Rebelling in the name of tradition: G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy

I finally finished G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy.  It's an amusing read, has lots of great quotes in it and essentially lays out a relentlessly logical case for Christianity.

It speaks well of Chesterton's intellect that he chose to take his battle into the heart of enemy territory and fight the skeptics on the ground of their choosing.  In a series of related essays, he maps out the conventional secular and quasi-religious sentiments of the day and then destroys them.

What's interesting about his approach is that he doesn't confront them with direct rebuttals.  Instead he rhetorically gets out of their way and lets them wreck themselves.   Much of the book consists of him taking various tropes and platitudes and following them to their logical conclusion.

This is a powerful persuasive tool, and devastatingly effective against people who claim that objectivity, logic and facts are all on their side. 

The greatest weakness of the book is that I don't get many of the contemporary references.  There needs to be an annotated version in which the various thinkers, philosophers and politicians are explained in better detail so we know what exactly they wrote that Chesterton is addressing.

The best part of the book is of course his wit.  The man can turn a phrase and he's very similar to Evelyn Waugh in being able to slice someone apart in unexpected ways.  There's a passage where he addresses evolution and the neo-Darwinist concept of "higher forms of life" and notes that a German Philosopher mouse might well disagree that the cat is higher, and that life is so hateful, being eaten as soon as possible is actually a better outcome.

There are many ways to help people understand faith, and Chesterton is clearly going for the self-important crowd who are full of their own sense of intellectual superiority.  He absolutely wrecks them, and many of the claims he demolishes in this book are regrettably still being spread around by credentialed idiots who think they are the first people to come up with it.

In the present circumstances, it's essential reading.

I've also ordered his Heretics, which was the precursor to OrthodoxyHeretics is more of an attack, while Orthodoxy is technically an apologetic, outline the story of Chesterton's own conversion.  As noted, much of his conversion seems to be reactionary - he gave the popular viewpoint a try, and because it was so weak he knew it had to be wrong and the religious types deserved a closer look.

This is very similar to my experience with not just religion but many other beliefs.  In my zeal to defend my position, I study it closely enough to realize that it's spectacularly weak. 

Perhaps because its a refutation and pure attack, Heretics is less popular, but it was the genesis for Orthodoxy, so I'm looking forward to reading it.

Abortion, AIDS, Covid and shifting views on divine judgement

While American society is heavily secularized, it retains a lot of the theoretical framework that has its origins in Christianity.  One of the strongest (and paradoxically most overlooked) is that of Calvinism.

Calvinism (or Reformed Christianity as it's sometimes styled) holds that God's favor can be known in this life by visible, tangible signs.  The Elect or Anointed are there for everyone to see - their prosperity, good looks, life advantages - are proof of God's blessing.  This religious view has been secularized into a "meritocracy" where the people born into wealth and privilege are owed it through their own merit.

There are several heresies involved in this worldview and it is in direct conflict with the traditional (that is Catholic/Orthodox) view that the mortal life is but preparation for what comes after.  Devout, believing and beloved children of God may suffer terribly in mortal life, but that is part of their purification.  To the meritocrats and the Calvinists, there is no benefit to suffering in the here and now.  Bad things happening are instead a call for immediate purification so that blessings can return.

This view permeates our language and our discourse, and right now it is at a fever pitch.

I find it fascinating that abortion proponents constantly speak of women being "punished" with a child as a consequence of having sex.  There is genuine outrage that men don't give birth and have to bear the same burden.  Despite many different and effective ways to prevent pregnancy, there is a fanatical devotion to this secular sacrament, which is seen as the last line of defense for ultimate individual autonomy.

Of course, no one gets pregnant alone, and not too long ago, there was a reason sex was supposed to take place after marriage (or at least after betrothal).  A "ruined woman" was seen as fitting punishment for immorality.

The legalization of abortion was therefore a welcome liberation from the "oppression" of biology.   Women could now be as immoral as the wanted.

