A Man Could Stand Up

Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up
(London: Penguin, 1948)
First published: 1926

SLOWLY, amidst intolerable noises from, on the one hand the street and, on the other, from the large and voluminously echoing playground, the depths of the telephone began, for Valentine, to assume an aspect that, years ago it had used to have—of being a part of the supernatural paraphernalia of inscrutable Destiny.

The telephone, for some ingeniously torturing reason was in a corner of the great schoolroom without any protection and, called imperatively, at a moment of considerable suspense, out of the asphalte playground where, under her command ranks of girls had stood electrically only just within the margin of control, Valentine with the receiver at her ear was plunged immediately into incomprehensible news uttered by a voice that she seemed half to remember. Right in the middle of a sentence it hit her:

‘. . . . that he ought presumably to be under control, which you mightn’t like!’; after that the noise burst out again and rendered the voice inaudible.

Telephones are important across Ford’s four-volume sequence about the First World War, Parade’s End, from the first volume, Some Do Not…, in which Sylvia Tietjens’ brittle dialogue sounds like it has been honed over that instrument:

She addressed the priest again.
‘I call my maid Hullo Central because she’s got a tinny voice like a telephone. I say: “Hullo Central”—when she answers “Yes, modd’m,” you’d swear it was the Exchange speaking…. But you were telling me about men.’

But it is in the opening of the third volume, A Man Could Stand Up— that Ford uses the telephone to sound a historical turning-point. It is the Armistice. Pacifist Suffragette Valentine Wannop has been teaching in a girls’ school, where the staff are debating the military question of how to maintain discipline, amidst the euphoria at the war’s end. A woman who she had considered a friend, but who has been behaving more like an enemy, is phoning to warn Valentine that her (Valentine’s) lover, the protagonist Christopher Tietjens, has now returned from the Front, but is mentally unstable.

Supernatural? Destiny? Because the telephone bell breaks through and interrupts everyday life and conversation to bring word of a world elsewhere; disembodied voices sounding like oracles. This one is indeed telling Valentine her fate. In Homeric days the communication system telling the home front that the war was won and the army returning was the chain of beacons, like the one that sets the inexorable plot of the Oresteia in motion. Now it would be social media. In 1918 it was the telephone.

by Max Saunders