What’s wrong with Ford Madox Ford’s Catholics?

parade's_endSome time ago, more than 2 years ago in fact, I wrote a bit on Leonora Ashburham, one of the characters of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I noticed, then, she had much in common with Lady Julia Flyte of Brideshead Revisited—at least regarding her Catholic faith. Both characters are examples of very modern (and adulterous) women who seem not to care much about their religion, yet who insist on educating their children as Catholics, as if that was the only thing with some value they could pass on to them. While I was reading Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End I thought that this over simplistic description could also be applied to Sylvia, Christopher Tietjens’s wife. Yet, despite the similarities, I think there is something different, and quite sinister, in the case of Sylvia.

Leonora certainly plays with her husband, cheats on him, and abuses him in practically the same ways as Sylvia does. However, Sylvia is also evil: she might have some shortcomings as every human being does, but these shortcomings never manage to inspire pity: it is very difficult to understand her or identify ourselves with her. She inspires fear—the fear that evil inspires. This sinister presence of evil appears almost the first time the reader meets her in a German resort where her mother and Father Consett, a priest friend of the family, try to get her back to her husband. As the conversation develops, Sylvia says she will keep torturing Christopher. Father Consett eventually threatens to sprinkle holy water on her:

Father Consett put his hand beneath the tail of his coat.
‘Sylvia Tietjens,’ he said ‘in my pistol pocket I’ve a little bottle of holy water which I carry for such occasions. What if I was to throw two drops of it over you and cry: Exorcizo te Ashtaroth in nomine’. . .
She erected her body above her skirts on the sofa, stiffened like a snake’s neck above its coils. Her face was quite pallid, her eyes staring out.
‘You . . . you daren’t’ she said. ‘To me . . . an outrage!’ Her feet slid slowly to the floor; she measured the distance to the doorway with her eyes. ‘You daren’t,’ she said again; ‘ I’d denounce you to the Bishop . . .’
‘It is little the Bishop would help you with them burning in your skin,’ the priest said.

The scene is quite comic. In fact, the whole dialogue between with the priest is very funny. The first time I read the holy water scene I thought Ford was trying to portray Father Consett as an old-school priest who uses archaic speech and goes around sprinkling holy water; the kind of Catholic the modern Sylvia is leaving behind. However, the more you get to know her the more justified his threat seems to be, and the more you know Father Consett you understand he is actually a very bright and serious person. The scene might be comic, but I think it would be a mistake to take it lightly.

Note, for example, Sylvia’s description as a snake. She is not just portrayed as an animal in danger threatening to strike back: she is that, of course, but she is more than that. She is a snake, and anyone familiar with the Biblical account of The Fall will not fail to associate the snake with Devil. Ford’s imagery, in fact, seems to be draw heavily on Milton’s account in Paradise Lost:

In serpent, inmate bad, and toward Eve
Addressed his way, not with indented wave
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that tow’red
Fold above fold a surging maze, his head
Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes;
(Paradise Lost, Book 9, 495-500)

The similarities between the two texts are apparent. Sylvia’s neck is “stiffened like a snake’s neck above its coils” while the head of Milton’s snake is “crested aloft” over “fold above fold”. Ford stresses the pallid color of Sylvia’s face and her eyes “staring out,” and though no color is given to describe them we could easily imagine them being red like the carbuncles Milton mentions, that is, as “large precious stones of a red or fiery colour” as the OECD defines the word.

The intertextual relations between Ford’s text and Paradise Lost do not necessarily tell us that the parallel Devil-serpent-Sylvia should be taken seriously. It could all be just mockery: learned literary mockery, if you want. But it should at least suggest the reader that there could be something worth exploring going on.

