A Man Could Stand Up— opens on Armistice Day, with Valentine Wannop learning that her love, Christopher Tietjens, has returned to London from the front. As she prepares to meet him, the narrative suddenly shifts time and place to earlier in the year, with Tietjens commanding a group of soldiers in a trench somewhere in the war zone. Tietjens leads his company bravely as they shelter from the constant German strafes, before the narrative again jumps to conclude with an actual Armistice Day celebration.
In this simple narrative Ford creates dense, complex character studies of Valentine and Tietjens. Tietjens, often called “the last Tory” for his staunch and unwavering approach to honor, duty, and fidelity, has changed greatly from the man he was in the previous installments in the series. Ford explores the psychological horror that the Great War inflicted on its combatants through the lens of Valentine’s gentle curiosity about Tietjen’s time on the front: men returned from battle injured not just in body, but in soul, too. The constant, unrelenting shelling, the endless strafes, the clouds of poison gas, the instant death of friends and comrades for no reason at all, the muddy and grim entrenchments where men lived and died—all of these permanently changed soldiers in ways that previous wars didn’t. Now the “last Tory” wants nothing more than to retreat from society and live a quiet life with the woman he loves—who is not his wife.
As we follow Valentine and Tietjens through the last day of the war, we see how the Great War was not just the destruction of men, but of an entire era.