After the Great War, writers began grappling with the reality of a Europe that had been torn to pieces, leaving a gaping, shell-shocked hole in the veneer that had for centuries been stretched over the bones of what turned out to be a rotting structure. The dream of Christendom was dead – it had probably died long before, betrayed by the Reformation – but the Great War was the final, inescapable death rattle. Virginia Woolf responded with To the Lighthouse. T.S. Eliot with The Wasteland. Ford Madox Ford declared that we are at Parade’s End.
These novels all strike a new, sinister tone that perhaps had not been so noticeably present in English literature prior. The weariness of the authors bleeds into the work, as all three of the examples I mention experiment with form and narration. Parade’s End, which I recently read, is a series of four novels, each one an amazingly labyrinthine and convoluted examination of varied human motivations for why we do the things we do. Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist, is the incarnation of noblesse oblige, trapped in a loveless marriage but unwilling to divorce his Catholic wife and dishonor her. He is the last Tory, a dying breed, the last man of honor in England. He is unwilling to compromise on his principles, a fact which eventually sees him lose his mind in the trenches and give his ancestral estate away to his wife and her son who may-or-may-not-be his own. Tietjens is misunderstood, hated for his generosity, taken advantage of by all, used, and abused. The War and its anti-cultural progeny destroys men like him.
I cannot help but notice a dramatic resemblance to one of the other great post-war novels, albeit one that came a bit later, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. We know that Waugh read and admired Ford. He is reported to have told a friend, “I find Ford M. Ford’s war books take my mind off my distresses. Very good and puzzling.” This was in the early 1950s, Parade’s End was published thirty years prior in the 1920s.
There are a number of intriguing connections. Both are black comedies about men whose marriages are doomed but whose honor will not allow them to end it. Both authors fought in a war as older men. Both were converts to Catholicism. In Parade’s End, Christopher Tietjens has a weak-willed friend named McMaster who writes a book about Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rossetti was the subject of Waugh’s first book, written in 1928. In the end, neither book strikes a redemptive note. For Waugh, the world is inherited by the Hoopers, grasping, unimaginative men. For Ford, the ancient tree at the Tietjen’s estate is cut down and the estate rented by crass Americans.
Did Ford influence Waugh? It seems so, and I’m sure there are more deeply researched scholarly articles out there that might make the case with absolute certainty. All I know is that textually, the two are so closely related in theme that I cannot help but think that Waugh was at least unconsciously influenced by the work of Ford Madox Ford.