Graham Greene called The Last Post a mistake and omitted from his collected edition of the Parade's End novels (1 2 3), operating according to what seem to have been Ford's express wishes. I am not sure I agree with Ford and his protege, but the purpose of this novel does remain unclear. The last time we saw Christopher Tietjens, he was celebrating Armistice Day, having decided once and for all to abandon the income of Groby, his ancestral home, and to take up with his would-be mistress, Valentine Wannop. It was an awfully sweet ending for a series about a perpetually tortured man, and it's hard to shake the feeling that Ford couldn't resist adding a dash of bitters:
It had come through to Marie Leonie partly then and partly subsequently that Christopher's wife had turned up at Christopher's empty house that was in the Square only a few yards away. They had gone back late at night probably for purposes of love and had found her there. She had come for the purpose of telling them that she was going to be operated on for cancer so that with their sensitive natures they could hardly contemplate going to bed together at that moment.
In the first novel, Father Consett, the confessor of Tietjens' vindictive wife Sylvia, warns that if Christopher ever leaves her for another woman, "[t]he world will echo with her wrongs." In this way, Ford's impulse to write a fourth novel makes sense; Sylvia Tietjens would never consent to simply let Tietjens and Valentine live together apart from her torments. And true to form, on Armistice Day she invents a lie about cancer to keep them apart.
The most perplexing thing about The Last Post, however, is that it's barely about Tietjens at all. The strongest character is his brother, Mark, who has had some sort of seizure brought on by the news that England has refused to follow the Germans into their own territory. Mark maintains that his paralysis is voluntary--he echoes Iago's insistence that "from this time forth I never will speak word"--but whether that is true is never clear. The narrative perspective bounces from Mark to his recently married mistress, Marie Leonie, to Valentine, but Christopher is away on an aeroplane, gone to Groby to convince Sylvia's tenants there not to tear down the symbolic Great Groby Tree.
But Sylvia of course, is at Christopher's house, in order to "torture that girl out of her mind. That was why she was there now. She imagined Valentine under the high roof suffering tortures because she, Sylvia, was looking down over the hedge." She brings with her (for reasons that are never all that clear to me) a murderers' row of the series' villains: General Campion, Tietjens' godfather who sends him to the front because of Sylvia's mud-slinging; Ruggles, who does much of Sylvia's dirt-digging; Edith Ethel Duchemin, who hates Tietjens because her husband owes him money; Mrs. de Bray Pape, the uncouth American who is renting Groby (and believes herself the spiritual descendant of Louis XIV's consort); even Michael Mark, Tietjens' son, whose dubious parentage tortures Tietjens. All this leads to a very tense climax in which Sylvia, at the head of her phalanx of scoundrels, confronts a defenseless Valentine. But, because this is Ford, things do not turn out as they seem that they will:
[Sylvia said, "]They can all, soon, call you Mrs. Tietjens. Before God, I came to drive those people out... But I wanted to see how it was you kept him..."
Sylvia Tietjens was keeping her head turned aside, drooping. Hiding a tendency to tears, no doubt. She said to the floor.
"I say again, as God hears me, I never thought to harm your child. His child... But any woman's... Not harm a child... I have a fine one, but I wanted another... with its littleness... It's the riding has done it..." Someone sobbed!
Sylvia, having come intent to destroy Valentine psychologically, discovers that Valentine is pregnant with Tietjens' child and cannot do it. Perhaps the corruption of an innocent thing is too far; perhaps it is the realization that Valentine has succeeded where she could not, not just in keeping him, but in giving him a child that is doubtlessly his, and a family. I wish that I knew what that last phrase--it's the riding has done it--meant, but I have not been able to figure it out.
Is The Last Post a failure? On one hand, it ties up the loose end of Sylvia, who broods over the happy ending of A Man Could Stand Up--, and I think it does so appropriately. On the other hand, there's something discordant about packaging Christopher Tietjens away in an aeroplane to finish the tetralogy which is expressly his. I am reminded of Rabbit Remembered, but in that case Rabbit was dead, and the novella was written in the spirit of mourning. The Last Post is a novel of mourning too, but for an English culture that has perished with the war (like Groby Great Tree, which takes out half Groby wall with it).
Tietjens' absence, however, provides us--with what, exactly? More space for someone like Marie Leonie, Mark Tietjens' wife, who gives us the French perspective on the end of World War I, I suppose. Marie Leonie is a well-developed, intriguing character, and so is the "paralyzed" Mark, but they aren't Tietjens, and so the experience of reading The Last Post is like ordering the steak and being served the beef consomme.
But--then again--these books are wonderful and it's wonderful to have more of them. I am a little sad to have done with them, but I have the upcoming BBC adaptation to look forward to, scripted by none other than Tom Stoppard. It will probably be the best five hours of television that anyone has ever seen, ever.