observations: I was going to move on to the next in this tetralogy, after an entry on this book here, but in the end I couldn’t resist trying to find a picture to illustrate this description. Full marks Mr Ford – he nearly always tells you what people are wearing. This is Sylvia Tietjens' mother, Mrs Satterthwaite, a very interesting character who makes a big impression in this early scene, but then sadly disappears from the books – she is mentioned, but always in the background. Here she is visiting a German town, and giving some cover to her daughter’s scandalous goings-on. An Irish Catholic priest, Fr Consett is part of her party, enjoying his bridge (trying to finish before midnight if he is saying Mass the next day) and lecturing Sylvia severely about her wicked ways. She shows yet more badness by sabotaging his fasting for Mass. Fr Consett’s fate – most unexpected – will be revealed later. In this scene Tietjens’ wife is referred to as Sylvia and as Mrs Tietjens alternately, which is unsettling. Sylvia claims at one point that her husband believes in eugenics, but this is not followed up. It wouldn’t surprise you unduly.
Mothers are important in the book: Mrs Wannop – mother to Christopher’s great love Valentine - has a key role too. But, her character changes dramatically and unconvincingly after her first appearance. There is a quite splendid breakfast party scene, which must be one of the great meal scenes of all literature, and Mrs Wannop is a gatecrasher who behaves very badly (though not so badly as the host) - it is hard to imagine the Mrs W of later scenes doing that. She is, after all, meant to have written the only novel worth reading since the 18th century, one of Christopher Tietjens’ infuriatingly pompous judgements. There is a very funny thread in which Christopher is helping her write newspaper articles – for one of them she wants to write about a rise in illegitimate births during WW1, but he (a statistics expert) keeps telling her there is no such rise. And, as Valentine sees, he gives himself away when he explains why that is so. That’s the kind of thing that Ford does brilliantly.
There’s a lot about lies and truth – CT is fated not to be believed when he tells the truth. As his General says,
‘Damn it all, it’s the first duty of a soldier – it’s the first duty of all Englishmen – to be able to tell a good lie in answer to a charge.But Tietjens telling unconvincing truths and not trying to convince his listener – is that not a form of lying? CT’s morals suit only himself.
More, much more, to come on these books.
The lady in the black dress and hat is Lillie Langtry. The top photo is from a collection at the Library of Congress.