“Ladies Whose Bright Eyes” by Ford Madox Ford, under the pseudonym Daniel Chaucer, is a hilarious, yet subtly tragic, novel that may have, in part, been intended as a parody of Mark Twain’s chest-beating, jingoistic, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". It is better researched than Twain's book, including the descriptions of the comically detailed litigious debates, like that between the Lady Blanch and the abbess of the local convent who dispute the right to hold the Egerton-Tamworth Cross; the contrast between the riches of Salisbury cathedral, and its presentation as a social hub, in contrast with the immiseration of the town, and the description of the nefs and the luxurious bath in the slaughter yard; and the amusingly discussed right and convenience to end marriages and return a portion of a dowry where no child is conceived after a year. The reference to the merchants arguing over the price of corn in Salisbury Cathedral is a witty dig at Christian righteousness regarding the tax collectors in the Temple at Jerusalem whom Christ drove out with a whip. The subtle waggery is particularly apt given that the Egerton-Tamworth Cross is made from gold taken from these tax collectors. The novel entails unintentional time, as the protagonist, Mr Sorrel, while under chloroform, finds himself sent back from the nineteenth century to the fourteenth century, just as Queen Isabella has invaded England and taken the throne of her husband, Edward II. Mr Sorrel is often impressed by the ingenuity of mediaeval England, while discountenanced by the brutality and filth and darkness that surrounds him. When he first accepts that he has traversed hundreds of years of time, he is sure that he can become a great ruler, and wins the love of many ladies whose bright eyes shine upon him because of his ingenuity and lucidity and supposed sanctity as bearer of the Egerton-Tamworth Cross. He especially responds to the love of Dionyssia, a name that links them both with Dionysus, Orpheus, and the Maenads who tear him apart because of his gloominess. For despite his knowledge and creativity, Mr Sorrel becomes increasingly gloomy as he learns humility, telling Dionyssia: “I know nothing of my own arts. I said I was going out to conquer the world, yet I should not even know how to form a limited company.” Like Orpheus who must leave his Eurydice behind, Mr Sorrel regrets that he cannot live in the 14th century, and that he must abandon Dionyssia there.Alex
That Ford's corpus remains largely unread, if understandable, is unfortunate. Though none of his other works reach the heights of Parade's End or The Good Soldier, there is much available here, especially for one who enjoys Ford's artistry in his two masterpieces. LWBE treats some of the same ideas, though on a much briefer scale - it feels like a novella, though it's too long for that categorization. It is a well done novel in several ways, though many of its strengths are perhaps so quiet that the reader not looking for them may well miss them. In particular, though called a "romance" and written-off by many critics for being such, Ford constantly prevents the work from slipping into easy romance: the middle ages are not what they are expected, for example, and it is too late to save the ancient lands once back in the present (at least in the 1930s reworking). An enjoyable novel that engages and tweaks the idea of tradition.