Sunday, 15 April 2012

THE SADDEST STORY by Ford Maddox Ford

THE GOOD SOLDIER tells the story of two unhappy marriages. The narrator, an American named John is married to Florence, a heart patient. Except, as it emerges, Florence does not really have a weak heart - she has made it up so as to avoid having sex with her husband. (Obviously, this being an Edwardian novel, it isn't put quite like that) Florence then meets someone she does want to have sex with: Edward Ashburnham, an English soldier, who is unhappily married to a strict Catholic, Leonora.

There is all sorts of misery and melodrama, crowned by Florence killing herself. Edward then falls in love with his ward, the nineteen year old Nancy, who he has bought up since she was thirteen. He manages to restrain himself, which is according to Ford a big achievement. Nancy is sent away to India, and Edward kills himself in despair. I mean, honestly, get a grip. Nancy then learns of his death in a newspaper, and - get this - goes mad.

I don't know if I'm unfeeling, or what, but I just found it all totally ridiculous from beginning to end. The novel's begins: "This is the saddest story I've ever heard," which suggests to me Ford led a fairly sheltered life, and should have spent more time reading the news.

This thought clearly occurred to the publishers too. Hilariously, the novel's original title was THE SADDEST STORY, but once the First World War began the publishers wrote to him to insist the title be changed. After the first million people died at Verdun, a new definition of saddest clearly had to be contemplated.

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