Similarly, when the AIDS epidemic swept through the homosexual community, the same people insisted that one could not even think it was divine judgement.  A sexually transmitted disease that was most easily spread through religiously proscribed sexual behavior was simply a thing that happened and enormous resources would have to be expended not only to cure it, but in the interim, the risk-taking behavior could not be curbed.

It's interesting to note that the State of California has decriminalized passing the disease to a sexual partner without their consent.  No harm, no foul.

In both these cases, cause and effect are irrelevant, and all right-thinking people" know that to draw lines indicating how immoral behavior can beget negative consequences is hateful nonsense.

Thus it is interesting to see how one's Covid vaccination status has become a great exception to this belief.  Unvaccinated (or maskless) people who die of the disease are widely mocked as getting what they deserve.

It's divine judgement, and cause and effect are now operative.

My point by the way is not to highlight hypocrisy, but to note that in all three instances, the underlying framework remains Calvinist.  In the first two examples, the goal is to escape punishment, which is presumably not from God but rather from the Devil.  Women not being able to abort children is evil, an infringement on their God-given freedom to have absolute control over their bodies.

Similarly the AIDS epidemic could not be permitted to change the homosexual lifestyle because freedom is the highest value, even above stopping a once-incurably fatal disease.

Yet now the righteousness is on the other side, with anti-vaxxers being justly struck down for their impiety.

While the examples are contemporary, the issue is not new.

G.K. Chesterton's writing reveals that this mentality has been around for a while, chiefly being a function of unprecedented prosperity.  People can draw various philosophical lines on how thought progressed, but the key ingredient was leisure time and increased material comfort.

Evelyn Waugh's dark satires of the Smart Set illustrated the moral bankruptcy, and it was not until his later work that he began to look at how religious people can co-exist in this environment.

I plan on incorporating this into my writing on the spirit world.  As others long before me have pointed out, unbelievers don't necessary lack faith, they simply place it before something besides God. 

A short strange trip: G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday

I've finished my first G.K. Chesterton book.  The Man Who Was Thursday was a birthday gift, and I found it amusing and well-written.  Chesterton seems to have a knack for dropping quotable phrases all over the place.  He's an aphorism machine.

His wit reminds me of Evelyn Waugh, though it the satire is not nearly as biting.  Chesterton is capable of effective mockery, but he's more benign about it.

As to the work in question, the subtitle gives the substance away: it's a nightmare rather than the detective story that it at first purports to be.

There was a strong Lovecraftian vibe about the whole thing as well.  I d0n't mean eccentric academics facing unimaginable horrors, but rather a sense of growing paranoia and warped reality.

The book is a not long, and it reads quickly.  One thing I've come to detest about the modern age is the way writers tend to pad their books.  Say what you want, none of my books are particularly long.  I like to get to the point and move on.

So does Chesterton, and he gives just enough detail to get the job done, which I also enjoy.

I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh part 2: Comparing The Good Soldier and Brideshead Revisited

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.

A meeting with G.K. Chesterton

I consider myself a pretty well-read person.  I nearly finished Livy's history of Rome; would have finished Gibbon's but for an error in shipping (two copies of Volume 5 in the boxed set!); I've read Churchill's The Second World War twice, along with The World Crisis and The Aftermath and a bunch of other stuff; I've got most of Evelyn Waugh covered, etc.

But somehow G.K. Chesterton has been outside my scope.

Well, that's now changed.  My wife got me a pair of his books for my birthday, and so I've got a new author to explore.

He's a Catholic convert like me, so at least we have that in common.  Unlike Ford Madox Ford, the conversion "stuck," which is nice.

I've just started The Man Who Was Thursday and he has a nice turn of phrase, which in my opinion is critical.  I know a lot of people who can get past Stephen King's odiously crude writing style because they like the stories.  Nope, can't do it.  It's like driving on a punishingly rough road - at a certain point, the promised pleasures of the destination just isn't worth it.

All of which is to say: I may have a new favorite author.  I'll keep you posted.


