No sorry, this isn’t a post about Valentine’s Day! I’m not a fan of the ‘you’ve got to be romantic on this one day’ concept and even when I have been in a relationship we’ve often not bothered with it. So, instead I decided to do a post about one of my most favourite literary characters, Valentine Wannop and the beautiful novel Parade’s End.
I love reading classic books, and I have a particular fondness for novels set during the first two decades of the 20th Century when the peaceful, ordered lives of the British people were impacted and changed forever by the First World War. My absolute favourite was actually originally released between 1924–1928 as four separate parts (or a tetralogy for those of you who like fabulous words!) and only became the complete book known as Parade’s End in 1950. The name for the complete set was suggested by the author himself, Ford Madox Ford, but having died in 1939 he never got to see it happen.
As you can imagine, this is a long and complex story and the characters are explored very deeply, so you really get to fall in love with them or hate them with a passion. Ford Madox Ford’s style of writing is just beautiful, it’s so poetic and has a rhythm of it own that you can’t help but fall in to. Although it’s long, I couldn’t put it down and just didn’t want it to end. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loves this time period, but if you plan to read it make sure the book you get has all four parts in it as it has been published in the past with the last part missing.
In 2012 it was adapted by the wonderful screenwriter, Tom Stoppard (the father of Ed Stoppard who I adored in the more recent version of Upstairs, Downstairs), into a stunning TV version. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Christopher Tietjens, Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia and Australian actress Adelaide Clemens, who incidentally was also in the recent version of The Great Gatsby, became the fantastic Valentine Wannop.
Essentially the story of Parade’s End is a love triangle between these three upper class characters. Christopher and Sylvia were married in haste after an indiscretion on a train resulted in Sylvia becoming pregnant (there’s more to this part of the story but I won’t spoil it). Their relationship is very strained with Christopher, an incredibly intelligent statist, a stickler for what is right and “The Last Tory”, receiving the brunt of Sylvia’s frustration with their quiet life. She prefers to be the life and soul of the party, adored by many and easily becomes bored, choosing to fill the hours by torturing her husband with endless teasing and flirtations.
Christopher first meets Valentine whilst he’s playing a round of golf with a few friends, including a Liberal Cabinet minister. Valentine and a fellow Suffragette appear over the brow, screaming ‘Votes for women!’ and disrupt the game. As a chase ensues Christopher is desperately looking for his lost ball and as the girls pass him he decides to ‘accidentally’ trip up the policeman behind them. When the two girls reach a stream, Gertie crosses it via a small plank, whilst Valentine makes a rather athletic leap to freedom, she then pulls the plank away so the men can’t follow. Christopher is instantly smitten. This, as they would say in the movie business, is their meet cute.
I’ve read articles going on about how Valentine is a meek and pathetic Suffragette because she often keeps her mouth shut and does what she’s told, but to me this just shows their lack of understanding of the complexity of her character. She’s young and was brought up during a time when children were expected to be seen and not heard. The few friends she does have are either older than her or are from a lower class and she’s still trying to figure out where she fits in. But she’s definitely got gumption and feels confident at times, but often she’s unsure of her place and so conforms to what is expected of her.
I’m sure there were many Suffragettes just like this, probably more than the ones that were regularly imprisoned and force fed whilst on hunger strike as seen in the recent Suffragette film. And how quickly they forget that Valentine worked hard as a dishwasher in a large house where she had to deal with a rather unpleasant drunken cook just to earn money to make sure her brother could go to University. That’s pretty impressive for a young woman of her class at this time.
In the TV series she has one hell of a collection of ties, which of course makes me love her even more, but she also has a seriously gorgeous choice of classic Edwardian white cotton dresses, blouses and skirts. The blouse she wears above is an absolute dream and I have been hunting for one like this for a couple of years now but the good ones are often far too tiny for me. But I am determined to find one and now that I have had my hair cut very similar to Valentine’s, just a touch longer, it would go perfectly.
