Case in point: Ford, whom Hemingway with characteristic unkind accuracy described as a "golden walrus," apparently had an unaccountable Way with the Ladies. One can only gaze, and admire. But would Ford follow the pattern of his novelistic hero and proposition a potential new conquest with the phrase: "Will you become my mistress tonight?"--adding, with romantic suavity, "I am going out to-morrow at 8.30 from Waterloo,"
I know; it beggars all expectation to suppose that the Heir of Groby in 1917 would have offered anything on the order of "how 'bout droppin' your knickers, chickie babie?" But Ford's actual offering is so unfamiliar that Mrs. B thought it must be a misreading or a baroque form of parody. It was no misreading; Ford repeats it more than once.
Which leaves a question: is Ford's line: (1) straight reporting of what an Edwardian gent would (a) have said; or (b) be thought by Ford to have said--or (2) some sort of rich, subtle and complicated irony?
Despite a long career of watching PBS Sunday night soapers, I am sufficiently unfamiliar with Edwardian manners absolutely to reject (1)(a); I would like to believe it is (2), but I'm not so sure. Ford's irony, if that is what it is, is subtle to the point of evanescence.
A more general example. This protagonist, the Heir of Groby--Christopher Tietjens--is presented repeatadly as a paragon both of virtue and of competence. Again, the question is how we take this. For comparison: no question that novelistic ur-hero, Don Quixote is (a) the last of the gentlemen; and (b) bathed in irony. That is why he is so enduring. With Tietjens, the evidence is harder to evaluate. As to competence, we really don't have much evidence, except the suggestion that he is good at arithmetic. As to virtue, he seems to hew to a standard known only to himself.
Do we catch a twinkle in Ford's eye? It's hard to catch it--harder still when you realize as described, appears to look a lot like Ford himself.
I mock, I vulgarize. I suppose the nearest can offer as defense is the ploy of impatience: Ford's presentation is complex, leisured, loaded with ellipses and exclamation points. For these and other reasons, it can be maddening. And yet, and yet... and yet at the same time, it is oddly hypnotic. Ford seems to have put thought into every line; his presentation, if leisured, is also loving. One wants to throw it across the room--and yet one does not want to let go. I'm pretty sure I will stick with it. At least I will be to savor passages like this:
Obviously he was not immune from the seven deadly sins, in the way of a man. One might lie, yet not bear false witness against a neighbor; one might kill, yet not without fitting provocation or for self-interest; one might conceive of theft as reiving cattle from the false Scots which was the Yorkshireman's duty; one might fornicate, obviously, as long as you did not fuss about it unhealthily. That was the right of the Seigneur ina world of Other Ranks. He hadn't personally committed any of these sins to any great extent. One reserved the right so to do and to take the consequences.I'm not at all sure I know what to make of all that, but I love it, and I know I want more.