My first 15 years as a Catholic

Traditionally, converts to Catholicism are received into the Church on Easter.  Because I'm special, my family did so on Pentecost, so today marks the 15th anniversary of my conversion.

I went into it knowing it was a process rather than an event and a decade ago I tried to drive this point home as an RCIA sponsor (that's Catholic-speak for mentoring a convert).

Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years and so have I.  Two of my daughters are grown up and the youngest (who was but an infant) is now almost 16.

My understanding of God has changed a lot, too, and while some people hint that conversion will make for less troubles as the result of divine favor, that's not strictly true.  There were a number of crisis in the last decade and a half - simply joining Team Christian didn't give me immunity from adversity.

However, it did give me the means to deal with it in a positive way.

Am I a better person?  I think so.  I also think I'm more moral - not superior to everyone else, just doing a better job of living in accord with Christian values.

While I seem to sinning less, I'm more aware of my past sins, which makes me very humble.  In recent years, one of the aspects of the Church I've come to appreciate greatly is Reconciliation.  It used to be something I dreaded, but now I look forward to it.

Being Catholic also opened my eyes to a world I never even knew existed.  In Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian at one point remarks to Charles that Catholics simply see the world differently.  It's true - and once seen, it can't be unseen.

That new vision has given me a new perspective on favorite authors like Tolkien, and introduced me to new favorites like Evelyn Waugh. 

As I said, conversion is a process not an event, and I'm interested to see what the next 15 years will bring.

Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End series followed by Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy.  I had already read both works, but doing so in rapid succession really drove home how closely the two are related but also how significant their differences are.  Here are a few of my observations.

Writing Style

Ford was 30 years older than Waugh and his writing style shows it.  Ford is considered one of the first “modern” writers, and he does demonstrate some unique flourishes (and a willingness to take on hitherto forbidden topics), but his prose is very much of the Victorian era.

He goes into detailed descriptions that sometimes read like an inventory.  He can also be florid in the extreme when setting a scene, particularly when he blends this with the internal stream of consciousness of the characters.

Waugh is capable of beautiful and evocative descriptions, but most of the time he focuses on only the most crucial details, and works them into the text.  Whereas Ford might go in depth over every knick-knack on a library shelf (and highlight the titles thereon), Waugh would bring up only a couple, and do so in a such a way as to let the reader know that the rest is emblematic of this selection.

Ford is particularly fond of moving back and forth in time and also in diving deep into the characters’ inner thoughts.  This can be an interesting device, providing sort of a reverse foreshadowing, but it is also disorienting and bogs down the flow of the story.  He seems to have a particular problem with the character of Valentine Wannop, whose extended internal monologues are breathless and repetitious.

Waugh also uses internal monologues, but only when no other vehicle is available to advance the story.  He much prefers to show his characters’ motivations through action and rapid-fire dialogue.  It is much easier to “see” Waugh’s story and this is likely why there are more film adaptations of Waugh’s work.  It’s simply more accessible in a visual medium.

Dueling Protagonists:  Tietjens vs Crouchback

Ford’s creation was the archetypal Yorkshire Tory: stoic, stubborn, socially awkward but ruthlessly competent in his own way.

He is the youngest of five children and the fourth son of a landed aristocratic – and wealthy – family.  This was a unique combination for the time, since many of the great old estates were collapsing under the strain of the Industrial Revolution and changes to the tax code.

In an age where much of the English nobility was compelled to add an American heiress to the family tree, the Tietjens family stood aloof, holding considerable estates that also encompassed valuable coal fields.  They are not extravagant and there is also no lack of money.

When he is first introduced, Christopher is an analyst at the Department of Statistics, and we swiftly learn that he has an incisive if somewhat pedantic mind.  He edits encyclopedias as a hobby. 

As the story unfolds we learn that he is thrifty and has a gift for trade, particularly in antique furniture.  The crucial takeaway is that the Tietjens family is that rare bird among fictitious Edwardian landed aristocrats in being in an enviable financial situation.

