The Modernist Novel Every Reactionary Should Read

Approx Reading Time: 9 Minutes

The sense of being out of time is familiar to a lot of young men in these circles. Indeed, it has almost entered our mimetic bloodstream. ‘Born too late to see x, born too early to see y’ is a relatively common format for laments about modernity, to say nothing of the frequent refrains of ‘remember what they took from us’ and ‘we are living in the ruins of a superior civilisation.’

In some ways this is the central premise of the novel ‘Parade’s End’, Ford Maddox Ford’s early 20th century masterpiece, built around the lives of two or three central characters in the run up to, embroilment in, and aftermath of the First World War. It is a modernist novel, but only in the strictest sense of the word. In many ways it is really a 19th century society novel in the tradition of Thackeray, Eliot or even Austen, albeit one transplanted to much more uncertain times and an even more uncertain moral and ideological footing. In another sense, it is an essential tendril in the cephalopodic evolution of the modernist novel. It is coterminous with the ever-deepening introspection of the western literary mind, from Stendhal, to Dostoyevsky, to Hamsun, and then on and on, into James Joyce and his impenetrable solipsism.

Parade’s End is a very long novel when read as a single book. All the same, it is divided into a small number of lengthy but highly engaging chapters, each of them focussed on a single episode from the intensely realised point of view of a single character and their thoughts. There are precious few other modernist traits: no experimental language, no streams of consciousness, prose that is as full-bodied as anything the Victorians ever produced and only the barest whiff of radical politics. All that said, its themes and laser-focus on the interior lives of the characters is enough to qualify it as such.

The main character is Christopher Tietjens, our man out of time. Besides his Dutch surname, he is the quintessential 18th century English country gentleman. He is the sort of man who would have been a mid-ranking landowner or a leisured country parson writing academic treatises in his spare time in an earlier period. The trouble is that this is not the 18th century but the 20th, and so Tietjens finds himself classified as, at best, an eccentric.

He is ferociously intelligent, but widely considered to be wasting his talents at the British government’s Office of National Statistics and then, after the outbreak of war, in the army. He is honest and sincere to a near-embarrassing fault but is assumed to be an ironist and an unserious dandy by most of his social counterparts, used to greater degrees of guile. He spends his free time writing letters to newspapers or scribbling pedantic notes in the margins of novels and even encyclopedias but has also landed an absurdly beautiful society wife almost by accident. The novel circles around his failed attempts to defer divorce – something which most people around the couple insist is necessary but which neither husband nor wife is willing to countenance, Sylvia because of latent Catholicism, and Christopher because he is committed to a very ancient sense of honour that precludes any such thing.

Tietjens has an almost pagan attachment to old fashioned ideas of virtue and lese majeste. He is not a Christian, but he is not un-Christian either, and repeatedly expresses his refusal to divorce his wife in terms that are vague but firm: it is something that a decent gentleman simply does not do toa woman. He is equally committed to the Great Tree planted in his family’s estate: Groby Great Tree, so vast that it has started to threaten the foundations and windows of the house, yet too important a symbol of permanence and harmony with the land to be cut down.

Tietjens is patriotic, expressing his adoration for ‘every field and hedgerow’ of England and bearing an unsnobbish respect for its everyday people. Internally, he compares himself frequently to John Peel, the archetypal image of the 18th century gentleman in his great coat and hat – a nearly forgotten figure standing for doughty upper-class decency in early modern English folklore. He gives away all of his money to companions, not out of weakness or for any personal gain, but simply because it is what one does, supporting one’s intimates out of duty if nothing else.

His chief protégé, a pretentious Scottish critic called Vincent McMaster, who worms his way into a marriage with a wealthy divorcee and goes on to fortune and prestige greater than Tietjens’, does not forget his charity. All the same, Tietjens does not allow him to indulge in shows of gratitude, regarding his patronage of McMaster’s early work as an entirely private and unemotional affair, not a pet project to be paraded about. With McMaster, Tietjens maintains the same magnanimous, patrician contempt he shows everyone with whom he is obliged to share the tainted 20th century, reserving a special disrespect for McMaster’s naked ambition in London literary circles.

