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Biographers are usually fired with the ambition of discovering unpublished material, and American scholars have won a reputation in Britain for their indefatigability in tracking down papers in attics, lumber rooms, and libraries, and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 with himself, the need to persuade others to accept this romance as reality, was uppermost. José Collins, a star of musicals in England during the First World War, used to sing a song, “Oh, for a night in Bohemia—hemia—hemia.” After reading Ford’s life, one feels one has spent not a night but an epoch in that exhausting country.
The surname he finally took was an unwitting tribute to the power which his provenance exerted over him. He was a grandchild of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and he grew up resenting the Little Lord Fauntleroy clothes he was forced to wear as a child, the soul-fingering concern among the circle to discover genius in all their children, and the adulation of Famous Names. His emigration to Bohemia was part of his revolt against the respectability of the Pre-Raphaelites and of both official and avant-garde art in England—that atmosphere which Whistler so disliked. Ford’s delight in Americans later in his life sprang from his relief in finding people less enslaved by formalities, less ceremonious and reserved in their homes.
And yet, paradoxically, it mattered much to him that he was a gentleman. He wanted to be so regarded. To be so was the cornerstone of the myth which he told to himself about himself. He may not have wanted to ape the upper classes, but he had to believe that he could at any time be received by them on equal terms if he wanted. He was imprisoned as much as any of the Royal Academicians or Eminent Men of Letters by the need to assert that artists and writers were as distinct as the nobility and gentry from trade and industry. They did not have to dirty their fingers and minds with money. They were above it not merely on principle but by virtue of being gentlemen. The upper classes and the creative minds, therefore, were bound together by the bond that money-making was beneath them, and it was part of a writer’s duty to set off this alliance of free spirits against the tainted, blowzy, shackled middle class of financiers, tradesmen, and industrialists.
This was Ford’s justification for his perennial rows with anyone who published him and his suspicion that even the great literary agent, J.B. Pinker, was not getting the best terms for him. Publishers were not gentlemen. This was why Ford in the First World War soon joined up to fight—as an officer. This was why he was able to keep his self-respect however desperate his financial state became: if he was prepared to follow what he said was his grandfather’s precept—to give his last penny to help a potential genius—he expected everyone else to do the same for him.
He had a nebulous vision of life to which he could refer when he needed reassurance. The trouble is that it wasn’t deeply felt and put into shape by his subconscious as happens to the greatest writers. Bits of it came from the current historiography of the day—history was the great explainer of the human predicament at the turn of the century as sociology is today. Other bits came from his memories and encounters: he was a natural magpie, picking up and adapting other people’s notions and turning them to his own ends.
It was essential to the preservation of Ford’s psyche that he should believe that the gentleman is always defeated by Destiny. Robert Huntley has made an analysis of Ford’s theory of history and shows how the theory pervades the novels, and he has done a good job in describing how the theory was part of the stock in trade of the historiography, social Darwinism, and Hegelian offshoots of the times. There were four ages in England—medieval, Tudor-Stuart, eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the modern age about to be born. Each could be characterized by a dominant psychological type. For instance, medieval man was an amalgam of different races and hence contained within him a welcome plasticity. But he was to be replaced by the Puritan dynamic which in turn gave way to the Philistine merchant of Victorian times.
The psychological type even had a characteristic physiognomy. (“Holbein’s lords no longer ride hunting. They are inmates of palaces, their flesh is rounded, their limbs at rest…they are indoor statesmen; they deal in intrigues…and have become secondary rulers.”) These types struggled against the Time Spirit which was progressively dehumanizing man, who was the victim of progress. “Convention and tradition work blindly but surely for the preservation of the normal type—for the extinction of proud, resolute, and unusual individuals.”
Curiously enough, Huntley doesn’t carry his examination of these themes forward to Ford’s last novels, and his omission of the tetralogy, Parade’s End, is puzzling because it is a work now much praised as the novel which best encapsulates Ford’s ideology. His study of Ford is so nearly a good book that one wonders why it isn’t better. It’s partly because, although Huntley writes clearly, unhampered by jargon, he doesn’t know how to make his argument dramatic, nor has he quite mastered the art of sustaining an argument in paragraphs. But when one turns to Mizener’s appendices and text and reads the stuff of which Ford’s novels were made, then an awful doubt intrudes. Huntley’s is the tenth study on Ford to appear and Mizener’s is the third biography. Are Ford’s life and writing worth all this strenuous exegesis?
Mizener calls his biography The Saddest Story, which was the title that Ford wanted to give The Good Soldier, and he calls it sad because Ford wasted his opportunities, and had no focus to his life, and never received the recognition that many people consider to have been his due. But sadness settles upon his readers today for another reason. A notable writer’s illusions, even his delusions, can buy him a ticket to fame if he can somehow persuade his readers and, in his private life, his friends, that, bizarre as his wish fulfillment is, it illuminates the truth.
But Ford drove his illusions beyond the point of no recall. Twice in his life he had to face the truth. The first was his attempt to defeat his wife’s refusal to divorce him. He decided that he would go to his father’s country, Germany, acquire citizenship, and obtain a German divorce. After living there for a few months with his mistress he persuaded himself that everything was accomplished, returned to England, declared that he was now married to Violet Hunt, and was promptly sued by his wife, who won an indefensible case. Ford collapsed with a nervous breakdown. The truth had caught up with him.