Valentine’s closest friend is Mrs Duchemin, a Reverend’s wife, a lover of poetry and the epitome of all things Pre-Raphaelite. Her outfits scream of Rossetti, Waterhouse and Burne-Jones with layers of sumptuous purple, emerald, peacock, burgundy and gold in chiffon and velvet.
Christopher’s closest friend is Vincent MacMaster, a civil servant and amateur critic, who also has an insatiable passion for the Pre-Raphaelite masters and is writing a short book on Rossetti. As Reverend Duchemin knew Rossetti, MacMaster requests an invite to meet the Reverend and find out more. Now, as you can imagine, the instant MacMaster walks into their home he falls for Mrs Duchemin and the second love affair of the story begins.
MacMaster takes Christopher along to the same meeting and there at the table is Valentine Wannop. Her mother, a novelist, barges in wanting to speak to MacMaster, hoping he’ll critique her latest work and Valentine is mortified. She’s totally smitten with Christopher too and wants to make a good impression as this may be the last time she sees him, but he has a message for her. The Liberal minister has decided not to press charges because of her class but Gertie is not off the hook. Valentine confesses that she and her mother are harbouring Gertie in their house and to her surprise Christopher offers to help get Gertie to safety so she won’t be arrested.
This then leads on to the most stunning and romantic scenes in both the book and the TV series. If you haven’t enjoyed either I would highly recommend it for this scene alone! I will say no more as I don’t want to spoil it.
But let’s not forget about Valentine’s strong and merciless opponent, Sylvia. As you can see she was beautiful, glamorous and statuesque and she knows just how to push Christopher’s buttons. However, after running away with another man, she quickly comes to realise that she’s in love with Christopher and that, because of his intellect and steadfast, upright manner, all other men just don’t live up to him. Instead they come across as silly little school boys just vying for her attention. She writes to Christopher and asks to be taken back, which, of course being an honourable man, he does.
Despite their rather fraught relationship Sylvia vows to remain chaste, choosing to spend time in nunneries for religious reflection (she was brought up as a devote Catholic). She still, however, continues to use her womanly wiles to get the silly school boys to do what she wants, even though she refuses to sleep with them. Christopher, on the other hand, enlists in the army as the First World War hits.
Valentine takes a position in a girl’s school as a gym teacher. The position suits her perfectly but she still doesn’t feel like she’s found her place in the world and still thinks of Christopher every day. It doesn’t help that, when Christopher is wounded, he begins to help her mother with writing propaganda articles. Valentine rarely sees him because she’s always at school but constantly has her mother talking about him in her ear.
The war changes everyone, especially Christopher and his old ideals and values are shattered by everything that has happened. I will not spoil the ending for you but, as there are so many twists and turns in this story, I will leave you guessing.
This is where the TV series, and part three of the tetralogy, finishes and it’s a beautiful conclusion to the story, but there is more. Ford Madox Ford (the grandson of Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown – see the connection there?) decided this wasn’t the end. He wanted to give his readers more and released The Last Post two years after part three was published.
The entire book is set in just a few hours during a day in June several years after the First World War and allows you to discover how everyone’s lives have progressed. The three main characters are, of course, all present but there is a larger presence of Christopher’s elder brother Mark. He appears in the previous three parts but isn’t so dominant as he is in this one.
The story helps to explain things that readers might not have been aware of and why certain things happened, but in a way it does feel like Ford Madox Ford just didn’t want to let go of his characters. He wanted to give them a voice for one last hurrah and, despite it feeling very different to the previous three parts, it works perfectly.
It may feel as though I’ve given away a lot of the plot in this post but, trust me, there is sooooo much more to this story. As I said before, it is incredibly complex and has so many subtle twists, turns, stumbling blocks, triumphs and moments you just don’t expect. I am in awe of Ford Madox Ford’s ability to put this all together in a cohesive and incredibly enjoyable story that’s so beautifully written. I recently picked up The Good Solider in a charity shop, a book he wrote in 1915 which is set just before the war, and I cannot wait to read it.
Have you ever read Parade’s End or any other of Ford Madox Ford’s books? What did you think?