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  • Modernism and the Country House in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier
  • Mark D. Larabee

Critical Studies of modernist literature often privilege the metropolis, drawing parallels between the fragmentation of urban life and the spatio-temporal dislocations and perspectival multiplicity of high-modernist narratives. Associating modernism with the experience of modernity may seem less productive, consequently, when it comes to analyzing spaces removed from the alienating flux and stress of the twentieth-century city. One such anachronistic, perhaps even antimodernist space is that of the English country house, with its tweed-clad patriarchy, time-honored rituals, and placid rhythms of the agricultural calendar. As a literary setting, the country house had its heyday in the seventeenth century, and scholars interested in this particular topos have largely directed their attention to estate poems from that period.1 Meanwhile, most of the critical studies of country houses in twentieth-century literature typically attend to prominent fictional portrayals of the accelerating decay of the estate system, forgoing comparisons with earlier literary models in favor of examining the generalized nostalgia for a passing social order.2

However, such studies leave unexplored the particular sources and signs of that order as established through the literary tradition of country house poetry: the web of obligations incurred by estate ownership, for example, the gender-inflected codes of conduct enforced by the layout of the country house interior or the routines of ritualized movement through the surrounding landscape. As a setting for these behaviors and the literature that reflects and responds to them, the topos of the country house can serve to index the cultural changes of modernity as meaningfully as the busiest city street. Recontextualizing modernist works within the country house tradition thus offers a fresh way to reassess such a familiar subject of critical exegesis as Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (1915). Pursuing a spatial reading [End Page 75] along these lines reveals how Ford relies on implicit contrasts with the ideals brought to bear within the country house setting (most notably, the obligations of the landlord) in order to figure contemporary identities and social crises.

The Country House Context

While The Good Soldier has attracted the lion's share of critical interest among scholarship devoted to Ford's work and the novel has come to be seen as one of modernism's great books, the country house setting of the text has yet to receive the full exploration it deserves. Two seminal surveys of the country house in British literature—Richard Gill's Happy Rural Seat: The English Country House and the Literary Imagination (1972) and Malcolm Kelsall's The Great Good Place: The Country House and English Literature (1993)—do address this novel briefly. Additionally, critics interested more recently in the material conditions of modernist culture in particular have paid increasing attention to the ways that social space conditions artistic representation. However, critics have not yet explicitly related the actions of this novel's characters to modes of conduct determined by the psychological, cultural, and economic imperatives of estate life.

Gill examines the country house as a symbolic setting for the expression of communal values. The country house lends itself especially well, he asserts, to portrayals in modern literature of the theme of isolation and the countertheme of community. With regard to The Good Soldier, Gill notes that Ford at first uses references to the country house for ironic effects. When John Dowell remarks of "the beautiful, beautiful old house" of Branshaw Teleragh (the Ashburnham estate) that "it was unbelievable that anything essentially calamitous could happen to that place and those people … it was the very spirit of peace," Ford takes advantage of "the incongruity" (in Gill's words) "of smooth, charming surfaces and the strange discords concealed behind them."3 Later in Gill's examination of this novel, he points out how Leonora Ashburnham economizes on the estate's management in order for her to reestablish Edward's financial equilibrium and her own position as lady of the manor. Meanwhile, Florence Dowell has her eye on the estate, having descended from a family that had owned it in the past. Nevertheless, Gill's attention to the estate's principal function...


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pp. 75-94
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Will Be Archived 2021
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