Perhaps the central dynamic of the book is between Tietjens and his wife, Sylvia. Between them they are among the supreme creations of 20th century literature, drawn with both subtlety and depth. Sylvia is an aristocratic daughter of breath-taking beauty, yet her permanent state of existence is one that prefigures the modern condition: boredom. Despite the luxury of her surroundings, her many glamorous parties, affairs with society playboys, and the passionate Catholicism of her family which she has not quite rejected, she is perpetually bored. She is a sensual creature who has realised the end state of industrial western civilization: a crushing ennui which no experience can overcome, and which makes impossible any deeper cure: physical, intellectual or spiritual.

She is introduced at a German spa speaking to the family confessor: an Irish priest too intelligent to try and rattle her out of her sense of tedium with hellfire sermons or moralising. He attempts to understand the girl, her sense of alienation from her cold genius of a husband, her detachment from a world she can only call ‘dull’, but this ennui outflanks even him. There is something for any serious Catholic to consider here: the abundance and perpetual stimulation of modern life, and how it detaches us from any feeling for the most fundamental and eternal things.

Cut off from his wife by her all-consuming decadence, but unable to spurn her because of his stubborn sense of honour, Tietjens is left trapped, in a bureaucratic job, a long series of aristocratic commitments, and an infatuation he feels he cannot consummate. Staying at a country house with McMaster, he falls in love with a pretty but awkward young suffragette, Valentine Wannop. Miss Wannop is from an upper-class family fallen on hard times, her mother is an overbearing novelist whose main interest is self-promotion, and her brother is a tone-deaf Bolshevik agitator, who can only see the world in crude ideological terms in spite (or, perhaps, because) of his relative privilege. Alienated, she falls in with the suffragettes almost by default, evading arrest after a half-hearted protest against a government minister at a golf course only because of the unexpected intervention of Tietjens, bound once again by an outmoded sense of honour rather than political sympathy. A distant and unconsummated passion develops between the two: the insecure young radical and the hidebound old nobleman side-stepping awkwardly around each other, until near the end of the novel when Tietjens clumsily declares her his mistress and brings the wrath of Sylvia onto his head.

The spur to this uncharacteristic action is the First World War. Tietjens leaves the Civil Service for the trenches, haunted all the time by the outward forms of western civilization, despite standing in the middle of its brutal self-immolation. A cantankerous fellow officer called McKechnie challenges him to write a Petrarchan sonnet in two minutes, which he does easily, even under shellfire in a dugout with the dead body of a Welsh messenger boy beside him. He is visited by a woman who he hopes will be Miss Wannop, but turns out to be his wife, who has spent a long sojourn seducing staff officers and flirting with generals at cocktail parties deep behind the lines. Tietjens briefly immerses himself in the intrigue of this Janus-faced world, but ends by punching a general he drunkenly assumes to be one of her lovers, earning himself a rapid transport back to the filth of the front line he originally enlisted for.

As in his government job, we see Tietjens the military officer underemployed, commanding the respect of everyone he encounters, least of all the men, but only holding the rank of captain in an ordinary line infantry regiment. Where a man of his charisma and intellect should probably be plotting grand strategies as a staff officer or even the head of a government department, his combination of obstinacy and devotion to duty keeps him in a modest frontline post, bickering with other university men and standing by his men.

His recurring fantasies of 18th century English society are indulged in the trenches. He imagines companies of foot in the manner of the English Civil War or the Napoleonic era, organised by parish and with the son of the local squire in unquestioned command. Maddox Ford is too good a writer to bombard us with the cliches of Western Front literature: romantic poets dying in mud, doomed youth and rats the size of ponies. Instead, we see officers and men in the round: tactless NCOs, privates from the south Wales valleys wondering whether their wives are sleeping around with a local boxer back home, precocious officers picking fights over Latin declensions. The suspicion is that Tietjens enjoys the trenches, with their clear sense of order and removal from the ambiguities of life back home. He returns to England at the reluctant head of a group of friends who served together as officers, and develops a fresh resolve to advance his relationship with Miss Wannop.

