The Saddest Story
The Alien Protagonist of Ford Madox Ford
Your Mirror to My Times: The Selected Autobiographies and Impressions of Ford Madox Ford
Biographers are usually fired with the ambition of discovering unpublished material, and American scholars have won a reputation in Britain for their indefatigability in tracking down papers in attics, lumber rooms, and libraries, and for their persuasiveness in inducing their owners to part with them. One of the reasons why they succeed is the scrupulous way they handle the material they are given. The British on occasions huff and puff at them for being ponderous, and it is true that some of the standard biographies of literary figures which have appeared in recent years scarcely sparkle. But it is this dogged attempt to discover the facts, and not to leap to premature judgments, that wins the confidence of the squirrels who hoard the papers.
Arthur Mizener enhances this reputation in his biography of Ford Madox Ford. He has obtained the papers of Janice Biala, Ford’s last constant companion; of Ford’s first daughter who had her mother’s papers; of his third daughter who had the letters between Ford and his third love, her mother, Stella Bowen; of his second love, Violet Hunt; and of Edward Naumburg. From these and a mass of other material he has written a biography of over 450 pages, supported by 150 pages of appendices and notes of which one can say that there is not a sentence that could induce a lip to curl in anger or a cheek to flush with shame. At the very point when, after describing some incident or situation on which you would imagine that the biographer might risk an ironic comment or begin to shake with laughter, Mizener gently averts his eyes and passes on to the next imbroglio. Nevertheless, Janice Biala thinks the portrait unjust, and Ford’s first daughter thinks it unfair. Even when a man has been dead over thirty years, the lot of the biographer is hard.
And yet there is a doubt whether this affectionate, scrupulous exactitude is really apposite for a character such as Ford’s. There was no pattern, no drama to his life, no variation: what it was in his thirties it went on being in his fifties and sixties. As a result, the reader is always finding Ford in the same predicament: broke, having to move for lack of money, always complaining, quarreling with his publishers or anyone with whom he was in a business relationship, always loyally fudging about for his friends, working ceaselessly, and talking, talking, talking.
He expressed himself through talk as much as through his writing. He had to have an audience twenty-four hours a day. You feel he changed women almost as much because he wore them out and needed a new audience as because he was swept off his feet by their charms. Unlike so many other Bohemians, he wrote as well as talked, almost every day an odd 2,000 words, so that he ended with eighty-one books to his name. But the talk, the need to live out his romance …