‘Perhaps the future of the world at that time was for women?’  – The End of the Parade turns 100 years old

‘Perhaps the future of the world at that time was for women?’ – The End of the Parade turns 100 years old

Despite his past, Ford Madox Ford is a surprising and beguiling beast of a novel that deserves all the readers it can get when it turns 100 this April.


If a centenary is an appropriate anniversary to assess a book’s staying power, then perhaps it is time to admit that Graham Greene was wrong.

The author of “Brighton Rock” made the first mistake of trying to explore the mists of time when he declared: “No novelist of the (20th century) is more likely to survive than Ford Madox Ford.”

But if, 100 years after its first volume was published in April 1924, you went looking for a copy of “Parade’s End” in your local bookstore, you might find yourself more unlucky than if you were looking for, say, Greene’s paper. “End of Affair”, or in fact “Brighton Rock”, which iconic orange Penguin cover can now be found printed on mugs, tote bags – even aprons.

Greene could never have predicted any of this. The aprons would probably shock her as much as she liked. But the relative anonymity reserved for Ford Madox Ford would be a source of frustration.

Because it wasn’t just Ford’s work that earned him the respect of his fellow writers. He was also largely responsible for their success, having founded two popular literary journals.

Here he published the works of contemporary writers including DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Jean Rhys, many of whom were unknown before Ford’s encouragement.

As for his writing career, Ford is probably best known for “The Good Soldier”, published in 1915. “Parade’s End” comes a close second, but compared to “The Good Soldier” thin is a more terrifying prospect for readers.

Originally published as four separate books between 1924-28, “Parade’s End” chronicles the wartime experiences of Christopher Tietjens, a grey-eyed and blond-haired member of the English nobility.

The novel opens before the war, with Tietjens working as a respected civil servant. His estranged wife, Sylvia, is a perverted, sharp-tongued socialite, and Tietjens’ attempts to find marital intimacy are a constant source of tension and despair.

Meanwhile, Tietjens meets a lawyer named Valentine Wannop. Soon he decides to spend more time with her.

When the war breaks out (and Ford insists on not describing the war itself too harshly) we are invested not only in the fate of Tietjens, who has gone off to fight, but also in the different wartime fortunes of Sylvia and. Valentine.

This unusual love triangle not only provides a major character interest; it also highlights the period of great social change brought about towards the end of the Edwardian period.

The biggest catalyst for change is undoubtedly the war itself. But before this, the women’s suffrage movement of which Valentine is a member has begun to threaten some kind of male worldview.

Ford disparages this worldview from the very first page.

Tietjens and a colleague are sitting in a well-appointed train carriage. “Their class ruled the world,” the narrator says. But the side mirrors “reflected very little.”

Later, while talking to Valentine, Tietjens wonders: “Perhaps the future of the world then lay with women?”

As for the work’s value beyond its thematic or historical insight, we will have to follow Ford’s lead. As the editor would advise: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of it all will be revealed to you.”

My copy of “The End of the Parade” has a passage on page 99 that describes a priest sitting at a breakfast table. For the sake of brevity, here is the shortest sentence:


“There was a glass of water beside his plate, and his long, very white fingers were closed.”

Read it again.

Although initially unremarkable, the faint, fragile quality of this detail is representative of the generality. Ford’s sentences often invert simple descriptions: instead of describing, as you might, the fingers picking up the glass, he describes first the glass, and then the fingers.

When used across hundreds of pages, this unusual technique has a confusing effect. All the usual rhythms and stresses of the novel land in all the wrong places in “End of the Parade”.

If this sounds bad, that’s because it’s meant to be. Ford writes about a time in history when everything was falling apart, everything was being turned on its head.


Can you hear me?

But if you’re still not sold, don’t worry. There are some great TV fixes to get you started.

In 2012 the BBC released a critically acclaimed documentary, written by Tom Stoppard and starring Rebecca Hall as Sylvia and Benedict Cumberbatch as Tietjens. The latter is an inspired piece of acting for a character who, in addition to being charming, can also be charming, phlegmatic – surprisingly cold to the touch.

And if that’s not enough, for those who can find it, the BBC also did a 1964 adaptation starring a young Judi Dench as Valentine, which sounds like an equally inspired performance.