Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 235-249
Ford's Women: Between Fact and Fiction
Anne Marie Flanagan
University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
Although Ford Madox Ford wrote Parade's End between 1924 and 1928, it is set in a period that begins immediately before the outbreak of World War I and that lasts until shortly after the war has ended. Parade's End is a novel about military wartime experiences and the effects of war upon society. Above all, it is a novel about men and women, marriage, and sexual politics, with an emphasis on assertive women who threaten men and the institutions which they have established within society. While his experiences at the front during World War I deeply affect the novel's hero, Christopher Tietjens, both physically and emotionally, the war that really threatens to destroy him is the one being waged between the sexes. This war extends beyond the novel to the outside world. The extent to which women's issues affected all other aspects of the society at the time is succinctly put by Samuel Hynes:
The trouble with women during the Edwardian period was simply that their troubles could not be kept separate and distinct, but kept getting mixed up with each other and with other social issues: contraception threatened the family and the birth rate, divorce threatened the Church and the stability of society, suffrage threatened political balances, and so even the most moderate move toward liberation seemed a rush toward chaos. 1
Parade's End arises from this particularly complicated and anxious period in women's history. Although not commonly asserted as such, it also grows out of a tradition of literary types and genres dating from the 1890s. Traces of the Suffrage Novel, the New Woman Novel, and the Marriage Problem Novel can be found in Parade's End. While Ford is seeking to capture the spirit of wartime England and to respond in a progressive and liberal manner to the social changes of this period, he is bound by two forces: the literary traditions of the 1890s and his [End Page 235] own difficulties with women before and during the war. He seeks a congenial home in the modern period but finds comfort in the ideas of the past. Despite his best efforts to represent the suffragette and the New Woman in positive terms and to dispel harmful stereotypes about women, he returns to the worn but comfortable ideas of the past. Within Valentine and Sylvia, Ford's rich and complex fictional women, the battle between past and present, tradition and innovation, and fact and fiction is waged.
In some quarters, it was believed that World War I actually marked the culmination of the war between the sexes as well as the culmination of international tensions. "When war broke out on August 4, 1914, Christabel [Pankhurst] wrote in The Suffragette that the war was 'God's vengeance upon the people who held women in subjection.'" 2 The end of World War I also coincided with the end of Ford's "war with Violet Hunt." 3 The long relationship between Ford and Hunt, a fellow writer and suffragette, resulted in a painful and scandalous affair that had threatened both of their positions in society. As Ford retrospectively reconstructed the years between 1914 and 1919 in his novel, he sought to capture the climate of sexual anxiety that existed at that time. It was important for Ford to re-create this anxiety while maintaining that he himself was relatively free from such anxiety. He was intent upon establishing himself as a great supporter of women's causes, and in this regard his actions were typical of those of many of his male contemporaries. At the same time that he was protecting his own place in history, he felt bound to act, as he thought all good novelists should, as "historian of his own time," 4 chronicling his life and that of this contemporaries and his society. He wanted to write "seriously and with something immense in mind." With Proust's death, Ford believed...