SH: Why did you pick the novel for the discussion?
SJ: The short answer is that I like it. I knew there was an awful lot in it to discuss, and I hoped the readers would enjoy it. There was also the fact that it was 100 years since publication. We'd also come across Ford Madox Ford before on the Reading Group while talking about A Moveable Feast...
SH: What did you already know about Ford?
SJ: Not enough! I only first read him a few years ago. I actually first wrote about him in 2011, in relation to The Inheritors, the book he wrote with Joseph Conrad. While writing that piece I realised how lamentable my ignorance was - and decided to have a look at The Good Soldier... a decision I didn't regret.
SH: How important was previous coverage of Ford, and/or this novel, in the Guardian or the Observer?
SJ: It turned out to be very helpful. There are some really very good articles in the archive (most notably a piece by Julian Barnes) which informed plenty of what I wrote and turned out to be very entertaining.
SH: How did you decide on the subjects for your intros?
SJ: Well, I just went for things that seemed to emerge naturally from the book and from the discussions around it. I don't think I went out on any particular limbs. The final piece on Modernism came about because of a conversation I had at a gallery opening, which isn't where I normally source my ideas! But otherwise I went for big obvious subjects, focussing in on two of the big characters in the book.
SH: What else would you have gone into with more than 4 weeks?
SJ: Ah! Interesting. I would have looked in more detail at the way women are portrayed in the book, grappled with suggestions that Dowell may be misogynist... It would also have been interesting to talk about Catholicism. And I'd have liked to dig into Ford Madox Ford's own biography more - and hopefully been a little kinder to him than history tends to have been...
SH: Which discussion threads do you wish you could have followed up?
SJ: It would have been fascinating to try to set the record straight on accusations of anti-semitism that have been levelled against Ford. Commenters were also interested in Dowell's sexuality - which is definitely an interesting subject - although, I suppose, ultimately impossible to answer....There were also some really interesting questions about social conventions and expectations around the time of writing that I didn't feel properly qualified to answer. Although I'd have loved to have been able to.
SH: How did the volume of responses compare with other groups you’ve led?
SJ: About average, I'd say. There was definitely a healthy amount of interest.
SH: Any other obvious differences?
SJ: A few more academics landed on the threads than usual. But that's always a good thing - definitely enriches the discussion. For the first time ever, there was a complaint of 'elitism' - but that was a rather strange comment.
SH: What surprised you most about the discussion?
SJ: Well, it's hard to pinpoint any one thing. And by this stage in the Reading group, this isn't really a surprise, because it happens all the time. But there were a great many ideas that emerged about the book that just hadn't occurred to me. For instance, a few readers built a fantastic theory about Dowell being a murderer. I hadn't seen that coming! And while they were half-joking, it was also wonderfully plausible. It seemed to me that you could just about make the case fit...
SH: What pleased you most?
SJ: The fact that so many people enjoyed the book and engaged with it in such detail. It really did provoke a lot of thought. I think it converted quite a few people to Ford Madox Ford - which I'd count as a success!
SH: Did you notice a change in attitudes towards any of the subjects across the span of discussions – towards Dowell, eg?
SJ: There was a definite change towards Dowell - and one which pretty much followed the experience of most readers as you go through the book. i.e. you start of sympathetic and end up deeply suspicious. Meanwhile, I think a lot of people grew in admiration and respect for Ford Madox Ford...
SH: I’d be interested in your views on any differences between men and women contributors, but am aware that it’s not easy to tell the sex of those contributing due to the names people post under.
SJ: I don't know the sex of most contributors. And I really can't say. In fact, while I'm not generally a fan of internet anonymity, it's one of the really nice things about the Reading Group. It doesn't matter who someone is, where they come from, what their educational background may be, what they work as, how old they are: all that matters is what they say, as that's pretty much all you know about them.
SH: How many contributors were new to Ford, in your view?
SJ: More than half, I'd say.
SH: How many who contributed were hooked by that first sentence, do you think, and how many will be spurred onto reading more Ford?
SJ: I'm afraid I can't really say. I certainly got the impression that plenty of people wanted to read more. And that quite a few were intrigued by the opening. It also hopefully helped that we gave a few books away...
SH: Did many contributors try and categorise the kind of novel it is? Did any see it as essentially funny?
SJ: They certainly talked about it as an example of Modernism, and as a book about manners and customs... Some, as noted, had fun suggesting it may be a murder mystery. And plenty definitely saw the humour and absurdity - although I'm not sure anyone went for the idea that it was outright comedy. In contrast, there was also quite a bit of talk of the novel as a 'tragedy'. One said: "It has the elements of Tragedy but it is just sad, and that is all the tragedy we get nowadays. TGS seems to me to be a twisted up little tragedy in a tea cup." FMF himself could almost have written that...