Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford
Ford Madox Ford (1873 to 1939-UK) has been important to my blog. I first read and posted on him in December of 2009 when I read for the first time The Good Soldier. I now see this book as among the very best novels of all time, a work of a very powerful artistic intelligence. It is on most best novels of all time lists. After reading this I hosted a read a long on Parade's End, his tetrology centering on WWI and its after years. After reading Parade's End I felt a bit stunned as one should be after experiencing a transcendent work of art for the first time. I also read Ford's encyclopedic survey of the history of literature, The March of Literature and was thoroughly intimidated by it even if I did come away with many reading ideas. I treat it now as a kind of reference book with the caveat that there are no authorities in taste (in the sense that there are authorities in science). Both Parade's End and The Good Soldier are uncontroversially canon status works. Of the two, read The Good Soldier first and decide from there if you will read more. I have done no research but my guess is that for every 20 people who have read The Good Soldier, one has read Parade's End. Ford wrote a lot of books, about 80. It seems only these two books and his trilogy about Katherine Howard, The Fifth Queen really still are read by general readers like myself.
The Fifth Queen is part one of a trilogy of the same name centered on Katherine Howard (1524 to 1542) who was the fifth woman to be married to King Henry (1491 to 1547 the VIII of Tudor England). Henry became king in 1509 at age 18 and ruled until his death. Historians see him as a great king that made England a strong and powerful country able to stand up to the bigger and wealthier countries of Europe. Popular culture in the 21th century sees him as a huge man with a turkey leg in one hand and an eighteen year old wench in the other one screaming for an executioner to take off the head of his current wife.
When we first meet Katherine she comes from a Catholic family of minor nobility that has fallen on economic hard times. Her cousin Thomas Culpepper was a friend and courtier of Henry. (This is the plot line of The Fifth Queen, not history). Through family connections she becomes the lady in waiting to Mary I, Henry's oldest daughter. Courtiers and Ladies in waiting are sort of a cross between a friend and a servant. The closest confidante and advisor of Mary is a spy for Thomas Cromwell. Katherine (sometimes spelled with a "c") is surrounded by intrigue and self advancing sycophants who want to use her beauty to attract the eye of the king and thus gain influence which gives them the opportunity to increase their wealth and advance their own retainers. In The Fifth Queen Katherine is portrayed as a very devout and well read young lady, far from how she is portrayed in a recent cable TV series on the Tudors!
The Fifth Queen is a work of very subtle narrative intelligence. It deals largely with power struggles between rival factions at the court and Katherine's attempt to take charge of her own life. The prose over a very high standard.
The Fifth Queen is very different from a modern historical novel. There is little attempt to recreate the world in which Katherine lived. It is all about characterizations and the behind the scenes maneuvers at the court The Fifth Queen is still read for the style and to study the narrative method of Ford, not as a historical novel that gives a slice of Tudor life.
One thing I admit I enjoyed in the introduction by A. S. Byatt, was her telling us that Ford consciously decided not to try to recreate the speech patterns of the era as he did not want to impose such a thing on his readers and he felt such attempts to recreate accurate speech in an era very remote from the readers would distract from the artistic impact of a work as people end up trying to figure out what is being said and lose track of the story. Thank you Mr Ford!
There are two more parts of The Fifth Queen still to go. I will try to take a closer look at the style of Ford in my next two posts. I hope to have this completed by the end of March.
For now, I would say read The Good Soldier first then decide if you want to read more Ford. If you teach literature or are an aspiring writer then you should really read The Good Soldier soon. If you are on a plan to read the canon and have not already done so, you really need to read also Parade's End eventually. The Fifth Queen is not a canon status work on any lists I have seen. I will generalize on it more when I read part two and three.