In Daniel S. Burt’s book the ranks that 100 greatest novels of all time, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier comes in at number 62, sandwiched between The Age of Innocence and The Awakening. Reverse the placement of those two novels the this trilogy would make statement of sorts on the passing of the 19th century and the look ahead to the unimaginable tumult that would be the 20th century. In telling the story of the breakdown of tradition and conventions that had marked the world for several centuries with the arrival of a new century, The Good Soldier would be perfectly placed between Edith Wharton’s corrosive critique of the Gilded Age and Kate Chopin’s prediction of the coming awakening of a new normal. What neither of the books on either side of Ford’s novel (regardless of how they are arrange) contain are images of what had already become a mainstay of the novel in its relatively short life span: a portrayal of men at war.
Many might be surprised to find that the same holds true for The Good Soldier. Despite the title and despite being published as World War I was just beginning to ramp up, it is not a war novel. In fact, the original titled, The Saddest Story, was rejected by the publishers who asked the author to come up with an alternative. His reply was intended to be sarcastic, but publishers liked it enough very well in the light of the potential boom for war novels in the coming years. The fact that it wasn’t has not seemed to negatively impact the book in any way.
The original title is certainly more appropriate, but hardly an enticement. The Good Soldier is not entirely without merit in light of the novel’s tragic tale of Edward Ashburnham, a British officer whose reputation as a good soldier is able to withstand scrutiny far better than his reputation for being a good husband in a perfect marriage. If one wants to locate a war that the titular character is fighting, one can make a strong case that he is on the losing end of a sustained engagement with the temptations of other women. Ultimately, he seems to lose that battle and the reality that his marriage to Leonora was not the model of perfection it seemed to outsiders.
What has made The Good Soldier stand the test of time and elevate to the highest echelons of 20th century long-form fiction is one can only truly say this seems to be the case. In addition to the story being told in a non-linear fashion that is out of chronological order, the truth of what really happens is further complicated by odd shifts in perspective from its distinctly unreliable narrator who may or not may have gotten all the facts straight on his end before revealing them to the reader. Ford stood at the vanguard of the move toward Modernism in which the telling of the story was every bit as integral as the story itself. Indeed, pressed to describe what the actual plot of the novel is, even the most learned scholars might be flummoxed.
This lack of a easily followed narrative and the reliance of enjoyment being placed upon the appreciation of how the story is told rather than the story being told may be why to date only one serious attempt has been mounted to film. That was a 1981 BBC television production starring Jeremy Brett just a few short years before attaining legendary status with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in a BBC TV series based on the original Conan Doyle stories.