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 …

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Letters

Ford Madox Ford April 2, 1964