A few months ago I wrote about the striking similarities and also the profound differences between two of the greatest English writers of the Twentieth Century: Ford Madox Ford and Evelyn Waugh.
I chose to conduct my comparison between them based on their war novels because in both subject matter and scope they had a great deal in common. Unfortunately, for most people these works remain obscure. Evelyn Waugh has by far the greater following today, but only die-hard fans have read (let alone heard of) his Sword of Honour trilogy.
Ford Madox Ford has (unjustly) fallen into obscurity, and while HBO produced a miniseries on his Parade's End series, I doubt that it drove many people to pick up the books, which remain difficult to obtain.
Upon reflection, a better basis would be the most popularly known works of the two authors: Ford's The Good Soldier and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
If one does a search for Ford's work, this is by far the most popular option and there are many editions available for purchase. Ford himself considered it his masterpiece (admittedly this was before he wrote Parade's End), and critics (which have the benefit of reading the latter work) still prefer The Good Soldier.
Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand, is quite widely known, not only as a book but also as a peerless television adaptation. (There is a movie, but no one should watch it.)
With those preliminaries out of the way, let's dig in.
Points of Similarity
Right from the start we can note some significant similarities. Both books are narrated in the first person by a participant who is looking back at the events described. Ford's narrator is John Dowell, an American of an old Philadelphia family married to Florence Hurlbird, who is from a prominent Connecticut family.
Dowell clearly is proud of his lineage, and considers himself part of the gentry class, but socially he is still outside the British world of the landed aristocracy. He is comfortable among them, but not one of them.
Waugh chooses Charles Ryder to narrate his work, and while is comes from money and is able to gain entrance to Oxford, he is socially inferior to the sons of the aristocracy with whom he interacts.
Both men marry poorly, and both will feel the sting of adultery by their wives.
The tales cover a considerable amount of time, with Ford's running more than a decade while Waugh's spans about twenty years. Both stories take place amidst the background of material comfort, and eulogize a social scene whose day has already passed. Ford is documenting the sunset of the Edwardian Age when the idle rich could spend their days visiting spas and taking "cures" for whatever hypochondriac condition they've decided they have.
Thus, the scene constantly shifts as they cycle to various resorts and only at the end to we get to see the home of the primary subject of the novel, the estate of Captain and Lady Ashburnham.
As the name suggests, Waugh's tale centers around the hereditary seat of the Marquess of Marchmain, Brideshead. Charles first encounters the place on holiday from Oxford and is slowly drawn into the dysfunctional world of the Flyte family through his friend Sebastian. The scene shifts several times, including the family's London residence, Oxford, and also Venice, where Lord Marchmain lives in comfortable self-imposed exile.
Both tales therefore take place within the comfortable circuits of the upper classes.
The Wimp vs The Aesthete
One of the most significant differences is the portrayal of the narrator. John Dowell is about as unreliable as one can get, constantly shifting his story as new information is revealed. He comes across not only as a cuckold, but a rather meek and gullible one at that. Clearly Ford is taking aim at the social rules of the time, which required a great deal of hypocrisy to maintain the veneer of respectability. The Ashburnhams and the Dowells are quite contemptible in their own ways, and there's plenty of commentary already out there on the deeper meanings of the roles.
Suffice it to say that no one really comes out as either decent or even sympathetic. No doubt Ford - who was already casting aside moral restraint in his own life - was making a pointed statement about everyone else who would presume to judge him. He does the same Parade's End, having his main character (Christopher Tietjets) announce that just about every aristocrat is the product of an adulterous relationship.
One weakness of Ford's book is that Dowell is so much of a wimp. It's hard to conceive that such a meek creature can even exist, let alone avoid almost immediate bankruptcy. Even the most robust fortune can be squandered, and Dowell shows no evidence of prudence.
Charles Ryder, by contrast, is far more realistic and therefore sympathetic. Like John, he teases out information slowly, often forcing a reappraisal of what's going on after key facts are revealed, but he is far more reliable as a narrator.
His character is also much more complex. Chilled by the death of his mother, he is something of an introvert and the exuberant and eccentric behavior of Sebastian Flyte comes as a revelation to him. Some readers have insisted that the relationship is homosexual, but this obviously false. Ryder wants to be Sebastian, not have sex with him. Moreover, Waugh himself has never pulled punches regarding homosexuality in his writing and the presence of the flamboyantly gay Anthony Blanche in the book is proof of that. Waugh skillfully leads the reader to the suggestion of a relationship, however, because he wants to make it clear that Ryder is utterly obsessed with the Flyte family.
