- T h e G o o d
S o l d i e r
to Stella Ford
(from the second edition, 1927)
- My Dear Stella,
I have always regarded this as my best book--at any rate as the best book of mine of a pre-war period; and between its writing and the appearance of my next novel nearly ten years must have elapsed, so that whatever I may have since written may be regarded as the work of a different man--as the work of your man. For it is certain that without the incentive to live that you offered me I should scarcely have survived the war-period and it is more certain still that without your spurring me again to write I should never have written again. And it happens that, by a queer chance, The Good Soldier is almost alone amongst my books in being dedicated to no one: Fate must have elected to let it wait the ten years that it waited--for this dedication.
What I am now I owe to you: what I was when I wrote The Good Soldier I owed to the concatenation of circumstances of a rather purposeless and wayward life. Until I sat down to write this book--on the 17th December 1913--I had never attempted to extend myself, to use a phrase of race-horse training. Partly because I had always entertained very fixedly the idea that--whatever may be the case with other writers--I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty; partly because I very definitely did not want to come into competition with other writers whose claim or whose need for recognition and what recognitions bring were greater than my own. I had never really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I knew about writing. I had written rather desultorily a number of books--a great number--but they had all been in the nature of pastiches, of pieces of rather precious writing, or of tours de force. But I have always been mad about writing--about the way writing should be done and partly alone, partly with the companionship of Conrad, I had even at that date made exhaustive studies into how words should be handled and novels constructed.
So, on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do--and The Good Soldier resulted. I fully intended it to be my last book. I used to think--and I do not know that I do not think the same now--that one book was enough for any man to write, and, at the date when The Good Soldier was finished, London at least and possibly the world appeared to be passing under the dominion of writers newer and much more vivid. Those were the passionate days of the literary Cubists, Vorticists, Imagistes and the rest of the tapageur and riotous Jeunes of that young decade. So I regarded myself as the Eel which, having reached the deep sea, brings forth its young and dies--or as the Great Auk I considered that, having reached my allotted, I had laid my one egg and might as well die. So I took a formal farewell of Literature in the columns of a magazine called the Thrush--which also, poor little auk that it was, died of the effort. Then I prepared to stand aside in favour of our good friends--yours and mine--Ezra, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., and the rest of the clamorous young writers who were then knocking at the door.
But greater clamours beset London and the world which till then had seemed to lie at the proud feet of those conquerors; Cubism, Vorticism, Imagism and the rest never had their fair chance amid the voices of the cannon, and so I have come out of my hole again and beside your strong, delicate and beautiful works have taken heart to lay some work of my own.
The Good Soldier, however, remains my great auk's egg for me as being something of a race that will have no successors and as it was written so long ago I may not seem over-vain if I consider it for a moment or two. No author, I think, is deserving of much censure for vanity if, taking down one of his ten-year-old books, he exclaims: "Great Heavens, did I write as well as that then?" for the implication always is that one does not any longer write so well and few are so envious as to censure the complacencies of an extinct volcano.
Be that as it may, I was lately forced into the rather close examination of this book, for I had to translate it into French, that forcing me to give it much closer attention than would be the case in any reading however minute. And I will permit myself to say that I was astounded at the work I must have put into the construction of the book, at the intricate tangle of references and cross-references. Nor is that to be wondered at for, though I wrote it with comparative rapidity, I had it hatching within myself for fully another decade. That was because the story is a true story and because I had it from Edward Ashburnham himself and I could not write it till all the others were dead. So I carried it about with me all those years, thinking about it from time to time.
I had in those days an ambition: that was to do for the English novel what in Fort comme la Mort, Maupassant had done for the French. One day I had my reward, for I happened to be in a company where a fervent young admirer exclaimed: "By Jove, The Good Soldier is the finest novel in the English language!" whereupon my friend Mr John Rodker who has always had a properly tempered admiration for my work remarked in his clear, slow drawl: "Ah yes. It is, but you have left out a word. It is the finest French novel in the English language!"
With that--which is my tribute to my masters and betters of France--I will leave the book to the reader. But I should like to say a word about the title. This book was originally called by me The Saddest Story, but since it did not appear till the darkest days of the war were upon us, Mr Lane importuned me with letters and telegrams--I was by that time engaged in other pursuits! --to change the title which he said would at that date render the book unsaleable. One day, when I was on parade, I received a final wire of appeal from Mr Lane, and the telegraph being reply-paid I seized the reply-form and wrote in hasty irony: "Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?" . . . To my horror six months later the book appeared under that title.
I have never ceased to regret it but, since the War, I have received so much evidence that the book has been read under that name that! hesitate to make a change for fear of causing confusion. Had the chance occurred during the War I should not have hesitated to make the change, for I had only two evidences that anyone had ever heard of it. On one occasion I met the adjutant of my regiment just come off leave and looking extremely sick. I said: "Great Heavens, man, what is the matter with you?" He replied: "Well, the day before yesterday I got engaged to be married and today I have been reading The Good Soldier."
On the other occasion I was on parade again, being examined in drill, on the Guards' Square at Chelsea. And, since I was petrified with nervousness, having to do it before a half-dozen elderly gentlemen with red hatbands, I got my men about as hopelessly boxed as it is possible to do with the gentlemen privates of H.M. Coldstream Guards. Whilst I stood stiffly at attention one of the elderly red hat-bands walked close behind by back and said distinctly in my ear, "Did you say, The Good Soldier?" So no doubt Mr Lane was avenged. At any rate I have learned that irony may be a two-edged sword.
You, my dear Stella, will have heard me tell these stories a great many times. But the seas now divide us and I put them in this, your letter, which you will read before you see me in the hope that they may give you some pleasure with the illusion that you are hearing familiar--and very devoted--tones. And so I subscribe myself in all truth and in the hope that you will accept at once the particular dedication of this book and the general dedication of the edition.
New York, January 9, 1927