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  • Yehoshua Paul

1911 - Ladies Whose Bright Eyes

1911. The world’s first scheduled airmail post is delivered in the UK, and the first public electric escalators are installed at the entrance to the Earl’s Court tube station in London. In the United States, Frederick Winslow Taylor publishes his first installment of the series “The Principles of Scientific Management” in American Magazine, and workers everywhere launch strikes when governments and business owners attempt to apply his suggestions.

In the United Kingdom, it is now the middle of the second wave of the National Efficiency Movement; a movement which seeks to discredit old-fashioned habits, customs and institutions, and replace them with modern efficient administration. Technocratic efficiency and managerial efficiency are in high demand. The world is developing at a very rapid pace, and many decision makers in Britain feel that to be more efficient pretty much everything in the country needs to be updated and upgraded to comply with the latest modern scientific principles. Ford Madox Ford disagrees with this attitude though. In the midst of all the modern efficiency being introduced, he writes Ladies whose bright eyes, a satirical time travel novel that thrusts a modern book publisher back into the Middle Ages, a period where other sets of principles are necessary to survive and thrive.

Ford Madox Ford (born Ford Hermann Hueffer, 1873-1939) was an English novelist, poet, critic and editor who was very instrumental in the development and promotion of English literature during the early twentieth century. In 1908, he founded the journal The English Review in which many great authors and poets made their debut, such as Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence. In 1924, he founded The Transatlantic Review, another journal that heavily influenced modern literature. As a critic, Ford is known for remarking “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you,” something I definitely plan on trying.

Ford’s output was considerable. He wrote dozens of novels, essays, poetry and literary criticism. He is best known for his novel, The Good Soldier, frequently included in the great literature of the 20th century lists, and his Fifth Queen trilogy about the life of Catherine Howard, which Joseph Conrad described at the time as the “Swan Song of historical romance.

Ladies Whose Bright Eyes was written as a reverse more down to earth version of Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Ford wondered what would really happen to a modern man if he were thrown back to the Middle Ages, and wrote this book to explore the idea. The modern man in question is Mr. Sorrell, a business-like book publisher who prides himself on knowing exactly what it is the public wants and publishing it for them, literary quality being only a secondary concern. After falling unconscious in a train accident, he wakes up 500 years earlier in the body of a miracle worker carrying a holy artifact.

Mr. Sorrell faces many challenges in his new time period. Initially, he assumes he is in some sort of pageant and it takes him some time to accept his new circumstances, a time period he is very much ill-equipped to deal with. The nobility and clergy he encounters all speak French, which he can barely understand, have very mercenary motivations, and assume the artifact he is carrying is capable of performing miracles (it can), which is why they all want it for themselves. For his part, Mr. Sorrel is trying to introduce modern ideas and inventions into his new surroundings with very little success. For example, he tries suggesting to the Lady Blanche, the bloodthirsty noble lady whose castle he is staying in, that if she were to light the corridors at nights with torches, increased efficiency would allow her to reduce her servants by half. She responds that if she did that the other half would starve and become bandits, and that furthermore lit corridors at night would make it easier for servants and serfs to come to her bedroom and slit her throat (and perform other outrages), a very real risk back then, and not a scenario that Mr. Sorrel is at all prepared to deal with. Also, while Mr. Sorrel knows of planes, trains and guns, he has absolutely no idea how to build them, or even what saltpeter looks like, so the knowledge is useless. Despite these challenges, Mr. Sorrell manages to do very well for himself in his new time period, mainly because the artifact he carries cements his reputation as a miracle worker (despite protests to the contrary), and results in a steady stream of peasant tributes and adoring women.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book as it did a great job in highlighting some of the greater absurdities of the attitudes Mr. Sorrell purported to represent while also providing a more realistic humorous take on the crudities of the Middle Ages. The stakes were quite literally life and death, and yet still the upper-classes were willing to take the time to wrangle over the finer legal points of which form of extreme violence is warranted when exactly. I have as much historical knowledge as Mr. Sorrell had when he was thrust back in time so at times I found it a bit challenging to fully understand the wider historical and political circumstances being described. However, I viewed this lack of knowledge as more of an advantage than a hindrance because I was pretty much on the same page as the protagonist. Overall the book is fun, and it gets my recommendation.

In the middle ages people needed to be prepared for any scenario

The Omer today is eternity in courage, which seems appropriate for the novel because of the time travel theme. Mr. Sorrel demonstrates courage of heart and courage of actions in both the twentieth century and the Middle Ages. He shows courage in the twentieth century, by performing socially unacceptable actions which he knows in his heart to be the right thing to do. In the Middle Ages, Mr. Sorrell, and everyone else, need to demonstrate some level of external courage on a day to day basis. Otherwise, they will very literally end up dead. These instances help illustrate the eternal nature of courage, which we constantly need to get through life regardless of the time period we are living in; whether it is to negotiate a raise with a boss; ask a future spouse out on a date; or struggle on a daily basis with a difficult handicap. Courage is part of our life’s journey and without it we are lost.

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