Twirls with moustache

Ford Madox Ford - Ford Madox Ford

November 22, 1996

A story that is sadder than all the other sad stories I have heard", is among the most hauntingly elegaic opening lines in English fiction. Yet Ford Madox Ford, author of The Good Soldier, was never quite accepted as a main player in English literature.

Max Saunders, in his surely definitive and ample biography (two volumes, 1,300 pages) leaves no doubt that Ford led a life utterly and without respite embroiled in the Modern Movement. D. H. Lawrence was likely right to suggest that Ford lived in a kind of "constant haze". But it hardly held him back. Apart from his 70 or so books (his "graphomania"), there were an elopement, a marriage scandal, love-affairs, editorships, military service in the Great War, Atlantic shufflings back and forth, and his eventual installation as a grand old man of literature which he affected to despise even as he relished its masquerade.

For, like Conrad, Ford always knew himself to be homo duplex, as self-inventing, as double or multiple, in life as in art. "The most interesting character Ford ever invented was Ford Madox Ford," said Caroline Gordon. Less favourable comment saw (and still sees) him rather as a fake, a kind of over-active impresario of his own name and work. Given these different perspectives the temptation, for a biographer might be to get drawn into Freudian or Lacanian pathology. Certainly Ford's English-German hybridity, or his sexual appetite, or his agoraphobia, or the early conversion to Catholicism in Protestant England, or his frontline gassing while a Welsh regiment officer "fighting his relatives" in a "war for democracy", or even his politics of "Toryism as socialism" - all open up possibilities for such interpretation. Commendably, and whatever his emphasis on "duality", Saunders keeps to his own conviction that "the oeuvre is where a truly critical biography should begin and end".

Ford (originally Ford Madox Hueffer) was a descendant of the Catholic Hueffers of Munster and the pre-Raphaelite clan that included his Rossetti cousins, and his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown, of whom he wrote a Life and Work in 1896. Ford himself would recall his Victorian upbringing as being among "the bearded tumultuous and moral Great", even as he sought to negotiate a way out of the Rossetti-Morris era through Edwardianism towards the rallying-cry modernism of Pound.

Born in 1873, Ford's early years were spent in Winchelsea and his education was as a day boy at University College School. Then came his precocious first book, a fairy tale, The Brown Owl, in 1891, followed by his marriage, increasingly fraught, to Elsie Martindale (by whom he had two children), and an ensuing liaison (1908-15) with the novelist Violet Hunt. If this was his own England, he would invent quite another in his trilogy on national identity, England and the English (beginning in 1907). Hunt's place was taken by other women, among them the Australian artist Stella Bowen with whom Ford had a daughter, the Americans Rene Wright and Elizabeth Cheatham, the novelist Jean Rhys, and, finally, the distinguished Polish-Jewish American painter, Janice Biala, with whom Ford spent his closing years.

Each, in turn, Ford thought himself in love with, even as he unremittingly exploited her for his art. Ford was never an easy companion, what with his mood swings and "emotional volatility", his various illnesses, his duties as a father, his frequent shortages of money, his increasing physical bulk, not to mention his itineraries ranging from Paris to London, Provence to New York - whatever the recompense for his companions of encounter-ing some of the leading artists of the age, Picasso, Brancusi, Cocteau, Hemingway.

Ford as begetter of the 12 issues of the English Review (1908-10), and of the transatlantic review (1924-25), requires its own highlighting. Both journals were spring-heads of modernism, part-archive, part-manifesto. Ford presided, near-magically, over two decades, pre and postwar, of art's newest idioms. The first journal, such was Ford's literary catholicism and acuity, included Conrad, Hardy, W. H. Hudson, Chesterton, Rupert Brooke and Arnold Bennett in its pages. The second had contributions from Conrad, from D. H. Lawrence (whom F. R. Leavis first read in English Review), Valery, Djuna Barnes, and Dorothy Richardson, and a gallery of painters and composers, from Juan Gris to Man Ray to Erik Satie. These two reviews were flagships of modernism; and Ford merits every possible plaudit as a simultaneous cajoler, propagandist, correspondent and indefatigable inspirer.

His later years were essentially taken up with America: an ongoing relationship with Pound; friendship with Allen Tate and Carol-ine Gordon; Robert Lowell as his youthful secretary; teaching at Olivet College, Michigan; constant migratory sorties back and forth to France; and always lectures on one or another circuit, even as he was writing late novels of social manners such as The Rash Act (1933) and Henry for Hugh (1934), a Mediterranean travel-and-culture exercise, The Great Trade Route (1937), or a literary history from Confucius to the present, The March of Literature (1938). Ford died in 1939, on board a ship to France - in motion to the last.

Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life is both meticulous to a fault and bright with insight. Amid all its detail, it does not lose sight of Walter Lowenfels's observation (cited on the title-page of volume one) that Ford "knew how to invent the truth". It manages, too, to see the comedy in the seriousness, quoting Rebecca West's delicious aside that being embraced by Ford was "like being the toast under a poached egg." Saunders is right, moreover, to invoke Pound's own "dual" bit of guying. If Ford was, as Pound said, "au fond a serious character", he also "had all his faults, like his moustache".

A. Robert Lee, until recently at the University of Kent, will move to a chair in English at Nihon University, Tokyo, in spring 1997.

Ford Madox Ford: Volume One, A Dual Life, The World Before the War

Author - Max Saunders
ISBN - 0 19 211789 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 632

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.