Sunday, September 16, 2012

The only good Tory is a lonely Tory

Have you been watching Parade’s End? After the first episode I found myself reading along, which is something I’ve never done before. TV adaptations are all very well, but you don’t want them to interfere with your conception of the book, do you? Previously I’ve found actors’ faces hard to shift when reading after watching, but this time, doing both at once, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Christopher Tietjens, self-contained and in permanent meltdown, but it is impossible to identify him with his character visually. Tietjens is a ‘fat golfing idiot with bulging eyes’, and his wife Sylvia says of him:
I call my husband the Ox. He’s repulsive: like a swollen animal.
For all his slow, deliberate movements, and his pained facial expressions, Cumberbatch isn’t exactly swollen, and certainly not fat. Ford Maddox Ford himself (above) seems a better physical fit.

Though I’ve a book-and-a-bit of this tetralogy yet to go, I wanted to get down my thoughts about Tietjens’ Tory values, because they’re not straightforward. He’s a member – the youngest son – of an old, wealthy, Yorkshire family. They have a grand home called Groby, to which Christopher is unexpectedly heir. Two of his elder brothers died in battle in India ‘on the same day and not a mile apart’, and the eldest, Mark, ‘the archetype of all sound men’, has ruled himself out of the running:
‘He,’ Tietjens said, ‘has got a French woman near Euston station. He’s lived with her for over fifteen years, of afternoons, when there were no race meetings. She’ll never let him marry and she’s past the child-bearing stage. So there’s no one else….’
The stage is set, one would have thought, for Christopher to take up the reigns which are his by birth: to be the great landowner, or, in the war (the book starts in 1912, and has so far reached the armistice), to be comfortably part of the officers’ club. If he doesn’t want that, he could discreetly get himself a mistress and live beneath the radar, like Mark; or he could make a pyrrhic stand against his own privilege, like... Wittgenstein, say. He could give away all his money and live according to principles of egalitarianism. He could certainly divorce his unfaithful, contemptuous wife, who almost ruins his military career at one point by telling General Campion that he is a Socialist, in response to Campion’s musings:
he’s got a positive genius for getting into the most disgusting messes…. You’re too young to have heard of Dreyfus…. But I always say that Christopher is a regular Dreyfus….
Campion’s charge is that Tietjens is hapless. This is and isn’t true. It is true if he is being judged by the standards of an upper class which values property and solidarity above all else; but Christopher’s particular idealism is to believe that his class is not just about self-perpetuation, that it is there to set an example, and to provide money, leadership and moral guidance. In other words, although he should be an insider, he believes the stories his class tells about itself to outsiders, and so falls prey to subtle social forces which want to avoid the exposure of the prevailing doublethink.

Precisely because he does believe these stories, Christopher does not rebel. He acts in what he sees as an honourable manner – the only manner possible – when all around him people wince at his lack of ambiguity. He marries Sylvia because it is possible he has got her pregnant; but it is more likely that she has entrapped him, being already pregnant by another man. This inauspicious start, coupled with Tietjens’ (so far) chaste affection for Valentine Wannop, leads to an escalation of rumours which gets back to his father, including betrayal of his country for money to support Valentine and their (non-existent) child, ‘connivance’ in other affairs of Sylvia’s, and himself sharing his a friend’s mistress. His father cuts him at their club, then commits suicide back in Yorkshire. Christopher can’t forgive him, for the accusations or the suicide, and refuses his inheritance – and it is this last point which, ironically, is the most damaging. ‘Of course, refusing property is a sign of being one of these fellows’, says General Campion, confirmed for the moment in his opinion of Tietjens as a Socialist.

‘By God!’ Christopher exclaimed. ‘I loathe your whole beastly buttered-toast, mutton-chopped, carpet-slippered, rum-negused comfort as much as I loathe your beastly Riviera-palaced, chauffeured, hydraulic-lifted, hot-house aired beastliness of fornication….’
Christopher’s attitude is similar to Socialism in that it is against the same things; but it is not for the same things. It is nonsensical in that it relies on the integrity of the social hierarchy as much as on the integrity of individuals; and though Tietjens believes this once existed – in his beloved seventeenth* century – he knows that it hasn’t survived. So much of Parade’s End is about bureaucracy, from the statistics office in London, which he quits in frustration, to the trenches in France, where he finds official obfuscation undiminished. His personal integrity is never in doubt to the reader, but neither is it obvious to his companions; as he reflects, ‘I am damn good at not speaking’.
And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy — as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives — was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book.
The golden age he harks back to, of ‘Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan’, was simpler, slower, on a smaller scale, and its organising principles have failed to survive industrialisation. ‘Damn the Empire! It was England!’ thinks Tietjens – and you sympathise, but it’s not a position that goes anywhere. Opening up and speaking is the only possible response to his damning assessment of all society, which is, if he could only realise it, an argument in favour of breaking apart the structures he can’t bear to leave behind.
And Tietjens, who hated no man […] fell to wondering why it was that humanity that was next to always agreeable in its units was, as a mass, a phenomenon so hideous. You look at a dozen men, each of them not by any means detestable and not uninteresting, for each of them would have technical details of their affairs to impart; you formed them into a Government or a club and at once, with oppressions, inaccuracies, gossip, backbiting, lying, corruptions and vileness, you had the combination of wolf, tiger, weasel and louse-covered ape that was human society.

By the way, I joined Twitter recently. You can find some of the more peculiar vocab used in Parade’s End here.

* That should be ‘eighteenth’, which is the century Tietjens keeps yearning for, when industrialisation and the empire hadn’t made hypocrites of his nation’s citizens. The poets he cites, though — Herbert, Donne, Crashaw and Vaughan — all lived in the seventeenth century.

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