Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a quartet of novels first published between 1924 and 1928, is a work profoundly concerned with time and change, slippages and fractures, endings and beginnings. Himself a survivor of the Somme, Ford here looks back at the Great War and the years immediately surrounding it with a focus on the experiences of Christopher Tietjens, “son of a Yorkshire country gentleman” (PE [Carcanet edition, 2010-11], i.6) with traditionalist values, his serially unfaithful wife Sylvia, and the suffragette Valentine Wannop, who falls in love with him and finally becomes his mistress. Partly “[a]n elegy for an England that was no more” (Max Saunders), the work also represents a constructive engagement with issues of societal transformation.
Threads of classical reference and allusion weave through the tetralogy. On one level, for example, Parade’s End can be seen to resemble Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room in offering a variation on the nostos theme: Christopher returns from the War not to a Penelope but to a vindictive wife who destroys the great tree on the Yorkshire estate that symbolizes the continuity of the family and the past itself, and, in its explicit association with marriage (PE iv.80), strongly evokes Odysseus’ bed (Hom. Od. 23.177-206). The main aim of this paper, however, is to explore another classical theme that relates closely both to the central tension of the work between past and future and to the place of Classics in contemporary culture and society.
Amid the battles on the western front, Tietjens and a fellow-officer, McKechnie, engage in a literary contest. Tietjens undertakes to write a sonnet in two and a half minutes to rhymes set by McKechnie, while McKechnie, a “Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prize man” (PE ii.15), says he will translate it into Latin hexameters in three. Tietjens provokes the contest as a distraction; at the same time, it reconfigures the War into something familiar to men of their class and education, and thus controllable. But the meaninglessness of the exercise is underscored by McKechnie’s determination, and yet inability, to complete his task, in conditions in which he is mentally disintegrating. Much later, the translation still not done, Tietjens dismisses McKechnie as a Latinist, whose constant versifying in the mess amounts to no more than rendering into tags; “[t]hat was, presumably, what Oxford of just before the War was doing” (PE iii.121). McKechnie’s institutionally acquired knowledge of Latin, then, is—as Tietjens recognizes for his sonnet—just a trick, its possession a status-marker in a world now being swept away. Ironically, the tags quoted, both from Aeneid 2, comment poignantly on the War.
But Latin is associated too with progress and positive change. A running thread identifies Valentine Wannop as “an admirable Latinist,” “the best Latinist in England” (PE iii.122, iii.213); in her first serious encounter with Tietjens, she challenges his Latin pronunciation and corrects a misquotation from Ovid. Taught by her late father, a Classics professor with enlightened views on women’s education, Valentine, who becomes a woman with “earning capacity” (PE iii.48), a physical instructor at a girls’ school, embodies female possibility at a time when the male prerogatives of war and politics have brought Europe to collapsing point (Tom Stoppard’s recent television adaptation embellishes the picture by having her defend Marie Stopes’ Married Love as reading for schoolgirls). In keeping with this, Valentine’s mastery of Latin—and its ossification in the hands of McKechnie—represents a striking challenge to the powerful association of Classics with men, so evident (but also undermined) in the work of Woolf. At the same time, Valentine eschews a career as an intellectual, desiring rather “to lie in a hammock beside a blue, tideless sea and think about Tibullus” (PE iii.57), in her own rejection both of war (cf. esp. Tib. 1.10) and of the uses to which male Classics is put.
Refracting the Great War