The fundamental tension between Christopher Tietjens and the modern world is brought out most clearly through his interactions with his brother, Mark. Where Tietjens is a cavalier to his very soul, Mark is an archetypal roundhead: frugal in his habits, judgemental in his bearing, an idealist – in the sense that he is interested in abstract systems rather than real people and their emotions. He is also a bureaucrat, but a very successful one, heading a government department and amassing a huge personal fortune by making shrewd investments and never spending any money, except on horse-racing. He eats a simple diet of plain ham and poached eggs, is unmarried and has little interest in friendly or romantic relationships, except a strange and possibly one-sided affair with his French housekeeper.

Mark urges Christopher to divorce Sylvia and ignore his sense of honour, and repeatedly offers him money after he becomes bankrupt through over-generous support of his various hangers-on like McMaster. Naturally, Christopher is too proud to accept. Mark is baffled by his brother’s attachment to their family estate in general and Groby Great Tree in particular, seeing no practical use for the old symbol of family honour passing down the generations. Despite his cool detachment from most of life, the end of the war plunges him into a deep shock, and he does not speak to anyone for weeks. The reasons are unclear (his housekeeper assumes, amusingly, that it is horror that the British and Americans will not be taking further revenge on Germany for its treatment of France) but the implication is that he has realised that the sober, rational world of balance sheets and scientific policy-making he has worked to build does not, and cannot any longer exist. As the book states multiple times and in multiple contexts: there will be no more parades.

Parade’s End is a profound and moving account of decline, not just as it occurred in western Europe during and after the First World War, but also the realisation that it has already happened and cannot be reversed. In their respective ways, Christopher Tietjens, Sylvia, Valentine Wannop and Mark all bear a subtle and very personal witness to this. Sylvia is the spirit of late British imperialism incarnate: she has everything, but feels nothing, and so spirals down, out of any sense of responsibility to the past and future into hedonism. Her default mode is boredom, a boredom which neither sex nor drunkenness nor even faith can shake, and so she is doomed.

Valentine Wannop is drawn with lighter brush strokes than those used for Sylvia but is no less a symbol of the same decline. Her family is reduced to penury, cramming their remaining heirlooms and treasures into a suburban house in south London which she has to pay for by teaching gym at a local school. She is romantically fascinated by Tietjens, the intellectually assured and apparently wealthy aristocrat, but too caught between vague ideological experiments and a lingering commitment to propriety to do anything about it. She spends years hoping he will come and sweep her off her feet, but when he eventually does, she does not know how to respond.

She is a woman caught between ages, prefiguring the so-called liberation of the 20th century while still invested in the proper roles of the 19th. Her protests are half-hearted: she does not lecture Tietjens at any length on the need for women’s suffrage and ends up pinning her hopes on him, a powerful and well-connected man, rather than feminism in abstract. This suspension between eras is a factor she holds in common with Mark, though while she is the revolutionary woman waiting for the new century to grind into gear, he is the old Victorian rationalist reformer, left stranded by the convulsions of a less sober and logical age. His faith in reason and scientific government is proven to be nonsensical by a futile war settled by an almost random peace, and he regresses into himself, into newsprint and horses.

In the end, however, it is undoubtedly Tietjens who deserves to be an avatar for the disaffected young reactionary men of our time. He is romantic, incisively intelligent, conservative to the point of a quite radical rejection of his own era. His tastes are refined but his habits hint at social dysfunction, possibly autism. His clarity of mind and appealing convictions land him an attractive wife and a mistress, but he is only inconvenienced by and variously disinterested in both. Today, he would probably have an anonymous Twitter account and an interest in out-of-print books circulating as PDFs online.

It would be a stretch to say that Ford Maddox Ford, the fashionable early 20th century progressive, wrote Parade’s End as either a lament for a lost England, or a paean to the Faith as the only viable cure for the ills of modernity. All that said, it is hard to read his novel today and not see it in those terms – as an appeal to the ancient values of honour, integrity, and faith in higher purpose as a means of making sense of the chaos of godless liberalism, industry, and war.

Written by Alfonz Cavalier. Alfonz is a Catholic reactionary from London, England. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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