Some enter at the portal. Some do not!
It is the eve of World War I, and Christopher Tietjens is the "last English Tory"--a title with all sorts of political connotations that are mostly lost on me. But, apparently, it means that he holds sentiments like this:
This, Tietjens thought, is England! A man and a maid walk through Kentish grass fields: the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous; he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest.
Among other things he is a mathematical genius, working for the British government, and a cuckold. When the novel opens, Tietjens has been abandoned by his wife, Sylvia, who has run off to a German health resort with her lover. (In Ford, it seems, German health resorts are where you go to commit adultery.) Tietjens will not divorce Sylvia, because "no one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce," though he has cause, and she tortures him incessantly:
He felt a great deal of pain, over which there presided the tall, eel-skin, blonde figure of his wife...
Sylvia claims to hate her husband; calls him "the Ox;" at one point she yells "I'm bored!" and throws her breakfast at him. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, and Tietjens is savaged by the probability that their child together is probably not his own. And yet his sense of honor and duty prevails over his own misery.
His true affections lie with Valentine Wannop--the maid walking through Kentish grass above--a young suffragette and household servant who is devoted to her mother, a famous but impoverished novelist. Valentine is the opposite of Sylvia: deeply principled, humble in poverty, despising of cruelty. Tietjens muses himself on the difference between them:
If you wanted something killed you'd go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you'd go to Valentine: she'd find something to do for it... The two types of mind: remorseless enemy, sure screen, dagger... sheath!
Tietjens and Valentine become close after he rescues her from an abortive (and very strange) demonstration for women's suffrage at a golf course. Though they have never met before that moment, insinuations that she is Tietjens' mistress are generated on the spot. These accusations dog Tietjens and Valentine throughout the novel, though the relationship is never consummated. In fact, this is is a reoccurring irony: though Tietjens acts with the utmost integrity, his reputation is ruined by accusations of adultery with multiple women, of fathering children out of wedlock, even of being a French spy! His sense of honor, however, limits his willingness to defend himself. In a way, he is the mirror image of The Good Soldier's Edward Ashburnham, whose uprightness masks deep character flaws.
The epigram "Some do... some do not..." appears throughout the novel, in differing contexts. Tietjens and Valentine, by their self-denial, are those who "do not," and as such are set apart from the rest of the characters, all of whom "do": commit character assassination, make moral compromise, and generally pursue self-aggrandizement. Their love resounds in a lower, quieter register:
On the surface the story of her love for Tietjens had been static enough. It had begun in nothing and in nothing it had ended. But, deep down in her being--ah! it had progressed enough.
I love this; it is the appeal of those who "do not": Tietjens and Valentine's romance is a communion of spirits, not a summary of actions or appearances, and needs no outward expression to be validated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to say that, when you meet the one you love, that:
Words passed, but words could no more prove an established innocence than words can enhance a love that exists. He might as well have recited the names of railway stations.
I loved The Good Soldier, but what minimal amount of true love exists in that novel is the source of endless anguish. Mostly, it is bereft of love. Some Do Not... shares similarities of time, place, and theme, but in it, true love is unassailable.
If it is a love story, it is also a war story--split in two, the second half takes place after Tietjens has returned from the front lines of World War I, where he has experienced a shell shock that has blunted his brilliance and clouded his thoughts. The novel ends just before (and the next in the series picks up, I think, just after) Tietjens is about to ship out again. But the war somehow always seems secondary, either to the love story or the sexual warfare between Tietjens and Sylvia. We are not permitted, in this novel at least, to see Tietjens at war; far more important are the effects of the war back home. In fact, the novel comprises only a handful of long set pieces, through which Ford carefully weaves flashbacks and a surprising amount of stream-of-consciousness.
If one of the measures of a great book is that it seems impossible to do justice to in a review like this one, then Some Do Not... is a masterpiece. Like The Good Soldier, its simple structure belies endless complexities, and it constantly forces the reader to reconsider earlier events and characterizations. And there are three more books to go!