Sylvia is threatened with the holy water right after she says she will to corrupt her child in order to torture Christopher. Corrupting, tempting, and leading astray are acts that characterise Lucifer:

I’ll settle down by that man’s side. I’ll be as virtuous as any woman. I’ve made up my mind to it and I’ll be it. And I’ll be bored stiff for the rest of my life. Except for one thing. I can torment that man. And I’ll do it. Do you understand how I’ll do it? There are many ways. But if the worst comes to the worst I can always drive him silly…by corrupting the child!’ She was panting a little, and round her brown eyes the whites showed. ‘I’ll get even with him. I can. I know how, you see. And with you, through him, for tormenting me.

Curiously enough, corrupting the child, is probably the only thing Sylvia does not actually do to make Christopher suffer. In fact, bringing her son as a Catholic, “a Papist” in Christopher words, is the only thing that “has made her a happy woman.” Once again we have the very same, and extremely curious, pattern: a morally despicable woman who, despite her behaviour, is intransigent with the faith she treasures as her most precious possession. Sylvia might be devilish, and she is, but she always would remain Catholic. I would like to suggest, rather, that she can be devilish precisely because she is a Catholic. What I mean is that Sylvia can be subject to exorcism because she can actually be evil: evil is real possibility because she believes in it, knows it, and therefore can choose it. You can be evil if you know the good and freely refuse it.

I think this is the reason why the really bad guys for Ford, as for Waugh, are always Catholics: only they, who have all the help and means to be good, can turn truly evil: corruptio optimi pessima-the corruption of the best is the worst of all.

Evil, true evil, seems to be a Catholic prerogative for Ford, a privilege the Anglican is not entitled to. Yet, the same could be said for true holiness. Christopher is consistently presented as a saint, a Christ-like figure who prefers to suffer injustice and choses not to defend himself taking all the blame. Yet, despite his goodness, I get the impression that the text always seems a bit skeptical about his “sainthood”. He is always referred to as an “anglican saint” or a “saint of the Anglican variety,” never a saint with no qualifiers. In No More Parades we are even given a definition of what Anglican sainthood means.

‘How do you define Anglican sainthood? The other fellows have canonizations, all shipshape like Sandhurst examinations. But us Anglicans . . . I’ve heard fifty persons say your mother was a saint. She was. But why?’
Tietjens said:
‘It’s the quality of harmony, sir. The quality of being in harmony with your own soul. God having given you your own soul you are then in harmony with heaven.’

Tietjens’ sainthood is harmony with his own soul. That is a very nice and beautiful definition, but certainly not a Catholic one; not even a Christian one . . . it could be Buddhist, new Age… “The other fellows”—the Catholics—have some objective standard, some external measure.

3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Ford Madox Ford’s Catholics?

  1. Your post reminds me of what George Orwell wrote about Graham Greene: “He appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish.”

    I have only a very passing knowledge of Ford and I was under impression that his conversion to Catholicism was an act of youthful whimsy,done in imitation of other fin-de-siecle writers, But your post made me think Ford was more Catholic I gave him credit for.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I’d only watched the Parade’s End miniseries when I wrote this post: http://unpleasantaccents.blogspot.com/2014/08/honour-virtue-and-not-unpleasant-accents.html so its good to see the thoughts of a Catholic who’s actually read the books. Since then I read The Good Soldier. I suppose I’ll get around to Parade’s End eventually but it is one story on a long list of books I mean to read.
    I’m happy a friend linked to your blog today on twitter. I particularly enjoyed your posts on Spark and Waugh.

  3. Sylvia can be truly evil because she’s truly free to be so. After all, we cradle Catholics learn as children that the door to hell is locked from the inside. Lucifer CHOSE, and he and his demons still bend at the name of Jesus.
    I can’t even think of a memorable “modern” [20th century] novel at all. I don’t agree that Christopher Tietjens is any kind of saint. He couldn’t be transformed by the suffering of Christ, and his own suffering inflicted by Sylvia only makes him “nice,” which is not the same as “good.” He’s not redeemed. Remember that “nice” papers over all kinds of evils, including Tietjens’ shacking up with the naive suffragette.

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