The second occasion was when he went to the front in the First World War. He never fought in the trenches, but he came under shellfire in the support and transport lines. Once again he disintegrated. He pulled every string to get the cushy job that the traditional embusqués of that war were so despised for doing. Once again he knew that he had failed to live up to his own conception of what a gentleman should be.
Like Nathanael West, another compulsive delusionist, he was able to write only one unforgettable book. The book of Ford’s impressions, taken from his writings and edited by Michael Killigrew, with an affectionate but indulgent preface, contains numbers of agreeable stories in which Ford usually appears in the role of the wise, prescient, humane seer, most of which bear the unmistakable mark of untruth upon them. Ford was a great gossip and bragger, who cared to desperation about his reputation and standing, and if they were not high enough, he determined to make them up. He had to exaggerate, and it was this that eventually led Conrad, whom he had genuinely helped in years of collaboration, to explode in a black rage of ingratitude (the very sin of which he accused Ford); and Hemingway with much less justification and greater malevolence also gleefully to take the skin off his back.
Whatever success Ford achieved, he managed to turn it into dust and ashes. The English Review and the Transatlantic Review were, after all, considerable achievements. Ford had an eye for good prose, an ear for the sound that poetry was soon to be making. The list of his discoveries is formidable; his kindness to young writers legendary. And is it not something to have held Pound’s regard for so long? Yet both little magazines, which could have been more influential than they were, were destroyed by his egoism, fantasies, and financial ineptitude.
About his talents, as in the case of every writer who is nowhere near the first rank, you pick and choose and judge according to the value you put on this gift or intention and the charge you impose for the failure to develop it or your dislike of the other parts of the enterprise. I find most historical novels unreadable (an exception being those by Marc Bloch’s gifted pupil, Zoë Oldenburg). So I see nothing in The Fifth Queen. As for the Tietjens tetralogy, I find the autobiographical fantasy of the English gentlemen unendurable. If I have to choose, I prefer the vulgar money-seeking Jews whom Ford at that time used as symbols of the transformation of English life and values into a meaningless and degraded parade to the retreat of the gentleman into frugality and renunciation which Ford unconvincingly poses as the alternative.
If I have got to be buttonholed by an advocate of the Small Producer as the savior of civilization from the horrors of rule by the Corporation, financiers, and the machine age, I would rather have another fat man, G. K. Chesterton, who is at least a democrat. I would rather read A. G. Street if I have to mourn the decline of the gentry and the decay of farming (which incidentally is the most successful growth industry in post-1945 Britain). It is customary to cite T.S. Eliot’s indictment of English culture at that time and then to declare how Ford too senses decay. Better judges of literature than I are impressed by the Tietjens novels and of course there is no doubt what they are intended to do. But I remember Wimsatt’s intentional fallacy. Perhaps Mizener does too: his article on Jude the Obscure, written thirty years ago, is still a classic; and when in his biographies he finds it appropriate to make literary judgments, he resembles a champion figure skater performing dazzling pirouettes and hoping the ice will not crack.
Nevertheless, Mizener, while admitting that Ford is nearer to Leigh Hunt and Harold Skimpole than Keats, is always nudging us toward an “And yet…” paragraph. Ford is certainly a figure in literary history. After 1918 he could easily have been left stranded on the English beach like a prewar seal, waving his flippers at the receding figures of his masters, James and Conrad, and unable to refloat himself in a sea inhabited by Bennett with whom he had quarreled, by Wells and Bloomsbury, who in different ways were not his sort, and by men of letters such as J. C. Squire and Hugh Walpole.
Ford emigrated to Paris. That was where the action was. That was not merely the headquarters of the European avant-garde, but the place where the most original prose in English was being written: by Joyce (Ford was the first editor of Finnegans Wake), but more particularly by the new generation of American writers. By instinct Ford guessed that the language of the novel was going to be developed by Americans, and that English writers were going to be impeded by their gentility. Important as his encouragement of the young Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis may have been, perhaps it mattered even more at a slightly later time to the then neglected Allen Tate.
His devotion to literature cannot be questioned. He was a professional, a craftsman, a good judge of promise. He left the imprint of his vast paunch, of his delight in the gallons of wine he drank, of generosity to the miserable and the talented which went beyond the habit of taking his ego out for airing. His women continued to love him, and anyone fortunate enough to be loved by the sweet-natured Stella Bowen had more than luck. Stephen Crane spoke for a good many of his fellow writers when he said that when Ford got to Heaven he would patronize God, but God would get used to it for Ford was all right. His temperament forced him to squander his talents but not to destroy them.
For he left behind him one novel which after fifty years shows no signs of perishing. The Good Soldier exists. It is at least as good as that novel by another of James’s disciples—H. O. Sturgis’s Belchamber. For once the story and the construction take control and dispossess Ford’s fantasies. For once he brought it off. For an instant his professionalism escaped across the frontiers of Bohemia and gave birth to a child which does not need artificial respiration from the iron lung of the faculties of literature in universities.