

A lot of people -- including no less a figure than Dorothy Parker -- have bagged on this final novel in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End quartet, but Last Post might actually be my favorite of the sequence. And largely for the same reasons that Parker et al have found it an unsatisfactory read.

I suspect this is largely because everyone expects this last novel to just wrap up Chrissie and Valentine's love story -- which it does, sort of -- but Last Post throws a bit of a curve ball, if I may use an American baseball metaphor about this veddy veddy British novel. For Last Post is told almost entirely from the points of view of Parade's End's ancillary characters, particularly Chrissie's much older brother, Mark Tietjens. And Mark Tietjens had some kind of stroke or attack or idiopathic something* on Armistice Day, leaving him paralyzed and speechless, communicating with eye blinks alone.

Sharing internal narrative duties are his life-long lady love, the French actress he "took up" in a very businesslike arrangement early in his youth and only married after his idiopathic violent unknown event left her potentially financially vulnerable to the machinations of Chrissie, or, really, Chrissie's estranged wife, the magnificent and malicious Sylvia.
Marie Tietjens has only been obliquely referenced before this novel, but swiftly becomes a character whose experiences and perspectives are a pleasure to share, the only Tietjens-or-Tietjens-by-marriage who actually appreciates the thousand-some acres of Yorkshire, the famously massive cedar tree and the ancient grey house of Groby. Marie has long had her heart set on someday retiring to the French countryside, marrying some nice undemanding landholder, and ending her days as mistress of a nice old agricultural establishment; since the war put paid to that and so Groby becomes her paradise instead, where she does a nice job dealing with the chickens and the cider presses and doesn't seem to mind that she also has to minister to an invalid.

Marie's pleasure is contrasted with the displeasure of Sylvia's life-long tantrum, which in this last book takes the form of renting out Groby (control over which Mark and Chrissie turned over to her earlier in the quartet) to an insufferable rich American woman who entertainingly claims "spiritual descent" from Madame de Maintenon (but who keeps insisting Marie Antionette was mean to her. Um.) and who considers it to be rich Americans' job to take over for the ancien regime, not by replacing it with democracy, but by supplanting Europe's hereditary aristocracy like a brash young understudy edging out the aging prima donna.The fact that the unseen (for the whole novel!) Chrissie is now making his living selling off the prima donna's clunky old unwanted antique furniture to furnish the understudy's homes in America is an enjoyable irony on which no one in the story comments. The hereditary aristocracy, both Tietjens brothers have been seen to observe in these novels, is pretty much played out, exhausted, never really up to the task of governing the simpler pre-War world they ruled, let alone this complicated modern one everybody sees coming.

It all serves to comment somewhat bitterly, perhaps, on how completely things both have and haven't changed as a result of the Great War. Which is really, after all, what these novels are for, pitting as they do "The Last Tory", the "18th Century" Chrissie Tietjens against the 20th century. We don't have to do much thinking to figure out who's going to win that one.

It would thus be easy to dismiss Parade's End as so much reactionary harrumphing, but that would be an error. As I've mentioned, both Tietjens brothers come around to the idea that maybe the existence of a hereditary "administrative class" was never all that great an idea to begin with, so while neither of them is eager to embrace the new world they see coming, unlike the types that nowadays bray about being conservative, the brothers Tietjens are trying neither to hang on to power nor to use what power they do have to thwart progress. The world can go harum scarum if it wants; they're going to stay in their little corner of the 18th century and enjoy it while it lasts; it looks like it can last at least until the next generation is grown up. That, they seem to say as "Last Post"** is blown over the story, will have to do.

*A doctor describes what's wrong with Mark as "fulminant hemiplegia" which is one of those Latin terms that basically just describe what is wrong (in this case, extremely sudden paralysis of half of the body) in Latin and sheds no actual light on what is wrong. Various others in the novel -- including Mark's lover and later wife Marie -- seem mostly to regard this as something Mark chose, as his final withdrawal from the stupidities of early 20th century social life and his responsibilities therein. There may be an actual medical component to Mark's problem, they concede, but it could have been overcome or at least accommodated had he wanted to, but Mark's not even going to try to overcome it, and prefers his new life as someone to be waited on hand and foot and propitiated like a god.

**Sort of the British version of "Taps".

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