Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Guardian Books: Baddies in Literature



Sylvia Tietjens in Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford






Today’s entry appears on the Guardian website: they are doing a series on Baddies in Books, and I chose Sylvia Tietjens from Parade’s End as my contribution.

This is part of the article:
Has there ever been a more toxic marriage than the one at the centre of Ford Madox Ford’s four-volume Parade’s End? The disastrous relationship between Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens is hard to take for the reader, let alone the two principals themselves. Unfortunately, Christopher – the most brilliant man in England and the last true gentleman, if you believe Ford – holds the calamitous view that: “No one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce.”

Sylvia is Roman Catholic, and though hardly holding to the tenets of her own religion (or any other), she will not contemplate divorce herself. (This changes late on in the books, with a complex legal move, but even her own lawyer “knew that Sylvia’s aim was not divorce but the casting of all possible obloquy on Christopher.”)

It is her wickedness that holds her in the marriage: she enjoys making Christopher’s life a misery….

Sylvia is a real human being, and as such an asset in a canon too full of saintlier types. As Gillian Flynn, author of another novel about a toxic marriage, Gone Girl, put it: “the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there’s still a big push back against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish.” You can’t dismiss Sylvia. She is Ford’s greatest creation.




I read all four books last year, and was swept away by them – they will feature in my list of best books of the year tomorrow.

There are one or more blog entries on each of the books: click here or on the label below to see them. The books are not an easy read, but well worth pursuing, and I found them particularly meaningful in a year when we were marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.


9 comments:

  1. I'm unfamiliar with FMF and don't plan on altering that situation so I shall defer to your greater knowledge.
    From other contributing journos - I'll vote for THE GRUFFALO! Re Patrick Bateman and Brett Easton Ellis - AMERICAN PSYCHO - worst book read EVER!

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    1. Of the others that people picked, I'd have been interested in Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, the 1st Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre, or Dolores Umbrage from Harry Potter. All the villainous women....

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  2. Great article, Moira! And you brought up something I think is really important. It's not easy to draw a real 'baddie' character. As you point out, they need to be human enough to be believable. In other words, their evilness can't be cartoonish. And they need to be interesting enough to keep readers engaged. I give Ford credit for doing it well.

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    1. Thanks Margot. Villains are hard to portray for the reasons you outline, so it's great to have some good ones in literature - the whole Guardian series made for great reading. And I think people who read a lot of crime have a headstart when it comes to looking at baddies in books....

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  3. Moira, I assume, it'd be better to read all of Ford Madox Ford's four books in one go to get a complete picture of Sylvia Tietjens' character.

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    1. It's quite a commitment to read them all. But when I first started I thought I would read the four books slowly, with other books in between, leave a gap etc etc, as they are serious reading and sometimes hard going. But I ended up reading them one after another and very quickly - just because I loved them so much... But not everyone will....

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  4. I do see that creating a really evil character is an accomplishment and very much more interesting than a goody goody type but this woman sounds soooo bad as to be unbearable to read about. Very nice piece in the Guardian.

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    1. Given the name of the Guardian series I had to emphasize her bad points! And we crime story fans can't really complain, where would we be without our villains...? Sylvia is a bad lot, but honestly, her husband almost deserves her....

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    2. Now that you put it that way, I am sure you are right. Relationships are difficult at best, and some are just unbelievably hard to understand.

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