Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ladies Whose Bright Eyes by Ford Madox Ford

"Surely it is pleasant," Mr Sorrell said, "but I cannot see that it is well, and pleasantness is not the whole of life."

"Is it not?" the Lady Dionissia asked wonderingly.

"No, surely not," Mr Sorrell answered.  Are there not such things as duties, ambitions, and responsibilities?"

"I do not know what those things are," she answered.  "In the spring the moles come out of the woods and the little birds sing, and we walk in the gardens and take what pleasure we can.  And then comes the winter, and shuts us up in our castles so that it is not so pleasant; but with jongleurs and ballad-singers we pass the time as well as we may.  And what is there to do?"

Ford Madox Ford wrote Ladies Whose Bright Eyes as a sort of response to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Twain's time-traveling protagonist becomes a hero in the Middle Ages because he comes to it with a wealth of modern scientific knowledge that is seen as magic.  Ford's Henry Sorrell, sent back to fourteenth century England in a horrific train wreck, also has fantasies that his modernity will make him a powerful man:

"Why, good Lord," he said, "if it's the fourteenth century I can do anything.  Just think of the things I can invent!  Why, we can begin right bang off with aeroplanes.  There's no need to go through any intermediary stages.  How would you like to go flying through the air, my lady?  I've done it, and there's no reason why you shouldn't.  Why, we can terrorise every city in the world.  We could burn Paris down in a night.  They couldn't do anything--anything at all."

Of course, Sorrell, like most people in his day and ours, has no idea where to begin building an airplane.  Ford's out to mock Twain's notion that a man is wiser or more knowledgeable simply because he was born later in time, and repeatedly stresses how little Sorrell knows about the world he finds himself in.  He has no scientific knowledge to amaze with, and no historical knowledge to help him navigate his surroundings, as he shows in a long and funny riff where he tries to figure out if the fourteenth century had eggs:

He did not know much about history.  He thought eggs had been introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh, along with potatoes and brandy.  He did remember--the fact had somehow impressed itself on his mind because it was philological, and he had always taken an interest in the study of languages, which was a sound commercial pursuit--he remembered distinctly having read somewhere that Chaucer or Caxton, taking a voyage from the coast of Kent to Suffolk, had landed in search of eggs.

And yet, despite Ford's send-up of Sorrell as out of his league, he does somehow manage to become widely known as a worker of miracles.  This has nothing to do with his modern knowledge, as in Twain, and everything to do with his mysterious combined with dumb luck, and centers around a valuable golden cross given to him by a woman in the 20th century for transport that he refuses to let go of.  The cross--as much for its monetary value as its religious symbolism--puts Sorrell in the middle of a conflict between the mistresses of two quarreling castles, the conniving Lady Blanche and the beautiful and patient Lady Dionissia.  He pledges his fealty to one, and then, realizing his mistake, to the other.  At the same time, he becomes known as a mystic and religious healer.

Ford has Sorrell receive wisdom from his time-traveling experiences, rather than impart it.  It strains credulity a little to see the Sorrell who once thought eggs came from the Americas suddenly say this to an old knight who asks him for healing:

"Ah, gentle knight, we are in the hands of God and His little angels.  Of how much I may cure or of how little, that I cannot tell you, but I think that surely the cure under God lies more in you than in me.  For your faith will make you whole, or more, or less, according as it is great or little.  This I believe to be the truth of the very truth.  And in this way only, and in no other that I know of, do I think that you could find the fountain of youth.  But for the cross, surely take it into your hand and feel what it is like."

Sorrell's newfound appreciation of Providence is in stark contrast to modern--Ford's modern, and our own--pride about our ability to exert control over the natural world and even over ourselves.  Even though Ford's medieval denizens are particularly gullible when it comes to Sorrell's powers, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes is a serviceable rebuttal to the prevailing idea of the Middle Ages as "Dark Ages" bereft of knowledge.  


Brent Waggoner said...

I'm sure I'd enjoy this. It sounds funny but the dialog sounds a little stilted in excerpt. Confirm/deny?

Christopher said...

I think it's supposed to be medieval-esque.

Mitus Mita said...

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Christopher said...

Thanks, Mitus.