AND suddenly, in the thick darkness, whirring as if it were a scream, intermitted for a moment and again commencing, a little bell rang out at Dudley Leicester’s elbow. As suddenly, but with a more gracious diffusion, light welled down from above his head, and Etta Hudson’s voice mingling with it:
‘Stop that confounded thing! I don’t want all the servants in the house to know you are here.’
She leaned over the white and ormolu banisters: the light swinging over her head made a halo above her disordered hair; her white shoulders gleamed.
‘Stop it,’ she said; ‘Don’t fumble so ridiculously. Don’t you know how to take the thing off the hooks?’
Ford’s Edwardian novel is certainly one of the earliest fictions in which the telephone is central to the plot, if not the earliest. Leicester, recently married, sees home his old flame Etta Hudson after a dinner. She draws him into her house, and suddenly the phone rings. She persuades him to answer it, and to pretend to be her servant. But the caller recognizes his voice and asks if it isn’t him. In his confusion, Leicester answers ‘Yes’. Tormented by his ignorance of the caller’s identity, and his fear that the story might get out and wreck his marriage, he suffers a catatonic nervous breakdown. The rest of the story details his cure, by a woman who must be one of the first psycho-therapists in literature, through a form of telepathy-like physical spiritual healing. The novel is throughout concerned with voices, sounds and silences; with modes of communication (telegrams feature, as well as letters), and the psychic effects of technologies enabling people to be both distant and in touch.
The novel had earlier been serialized in Ford’s English Review from August to November 1909, after which it was revised and expanded. The serial was itself a substantial reimagining of an earlier short story, ‘4692 Padd’, published in the Bystander (9 December 1908). See Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), vol. 1, pp. 299-304. Telephones and telegrams play an important role in Ford’s Parade’s End too. See especially A Man Could Stand Up – (1926).
by Max Saunders