The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

ford-tietjensNo, this one isn’t about the Kinks: I just stole the subtitle from their album Arthur.

If you had asked me six months ago who Benedict Cumberbatch was, I’d have hazarded that he was a minor character in a novel featuring Bertie Wooster.  Happily, in the interim, I’ve discovered otherwise and it seemed that for a few weeks, the actor was popping up everywhere I turned: as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, as the eponymous Sherlock in my Netflix queue, in the latest edition of the Star Trek franchise, in August: Osage County, and in 12 Years of Slave.  What sold me on his performances, though, was his lead in the HBO miniseries Parade’s End.

During my undergraduate years reading modern British literature, I encountered many novels that addressed the changes that happened to British society in the wake of Victoria’s reign, and in the advent of the First World War.  I was talking to a friend of mine about this theme the other day, and he smiled and quipped, “Oh you mean the Downton Abbey syndrome.”  He’s not far off base.

It’s a theme that fascinates me, and even forms part of the allure of In Search of Lost Time, so it’s not an entirely British thing.  But the Brits are what I know and love best.  Lately, as I’ve been trying to recover my own past, those glorious youthful years of my twenties in particular, I’ve been drawn back into that world.

ford-good-soldierIt started with the availability of good, cheap (often free) editions of many of the novels I loved an an undergraduate as Kindle eBooks.  In a fit of acquisitiveness, I snagged Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.

What I chiefly remembered about The Good Soldier was the unreliability of its narrator, John Dowell.  (Ford was a close friend of that other master of the unreliable narrator, Joseph Conrad; the two even co-authored a largely and probably justifiably forgotten novel, Romance.)  The plot concerns two couples, the American Dowell and his faithless wife Leonora, and the English Ashburnhams, Edward (the titular “good soldier”) and Florence.

Edward is Leonora’s equal in faithlessness, and indeed one of the novel’s devastating revelations for Dowell is that the two have been carrying on an affair for almost the entire span of their acquaintance.  And yet while Dowell despises Leonora for her weakness, he persists in his assessment of Ashburnham as the embodiment of all that is noble in the spirit of the British aristocracy.  He almost can’t help himself: it is the inherent goodness of his nature, his sympathy for unfortunate women, that makes him indulge in serial adultery.  Dowell is foolish, naive, and blind when it comes to his wife, and he learns that lesson.  But he never seems to be able to bring himself to accuse Ashburnham of a similar level of deceit and corruption.  Dowell remains to the end faithful to his romantic vision of Ashburham.

And to the end, even on this second reading, I couldn’t figure out how Ford wanted us to respond to Ashburnham.  Dowell is clearly a fool, and yet although we see Edward only through his eyes, we never seem to be allowed to forget his inherent nobility, even as his flaws are progressively revealed.

ford-parades-endWhen I turned next to Parade’s End, I found myself confronted with the same inability to definitively judge the character of the tetralogy’s protagonist.

Christopher Tietjens, the “last Tory,” embodies all the expected, accepted virtues of the English aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century, and paramount among them are duty and decency.  This gets Tietjens in a world of trouble.  He provides unending financial support to his scheming, self-aggrandizing friend Vincent McMaster.  He holds dear his ancestral home, Groby,  with Groby Great Tree, the massive arboreal emblem that stands in front of the family mansion, so large that it blocks the light from entering the home.  He is a man of totally upstanding character and a man of incredible weakness at the same time.

Two women torment Tietjens in very different ways.  His wife Sylvia is a sophisticated socialite who loves and hates him in equal measure.   She is a modern woman in so far as she has thrown off allegiance to the social values of the aristocracy, while continuing to enjoy the perks of being part of it.  Tietjens, for his part, is bound by his moral code to her, no matter how hatefully she treats him.

Valentine Wannop (one of the more unfortunate names in modern British literature) is a modern woman in a very different way.  She is middle class, at best, and fervently committed to the highly divisive, if not downright suspect, cause of women’s enfranchisement.  Plain, modest, she is like Sylvia a woman of stark contrasts, at once diffident and self-effacing in some situations, forthright and vocal in others.

Valentine and Tietjens meet on a golf course where she and a friend stage a guerrilla action of sorts in pursuit of the female vote.  Subsequently, Valentine appeals to Tietjens to rescue her friend from the police, and a long, convoluted plot action results in Tietjens and Valentine finding themselves in a compromising situation at daybreak: though they have behaved virtuously despite their mutual attraction, the appearance of impropriety sets the struggles of the novel’s plot in action.

Tietjens, like Ashburham before him, can not help himself when it comes to damsels in distress, and his moral principles on this score land him in morally compromising situations.  If Edward Ashburnham gives in too easily to his pleasures, Christopher Tietjens can do nought but follow his honor.  Both men create havoc through their actions for those around them, and Ford seems to be bemused by the impossibility of living properly in a time of vast, wrenching social change.  The new order has a whiff of disrespectability about it, but the old is incapable of meeting the challenges brought with the advent of the twentieth century, the collapse of the aristocracy and its wealth, and the devastations, moral, physical, political, and social, of the Great War.

In The Good Soldier, Dowell’s blinkered belief in the values and behavior of the British gentleman thoroughly undo him, and yet he can not fault the man who betrays those values.  Throughout Parade’s End, Tietjens remains staunch through personal, familial, and national crises that bring him only unhappiness; he relies on his code of honor even as it brings his house crashing down upon him—in a fit of spite, Sylvia has Groby Great Tree cut down and used for kindling.

Ashburnham is ultimately decadent, and it is only the foolish American Dowell who believes otherwise.  Tietjens is a trickier character to parse, and I think a more sophisticated study of the social values of the Age of the End of Empire.  When I first read these novels as a young man of 20 or 21, I found it easy to despise Dowell and Ashburnham, and found Tietjens to be romantically heroic.  Now my judgements of both have mellowed a bit, or drifted towards a complicated, ambivalent middle ground.  Both men’s actions spring from noble depths, from the desire to protect the defenseless (and this motivates Tietjens greatly in the trenches of France).  But both find their moral equipment short of challenges they confront.  The space of perhaps a decade between the writing of the novel and the tetralogy seems to have given Ford hope that something could be salvaged from the ruins of the Empire, and he invests the story of Christopher Tietjens with that hope.

And so we come back to Benedict Cumberbatch and his portrayal of Tietjens in the HBO miniseries.  It’s a fine job, and Cumberbatch has a physical trick of causing his chin to pucker tremulously while maintaining a steely gaze.  It’s suggestive of a man refusing—almost—to flinch when he feels the torture come upon him.  And it captures the ambiguity of Tietjens’ position beautifully.  And romantically.

The series is a blatant bid to capitalize on the popularity of Downton Abbey, and it is visually designed to appeal to just that romance of the Empire, and to deny its fading despite the narrative arc that demands the dissolution of the old social order.  Cumberbatch, with his hair dyed blond, and especially when he’s wearing a hat, is meant to be easily mistaken for Matthew Crawley.  But to his credit, and to the series’ overall, far more of the tragedy seeps through the glamour in Parade’s End.  And if there is less ambiguity overall about Tietjens’ character, if he is seen as at least heroically principled, well, I’m still enough of a romantic at heart to enjoy that.  It’s a balm that salves the experience of reading the novels.

I went looking for a trailer on YouTube to entice a reader who hasn’t seen the television adaptation, and found this wonderful BBC documentary on the making of the series.  Oddly, it makes me want to read the books again.

 

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