In one of many memorable scenes in the BBC’s miniseries Parade’s End, (anti-) hero Christopher Tietjens defends himself against the gentle goading of his young suffragette lover Valentine Wannop. The scene works because it’s saturated with yearning. Tietjens wants her but he can’t have her. Adultery would violate the value system he’s structured his life upon, the system he calls “parade.”
The problem is that the world doesn’t put much stock in the “parade” anymore, so Tietjens’ noblest actions come across as empty or even silly. His love for “every field and hedgerow of this country” has no place in modern times. The yearning here is sexual but also nostalgic: it’s a longing for a way of life that can never return and a way of making meaning that’s become meaningless.
Tietjens lists his values for Valentine in a kind of schoolboy recitation (rendered beautifully by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, he of the moist eyes and wobbly chin):
“Duty and service to above and below
Keeping your word
Honoring the past
Looking after your people, and beggaring yourself if need be before letting duty go hang!”
Valentine retorts, “You’re as innocent about yourself as a child!” And he knows she’s right, and laughs at himself when she says he’d have had the same complaints about the erosion of morality if he lived in the eighteenth century.
Yet Tietjens is the hero of this tragedy precisely because he lives his life by a code the rest of the world has let “go hang.” He’s part of a long literary tradition of such heroes. The knight vs. the courtiers. The cowboy vs. the railway barons and oilmen. The hardboiled detective vs. the police department.
We’re used to thinking of modernity as the birthplace of individualism, the era wherein collective morality gave way to every-man-for-himself thinking. What’s fascinating about Parade’s End is that it’s Tietjens who becomes the rugged individualist, the rogue. He turns his back on society–stays true to his own, very English values–and it costs him his fortune, his estate, his “good name.” By resisting modernity he becomes one of modern literature’s greatest heroes.