'Perhaps the future of the world then was to women?' - Parade's End turns 100

'Perhaps the future of the world then was to women?' - Parade's End turns 100
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If the centenary is an appropriate anniversary for assessing a book’s staying power, then it’s probably about time to acknowledge that Graham Greene was wrong.

The "Brighton Rock" author made the rookie mistake of trying to look through the mists of time when he declared: “There is no novelist of [the 20th century] more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.”

But if, 100 years after its first volume was published in April 1924, you went searching for a copy of "Parade’s End" in your local bookshop, you might find yourself more unlucky than if you were looking for, say, a paperback of Greene’s "The End of the Affair", or indeed "Brighton Rock", whose iconic orange Penguin cover can now be found printed on mugs, tote bags - even aprons.

Greene would never have been able to predict any of this. Probably the aprons would have unnerved as much as pleased him. But the relative obscurity reserved for Ford Madox Ford would have been the source of particular dismay.

Ford Madox Ford playing solitaire by Stella Bowen, 1927
Ford Madox Ford playing solitaire by Stella Bowen, 1927 - Wikimedia Commons

Because it was not just Ford’s work which earned him the respect of his fellow writers. He was also responsible in no small part for their successes, having founded two prominent literary journals.

Here he published work by modernist writers including D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Jean Rhys, many of them unknown before Ford’s encouragement.

As for his own writing career, Ford is probably best known for "The Good Soldier", published in 1915. "Parade’s End" comes a close second, but compared with the slim "The Good Soldier" it's a more daunting prospect for readers.

Originally published as four separate books between 1924-28, "Parade’s End" charts the wartime experience of Christopher Tietjens, a grey-eyed, blond-haired member of the English gentry.

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford
Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford - William Orpen, Imperial War Museum/Megan Wilson, Vintage

The novel opens before the war, with Tietjens working as a respected civil servant. His estranged wife, Sylvia, is a promiscuous, sharp-tongued socialite, and Tietjens’ attempts to seek a rapprochement in the marriage are a recurring source of tension and despair.

Meanwhile, Tietjens meets a suffragette named Valentine Wannop. He soon decides to spend a lot more time with her.

When war does break out (and Ford makes a point of never describing the war itself too full-throatedly) we are invested not just in the fate of Tietjens, who has gone off to fight, but also in the separate wartime fortunes of Sylvia and Valentine.

This odd love triangle doesn’t just provide a great deal of character interest; it also illuminates the period of immense social change being ushered in towards the end of the Edwardian period.

The biggest catalyst of change is of course the war itself. But before this, the women’s suffrage movement of which Valentine is a member has started to really threaten a certain kind of dominant male worldview.

Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Christopher Tietjens
Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Christopher Tietjens - Nick Briggs/BBC/Mammoth Screen

Ford scorns this worldview from the very first page.

Tietjens and a colleague are sitting in a well-appointed train carriage. "Their class administered the world," the narrator remarks. But the mirrors they sit beside "had reflected very little."

Later on, while speaking with Valentine, Tietjens wonders to himself: "Perhaps the future of the world then was to women?"

As for the value of the work beyond its thematic or historical insight, we'll have to follow Ford’s lead. As an editor he would advise: "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

My copy of "Parade’s End" has a passage on page 99 describing a cleric taking his seat at a breakfast table. For the sake of brevity, this is the shortest sentence:

"There was a glass of water beside his plate, and round it his long, very white fingers closed."

Read it again.

Though unassuming at first, the faintly delicate, brittle quality of this description is representative of the whole. Ford’s sentences often invert simple details: instead of describing, like you normally might, the fingers picking up the glass, he describes first the glass, and then the fingers.

When used across hundreds of pages, this awkward technique has something of a dizzying effect. All the usual beats and stresses of a novel land in all the wrong places in "Parade’s End".

If this sounds unpleasant, then that’s because it’s meant to. Ford is writing about a time in history when everything was falling on the offbeat, everything turning on its head.

Sound familiar?

Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Christopher Tietjens
Benedict Cumberbatch starring as Christopher Tietjens - Nick Briggs/BBC/Mammoth Screen

But if you’re still not sold, don’t worry. There’s an excellent TV adaptation to get you started.

In 2012 the BBC produced a widely praised miniseries, written by Tom Stoppard and starring Rebecca Hall as Sylvia and Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens. This last is an inspired bit of casting for a character who, as well as being charming, can also be off-putting, phlegmatic – surprisingly cold to the touch.

And if that still doesn’t suit, for those who can find it, the BBC also did a 1964 adaptation starring a young Judi Dench as Valentine, which sounds like equally inspired casting.