It is worth noting that Charles' idolization of Sebastian is paralleled by John's admiration for Captain Ashburnham, but the situation is profoundly different. Captain Ashburnham is of course sleeping with Mrs. Dowell (and other women as well), and John has a perverse admiration for his way with women and exploitative assertiveness. It is a creepy obsession, filled with self-loathing masked as compassion.
By contrast, Charles' friendship with Sebastian slowly fades as young Lord Flyte descends into uncontrolled alcoholism. As the story proceeds, Charles' friendship with Julia Flyte cements the notion that he wasn't so much in love with Sebastian as with the lifestyle and status of the Flyte family as a whole.
Another contrast can be found in the way Charles decides to leave Oxford and strike out on his own as a painter. While John Dowell is a man of refinement, Charles Ryder is a true aethete, fascinated by art and composition.
Of course, Charles will eventually become a captain in the British Army, and Waugh's description of his disillusionment of military service (likening it to a failed marriage) remains one of the great passages of English literature. This also puts him in stark contrast to John Dowell who ends the story as he starts it: a hopeless caregiver.
A Question of Faith
Both novels can be read as tragic stories, chronicling dysfunctional relationships that mark the highest levels of society. However, Brideshead Revisited has a secondary purpose: it is a conversion story.
Several characters in the course of the book have chances to choose Ford's ideal outcome of throwing aside convention and proceeding with their heart's desire. Indeed, given the eroded morality of the 1930s, such a move carried much lower social costs than in Edwardian England.
However, Waugh flips the script, and in the process demonstrates that there are other considerations more important than one's temporary satisfaction. Life isn't about just us, it's about faith as well, and how our actions help or harm others.
Contrast this with Ford's story which ends miserably for almost everyone. The one exception is Captain Ashburnham's wife Leonora, an Irish Catholic who Ford's narrator distrusts and later vilifies - but always in a backhanded, apologetic way. He even remarks near the end of the tale how Catholics have "queer, shifty ways" but always end up right.
It is important to recall that Ford himself converted to Catholicism, married and had children before launching into a series of open affairs, one of which resulted in a lawsuit. He never reconciled and for the rest of his life seemed determined to find a perfect romantic happiness beyond the constraints of society and faith. He didn't.
By the end of his life, his reputation and literary influence - two things he treasured - were in decline and the writers he once nurtured are alleged to have backed away from him. One reason he fell into obscurity is that he had no champion to promote his work.
Waugh's final years were not particularly easy as money and ill-health continually afflicted him, but because he maintained an intact family, it was possible for them to sustain his reputation after his death. Of his many children, Auberon Waugh became an accomplished writer in his own right, and his son (Alexander Waugh) has continued to sustain the family's literary name.
It's interesting to note how many writers are indebted to a literary heir to keep their reputation alive. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis come to mind, and there are other examples of how "literary societies" only come to fruition if there's someone dedicated enough to get them going. Ford Madox Ford spent several years teaching at Olivet College in Michigan, but you'd never know it from their web site. But I digress.
A key point is that Waugh doesn't show faith as way to obtain a traditional happy ending. Many of the characters who find it (or reclaim it) are often worse off than before.
But what they get in return is a sense of purpose, and renewed strength to sustain them. The line of the Marchmain family will come to an end in the present generation, but in the process, faith will be restored in its members and spread to others whom it otherwise would not have reached. That's a good and worthwhile thing, more important than who owns a lavish estate.
Faith was a major part of Waugh's war novel, and it also permeates Brideshead Revisited. Ford's books carry no such message and while The Good Soldier has a far more complex and innovative structure and style than Waugh's work, it's ultimately empty. It can in fact be dismissed a story of miserable people doing miserable things to each other and lying to themselves about it.
Waugh's portrait of the Marchmains is one of a family is slow collapse, but there's so much more going on that people continue to turn to it for enjoyment and inspiration.
As an admirer of both, I unquestionably enjoy Brideshead Revisited more. Repeated readings bring renewed appreciation for Waugh's talent. The Good Soldier doesn't have the same effect, and while one can go back and admire Ford's craftsmanship, the story itself is just unpleasant to read.
Still, as I said in my other piece, Ford's writing was known and available to Waugh. If his tale of the idle rich is inferior to that of Waugh, it is still an important milestone in literary development. Both books are well worth your time.