When war breaks out, Tietjens obtains a commission in a Welsh regiment and serves as a transport officer, marshals replacements and also commands at the front.  He sees plenty of time in the trenches, where his lungs are weakened by exposure and gas.  He’s also “blown up” by concussive shock of a nearby shell, which leaves him physically unharmed but mentally impaired for some time.

Tietjens is aloof from his family, who seem to emerge only gradually as the story progresses.  Two of his brothers are never seen, having gone of to India with the Army before returning to the Western Front where they are killed on the same day.  His eldest brother, Mark, emerges from obscurity to become the main character of the fourth book, but there is nothing approaching affection between him and Christopher.  Their father commits suicide early on and their mothers (Christopher is the child of a second marriage) have deceased before the story begins and are rarely mentioned.

There is a sister, but she is spoken of in the text rather than spoken to.

All of this leaves Tietjens alone and aloof.

Guy Crouchback is also of a noble family, but a Catholic one, steeped in the history of their persecution in Protestant England.

Guy is also the youngest son.  His elder brother, Gervase, was killed on the Western Front early in World War I.  His next brother, Ivo, went mad and starved himself to death.  His sister is married to an indifferently religious MP, and has three daughters and a son, who is an officer in a Guards regiment.

Guy’s father is living as the story begins, and is an important influence in his life, particularly his spiritual development.

Like Christopher, Guy will seek to enlist at the start of the war, but Britain’s manpower situation in 1939 was very different from that in 1914.  During the First World War, Britain had a tiny all-volunteer army backed up by a small militia force.  The demands of total war required a massive influx of personnel.  The British had an innate dislike of conscription, and so volunteers were highly encouraged to join up as soon as possible.

By 1939, Britain had adopted conscription as its wartime method of recruiting, and while volunteers were welcome in some cases, Guy is too old (36) to be an attractive recruit. 

What this means is that the wartime experience of Ford and Waugh differed right from the start – Ford worked briefly writing propaganda, and then had no difficulty in obtaining a commission, despite being 41.  Waugh had no interest in propaganda, and was only able to get into the Royal Marines through political string-pulling because like his character, 36-year-olds with no prior military service were not considered good recruits.

Another difference is that Crouchback has no real occupation at the start of the war.  He has certain skills (speaking Italian and French), but nothing to set him apart.  He’s mentally adrift and sees war as a chance for personal redemption.

As noted above Tietjens is confident to the point of arrogance about his place in the world.

The Women:  Sylvia vs Virginia

Both men have complicated romantic relationships.  As his tale begins, Tietjens’ wife Sylvia has left him for an adulterous romp.  We swiftly learn that she is remarkably loose around men.  In fact, she tricked Tietjens into marrying her by seducing him after she thought she had become pregnant by another man.

The ruse is revealed, and Tietjens is filled with a cold fury towards her, mingled with shame at the thought that his son and heir is another man’s child.

This particular element of the plot – the paternity of ‘the child’ (his name is rarely spoken) – recurs throughout the books to the point of tediousness.  Eventually (and this is no particular spoiler), Tietjens accepts that the boy is likely his and in the oddball fourth book, this is pretty well established when the kid finally appears in person.  He looks like his father, case closed.

But it keeps coming up as point of doubt and wrath, along with musings about how much of the English aristocracy’s leaders are cuckolds.

Even in the restrictive legal environment of the time, Tietjens could divorce Sylvia, but he refuses out of pure Tory stubbornness, and thus there is a constant back and forth between him and the endlessly beautiful Sylvia, who alternately lusts after and hates her husband.

This isn’t as obnoxious as it seems, because Ford does a wonderful job of showing how English social conventions end up blaming Tietjens for everything his harpy of a wife does, even to the point where Christopher’s own kin and allies come to agree that the best thing for everyone would be for him to be killed at the front.

Guy Crouchback’s love life is much simpler.  As a Catholic, he believes marriage is an indissoluble union, and when his wife Virginia leaves him, he accepts the fact of civil divorce, but regards his chance at happy marriage as at an end. 

