“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
That’s the first line–and the reader is about to hear ALL about it–in
a rather confusing, round-about narration by “John Dowell”.
In the years before World War I two couples become acquainted in Europe–and
then became fast friends–for nine years. The narrator’s wife, Florence, is at
a resort for her “heart” and so is the husband of the other couple–Edward
Florence and “John”, and Leonora and Edward dine together, go to cultural events
together, go to the spas together, go on walks . . . . They are simply inseparable.
The narrator assures the reader that he has a tale to tell–and will tell it as if we are sitting down
together in a comfortable room with a cozy fire blazing. He begins.
As the pages go by, he repeats himself a bit–or maybe we imagine he already said that . . . but we gradually
learn about the straight-laced ways and upstanding morals of the British at this time of history.
Edward Ashburnham, in particular, is held up as “the good soldier”–having fought the good fight in far off
lands of the Empire–and has been an icon to his men
as an admirable leader. The narrator, an American, holds Edward in high esteem–
calling him a good soldier, a fine fellow.
It is not until nine years later that “John” realizes that his wife, Florence, has been
having an affair with Edward for years. This puts a damper on things.
It also comes to bear that Florence doesn’t really have a heart condition. It was
presented as an excuse to never consummate her marriage with John. She locks
her bedroom door each night, but John is given an axe in case he needs to break it
down in an emergency!
Although this sounds like a strange little arrangement between two couples and hardly
pleasant—the foursome go on with their lives. There are several amusing lines in the narration. Who IS this narrator?
Well, that leaves Leonora and John. Or does it? The several retellings of the love
affair between Edward and Florence also hint –more than hint–that there were other
dalliances in Edward’s life. Nine years and four days after their meeting, the couples
are torn apart with Florence’s death.
You might think I’m giving spoilers here—but the book is only about half way through
at this point–and in my view, the first part of the book is the best.
After awhile Nancy Rufford, a young daughter of an acquaintance of the Ashburnhams,
needs a home–her colonel father having broken up with Nancy’s mother who has
left. Nancy comes to live with Edward and Leonora and is brought up Roman Catholic
at Leonora’s insistence. She is sent to a convent for schooling. Later she graduates.
The story continues to weave back and forth, especially timewise. We begin to wonder
exactly who this narrator, this John Dowell, is and where all this going. Oh! Did I
say that already? Well, the book is confusing sometimes! We see that there are still
half the pages to go . . .and we want to know what happens.
The good news? I won’t tell you anymore about the story or the ending, of course. But
I will say that I loved the descriptions, the humor and thinking about who these
people really were—-what they might have done differently if they could. I think it’s
a pretty good story and I’d like to read it again someday. It’s a short book–307 pages
in my edition, and had nice explanatory notes in the back. Was it the “saddest story”?
Not for me.
I’m wondering if the author was giving us some Henry James 101 —and sharpening up
our knowledge of life on the Continent in those years before the Great War. Someone
told me that Ford Madox Ford and one of his literary cronies argued about the ending.
Wish I knew who that literary person was–I’d like to read about that.
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