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This Happy Breed

The Fifth Queen

by Ford Madox Ford
Vanguard, 592 pp., $6.50

How can one discuss relatively minor Ford like The Fifth Queen without beating the drum a little for the major books which ought by now to be as well known as Ulysses or The Sun Also Rises? Allen Tate made some important points about The Good Soldier last spring in this review. Now let me quote Auden from The Mid-Century of February, 1961:

Parade’s End has never yet been a popular success and few critics, I believe, have paid much attention to it. This neglect passes my comprehension. Of the various demands one can make of a novelist, that he show us the way in which society works, that he show an understanding of the human heart, that he create characters in whose reality we believe and for whose fate we care, that he describe things and people so that we feel their physical presence, that he illuminate our moral consciousness, that he make us laugh and cry, that he delight us by his craftsmanship, there is not one, it seems to me, that Ford does not completely satisfy. There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade’s End is one of them.

Ford’s alumni—people who have been “with” him a decade or more—are sometimes tempted to shrillness or cold scorn at Ford’s neglect. One feels a bit giddy in being so obviously right in what is, after all, no small matter of judgment. Ford is peculiar enough, heaven knows, but few writers are less hurt in their substance by their accidents—in Ford’s case, his being in some sense a Catholic novelist and hence a favorite of critics like Tate, Auden and Graham Greene, his long apprenticeship to a sort of Pre-Raphaelite, William Morris romanticism, the habit he had during his lifetime of apparently giving himself away in an embarrassingly unprofessional manner, his steely hostility to such jolly fixers and trimmers as David Garnett and Edmund Gosse, his troubles with women and the Violet Hunt affair that alienated James and set the pugnacious Jessie Conrad to her task of “hoofing out Hueffer.” Do these scandals of the feverish pre-war years seem trivial today? They do indeed. But in a writer of such magnificence, delicacy, and power they point to something vital; namely, that Ford had his very own “matter,” which was not the matter of James or Conrad, and that nothing under the sun would persuade him to play the part of genial straight man they and their disciples had automatically assigned him. He had to share the same literary society but was determined to share it, as Tate has written, like a Ford and not like a James or a Conrad character. So it is merely curious that James is supposed to have caricatured him as Densher in The Wings of the Dove, and pointless to rehash the alleged inaccuracies of his book on Conrad or of Portraits from Life, his memoirs. Everything written about Ford by his contemporaries and every memoir of Ford’s partakes somewhat of fiction, but fiction with a stranglehold on reality. Academic criticism is never more Alexandrian than when it tries to keep these issues alive as quarrels rather than the amusing, illustrative anecdotes they are. Ford ran afoul of the last great non-academic academy in English letters; echoes of the clash may take at least another fifty years to die out.

One significant point his supporters haven’t yet grappled with is his conscious choice of England and the English as a prime subject in itself. Nobody of his time was better equipped to bring a certain kind of passionate curiosity to the subject. Half German (Westphalian and Bavarian), he was keenly aware of his difference from James and Conrad in being also half English, of illustrious Pre-Raphaelite stock. (He passed himself off to Ellery Sedgwick of the Atlantic as “a freeholder of the cinque ports who needn’t take off his hat in the presence of the king”—a bit of charming nonsense, needless to say.) In 1905, the year of The Soul of London and a year before the first volume of The Fifth Queen appeared, he wrote:

It is for this reason that one may, with some confidence, set down the fact that the English is the type of the future. For, being born of the best types of so many other races, the English unite nowadays in themselves all the virtues of the Occidental nations.

Schwaermerei this may be, perhaps even jingoism, but at least it is the sort of generous over-belief that can animate great fiction and support a large-minded novelist through a lifetime of disillusion. It is scarcely the accent of Hugh Walpole or Arnold Bennett, the role his patrons assigned him. How often remarks that would sound inane in minor writers prove to be crucial in the great.

