Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cranford Revisited: Ford's Debt to Mrs. Gaskell in 'The Good Soldier.'

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cranford Revisited: Ford's Debt to Mrs. Gaskell in 'The Good Soldier.'

Article excerpt

Ever since Mark Schorer first characterized The Good Soldier's, John Dowell as a narrator incapable of passion, sexual and moral alike (now close to 50 years ago), critics of Ford's most acclaimed novel have seemed unwilling to let poor Dowell alone (Ford vii). Even those writers concerned with the rather larger issue of Ford's influences, both literary and personal, have almost invariably come back to Schorer's nagging question - "How can we believe him?" - finding answers in places as diverse as Ford's collaborative friendship with Conrad, his admiration for James and Flaubert, and what some have seen as his efforts to modernize the chivalric tradition in literature (vii).(1) This critic is no exception. Yet where others have thus looked outside of the novel for a key to Dowell's behavior, to biographical sources and to broadly conceived parallels between Ford and his predecessors, I propose looking inside, to a specific instance of novelistic parody that, to my knowledge, has never before been cited.

I refer to the handful of scenes and character types Ford borrows from Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell's enormously popular novel of 1853, which Ford himself alludes to (via Dowell) in his very first chapter. "Mrs. Ashburnham was a Powys," Dowell writes; "Florence was a Hurlbird of Stamford, Connecticut, where, as you know, they are more old-fashioned than even the inhabitants of Cranford, England, could have been" (5). Imbedded as it is in Dowell's genealogical preoccupations, the allusion is one that even a careful modern reader is liable to miss. In 1915, by contrast, when Cranford was enjoying a renewed popularity and when 75 new or reprinted editions of the novel had only recently appeared, it would have taken an unusually dense reader not to have seen it, and almost as dense a reader not to have seen the parody, since, in revisiting this familiar territory, Ford alters it considerably (Hopkins 102). With his subtle rehandling of both character and incident, Ford in fact creates what is at best a hollow replica of Gaskell's community. Beneath the surface, it is as empty as the flask, "apparently of nitrate of amyl, but actually of prussic acid," that the dead Florence clutches - indeed, as "empty" as Florence herself must have been during all those years that she lied about her condition (117). My point is, simply, if we are to appreciate fully Ford's novel, we can neither ignore this emptiness nor fail to sound its depths, since the Stamford/Cranford episodes serve in The Good Soldier both as positive proof of Dowell's romantic delusion (and, hence, his unreliability) and as one of the most reliable measures of Ford's own deep anxiety about the status of Western culture on the eve of the First World War.

To Ford's first readers, then, Dowell's occasional references to Stamford and the people who live there must have seemed, at least initially, remarkably familiar. Such readers would have recognized in the essentially feminine character of the Stamford Dowell remembers the same sort of women-centered community Gaskell recalls in Cranford, a community where, as Gaskell's narrator Mary Smith explains, "all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women" (39). Ford, admittedly, is far less interested in the day-to-day activities of such a community than Gaskell has reason to be; his entire description of Stamford occupies fewer than 20 intermittent pages in the novel, less than one-tenth of the whole. Still, Ford achieves quite a remarkable likeness even within this limited space, from the purely physical manifestations - "the spindle-legged furniture, the silhouettes, the miniatures" - to the proud self-sufficiency that makes a man's presence among these women a matter of complete indifference (81). Certainly there seems as little need for a man inside the Hurlbird townhouse, or out on the veranda, as there is in the smaller, rented rooms of Gaskell's Miss Marty or Miss Pole (to name just two), which at least in part explains the agitation with which Dowell is received there. …

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