He still harbors some residual love for her, however, and their paths cross repeatedly.

Virginia is a familiar figure in Waugh’s other writings – beautiful, vivacious, flighty and utterly irresponsible, she the epitome of the modern "smart set" woman.  At the start of the story, she has separated from her third husband, a wealthy American who stays well clear of England.

Spirit vs the Flesh: Valentine Wannop

A key difference in the two stories is the existence of The Other Woman in Parade’s End.  This is Valentine Wannop, an intelligent, athletic Suffragette who nevertheless falls in love with Christopher and seeks to become his mistress.  Much of the story centers on if, when and how this romantic relationship can be consummated.  The title of the first book, Some Do Not-, highlights the importance of this question.

In fact, the core issue of Parade’s End is whether people should let their personal happiness be dominated by social convention.  Christopher is trapped by both an unhappy marriage and the burden of his familial responsibility.  Being a younger son, this should not have happened, but because his elder brother Mark never produced an heir and the others are dead, the weight now falls on him.

It’s just not fair.

Ford himself felt similar constraints.  After converting to Catholicism and getting married, Ford himself launched a series of adulterous relationships with literary-minded young women.  This naturally brought scandal on himself, but Ford simply moved to France and later the United States, brazening it out.

It is interesting that Sylvia Tietjens is a Catholic, and while portrayed as wanton and cruel, at one point she wishes to patch up her relationship with Christopher, only to be rejected.  Naturally this makes her even more vengeful.

One can’t help but see the similarities between this situation and that of the Marchmain family in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The fictitious Lord Marchmain was close to Ford in age, and likewise a convert to Catholicism.  After the war he abandons his responsibilities to take up with a mistress and he lives happily abroad, indifferent to the collapse of his family.

At one point, Marchmain explains himself by saying that the war was about fighting for “freedom,” and that’s what he wants – freedom from obligation; freedom to put himself first.

Waugh stridently disagrees with this viewpoint.  Like Ford, he also was a convert to Catholicism, but unlike him, the conversion “took.” 

While Waugh remained capable of vicious satire (and does not spare the Church), his later works are steeped with questions of faith and duty.

Guy Crouchback epitomizes this, and though an observant Catholic throughout the trilogy, it is only in the final book that he truly grasps the need for self-sacrifice.  His decision almost exactly parallels that of Tietjens, but in the reverse.  I cannot believe this is a coincidence.

Indeed, while both books have moving as well as wickedly funny takes on military service, there is a spiritual void at the heart of Parade’s End.  Tietjens regards God as a distant and stoic figure, finds church stuffy and conventional and essentially creates his own Tory religion that guides his actions.

Guy Crouchback's personal journey arguably goes through even darker places, but in the end he understands that larger issues are at stake than whether he’s personally happy.

I believe this, combined with the far more accessible writing style, is why Waugh continues to be read while Ford remains something of a curiosity.

Final Thoughts

Parade’s End is often considered to have four books, but the last one in the series, The Last Post, is very different from the others.  It is essentially an extended experiment in stream of consciousness writing that purports to finish the tale by giving a post-war update to the story.

It is not an easy read and there is reason to believe that Ford himself was unhappy with the result.  When Graham Greene commissioned a reprint after Ford’s death, he purposefully omitted the final volume and declared the work to properly be a trilogy.

The first book in the series is the longest, and it is very difficult at times because it dives deep into social commentary and digs into a number of minor characters.  The next two are shorter and more focused. 

Of the three, No More Parades is arguably the best, being a pure wartime story of Teitjens’ life at the front.

Though written over a much longer span of time, Sword of Honour works well as a cohesive whole and reads quickly.  As one would expect, the tone darkens as the war drags on and England suffers from hunger and bombing, but this is offset by Guy’s spiritual journey and also Waugh’s amusing take on how people ‘make out’ during the war.

There is no question that Waugh's is the superior work, but the first three books of Parade's End provide valuable insight into the Edwardian mentality and wartime Britain.