Ford’s matter forms a triangle, his German-Catholic loyalties and his Francophilia at the two lower angles, England at the apex. During the forty years of his maturity the English were made, in one way or another, to live up to the claims he had made for them in 1905—even—and this is the crux of the matter—in their vices, even in their hypocrisies, coldnesses, muddle and mess.

In 1908 when the Fifth Queen trilogy was completed, Conrad wrote Galsworthy: “Ford’s last Fifth Queen novel is amazing. The whole cycle is a noble conception—the swan song of Historical Romance—and frankly I am glad to have heard it.” To read the 592 pages of this enormously deliberate, enormously vigorous and meticulous reconstruction of Thomas Cromwell’s last days and the rise and fall of Catherine Howard, you must either have, or develop, a taste for oratorical drama in its purest form in English after Dryden and Milton. Which is to say that the drama is all in the speech and the speech is all oratory. I venture to guess that this may have put Ford himself under something of a strain. It might fairly be objected that the cycle is too noble in conception, too desperately poised at the summit of cloud-scraping points of honor Ford attempts to distil everything lofty, radiant, pure, and beautiful in the medieval world into the person of “Kat” Howard, a veritable Chartres of a woman whose moral virtue in this book makes pygmies out of the mighty Henry and the mighty Cromwell, whose historical weight nobody could accuse Ford of minimizing to the slightest degree.

When Ford conceived the novel, after a country idyll with his first wife, while he “was still much influenced by the aesthetic movement in which he had been brought up and by Madox Brown’s [his grandfather’s] vision of the color and romance of medieval England” (in Goldring’s words), the private letters of Henry VIII had just been published and Ford thought at first of writing Henry’s life. Deciding instead to write the novels, he received a letter from William Michael Rossetti that echoes the conventional view of Catherine as a “slightly scabreuse female.” How this lady, a supposed adulteress before her elevation, was transformed into the figure of Racinian majesty that Ford makes her is a mystery for literary scholarship. But it is clearly an operation of the same mind that created Sylvia and Christopher Tietjens, a mind for which, even in this relatively romantic phase, religion, politics and sex are as closely interwoven as they are in Racine. Cromwell the sexless calculator, all visionary politics; Henry half passionate, half political, but wholly political in a crisis; Catherine passionate, romantic, and unflinchingly moral; this, surely, in Ford’s scheme—and the scheme is at least possible if not probable—was the most dramatic turning point in modern English history.

Like another monument of Catholic oratorical and propaganda art, Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, The Fifth Queen has the inevitable flaws of historical fiction. Besides being a work of its author’s maturity, I Promessi Sposi is a better book because Manzoni pushes his religious propaganda so far in one direction that it becomes, to modern ears, merely quaint, like Mannerist portraiture, allowing him a great range of maneuver outside and below his religious program. As Moravia observes in his brilliant introduction to the novel, the oratory in Manzoni is not true oratory because it doesn’t engage with anything solid, is mere colorist propaganda. The real play of good and evil goes on somewhere beneath its canopy. But Ford’s technique is closer to Racine than to Manzoni. His oratory is true oratory and extremely fine in itself, but the struggle is between two kinds of virtue—political and moral—which we know well enough in our public life, rather than between virtue and vice, as is more customary and perhaps more appropriate in fiction.

Ford was to learn a great deal more, first hand, about the ravages of passion and the subtleties of love-hate before he wrote the Tietjens series twenty years later, greatly expanding his range and varying his effects. The Fifth Queen is slow reading. Like his grandfather’s paintings, it bursts with material quaintnesses and odd locutions. Its scholarship is immense. Its humor might indulgently be called Shakespearian. Half way through many readers may ask, pantingly, if an historical novel need be quite this good in quite this way. They may feel like a mole trying to take in Delacroix’s Sardanapalus. But even so, the power of mind that shapes all this glittering pageantry is the same that sees behind it to the bloody struggle of wills that made England. Nothing better could be recommended to serious students of the period.

Letters

Ford Madox Ford April 2, 1964

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