Ford Madox Ford
An Immodest Violet: The Life of Violet Hunt
In his 1937 memoir Blasting and Bombardiering, Wyndham Lewis—writer, painter, founder of Vorticism, and survivor of the Great War—looked back on the prewar years of British Modernism, between around 1910 and 1914, when, he said, a spirit of extraordinary and golden promise filled the air: “Europe was full of titanic stirrings and snortings—a new art coming into flower to celebrate or to announce a ‘new age.’ ” London became a cosmopolitan capital; exhibitions of Cubist paintings transformed aesthetic attitudes; an avant garde flourished, started new magazines and new movements. A great new school was in formation, which would, said Lewis, make future critics rub their eyes. It will all appear “an island of incomparable bliss, dwelt by strange shapes labelled ‘Pound,’ ‘Joyce,’ ‘Weaver,’ ‘Hulme’…. What energy!—what impossible spartan standards, men will exclaim!… We are the first men of a future that had not materialized!”
Now among the strange shapes who populated Lewis’s prewar wonderland, there can be little doubt that one of the strangest and most elusive was the one then labeled “Hueffer”—though, because he changed his name in 1919, we now know him better as Ford Madox Ford. “Fordie,” who died just over fifty years ago, was a crucial energizer of this prewar scene, along with Pound and Lewis himself. In fact he discovered both of them during his brilliant editorship of The English Review, which Pound called “the EVENT of 1909–10.” Lewis captures Ford as odd and chubby, “a flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the Zoo inviting buns—especially when ladies were present.”
Ladies usually were present; love and money were two of Hueffer’s biggest troubles. Rebecca West (another young writer he helped a little later) saw him as “stout, gangling, albinoish,” and said an embrace from him (as a woman you would likely get one) made you feel “like being the toast under a poached egg.” Ernest Hemingway (yet another young writer Ford encouraged when he moved to Paris in the Twenties) called him, in a stupidly cruel passage in A Moveable Feast, a “heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence,” and said he smelled. Robert Lowell (who knew and admired Ford when he taught in American universities in the late 1930s) saw him empty an auditorium of three thousand people as he “exquisitely, ludicrously, and inaudibly imitated the elaborate periphrastic style of Henry James. They could neither hear nor sympathize.”1
Fordie did much to guide, support, and encourage the work-in-progress of many of the greatest writers during his long writing life, and at times he achieved their standard. He was squirearchical, corpulent, breathless, social, amorous, formal, a gentleman bohemian with a wet, nicotined moustache and endless money troubles. In a phrase he used to characterize his hero Tietjens in his masterpiece about wartime, Parade’s End, he was a “mealsack elephant,” and, like Tietjens, he looked quite different according to which way you turned him. As his double name suggests, there usually seemed to be two or more of him. You were never quite sure of his nationality—he was German, he was English, he was French. He was a Catholic, an agnostic. He was a Pre-Raphaelite, an Impressionist, a Post-Impressionist, a Vorticist. He was a confirmed Victorian and an end-of-the-era man of letters; he was a promoter of the young—“Les Jeunes,” he called them, in his francophile way—an heir to Proust, and the voice of the avant garde. He was a wandering European bohemian cast among British philistines; he was the last British Tory deigning to travel the great wilderness called abroad.
It was typical of Fordie that he should change his name, and do it not during the war, when German names were unpopular, but just after it, when it probably helped him escape from being the husband to two Mrs. Hueffers—though he deeply believed that all identities had changed in the cultural chaos of the Great War. It was typical too that his best book—one of the finest of twentieth-century novels—should get inextricably caught in the confusion. He wrote it in 1913 as the old prewar world closed, and called it The Saddest Story, in accordance with its famous opening line: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” When it appeared in 1915, it was given a publisher’s wartime title, The Good Soldier, even though it was not about the war but about the death of the belle époque before it.
By this time Hueffer, though over military age, had joined the Welsh Regiment and was a good soldier himself, or a bad one, depending on which account you believe. When he returned to writing again, he took the very English name of Ford—only then to flee to Paris and become a long-term expatriate there and in the United States. There was a prewar self and a postwar self, and in that transition The Saddest Story, the last novel by F.M. Hueffer, somehow turned into The Good Soldier, the first novel by Ford Madox Ford.
Despite the wisdom of Roland Barthes, we like our authors to have signatures, to appear much of a piece, to produce the sum of an oeuvre. It has always been part of the difficulty of Hueffer/Ford that in this matter he lets us down. His life seems to lack shape, his work development, his career a definite rise or fall. His very manner seemed a disguise, and his one-time friend (many of his friends were one-time) H.G. Wells described him as “a great system of assumed persona and dramatised selves.” He requested that there be no biography, probably for one excellent reason: he had already constructed several for himself. He was an inveterate reminiscer, a constant revisitor of literary occasions, and was famous for it. He thought stories should improve in the telling, and was also famously unreliable, apt to start his sentences with “When I was talking to the Kaiser….” Of his eighty-plus books, a good number are reminiscences, some specific, like his memoirs of friends or former friends like James and Conrad, some general, with titles like Ancient Lights (1911), Thus to Revisit (1921), Return to Yesterday (1931), and It was the Nightingale… (1933). They make a fascinating personal record of modern literary history; they also show the same contempt for crass detail and the instinct for baroque decoration he displayed in life.
True, he inclined to tell the story of the Modernist movement in ways that put him at the center, and this naturally dismayed rivals whose own stories put them at the center. It was not so much that he lied, or bragged, though he did quite a lot of both (yet many of his stories turn out to be truer than was once thought). It was that he believed that narratives should not convey the “truth” but “the impression,” his literary credo. No matter if this meant he ended up having meetings with people who died before he was born, or attended events from which he was absent. The fact is that these books, well worth reading, are not conventional memoirs but meta-reminscences, narratives in which Hueffer or Ford plays the sometimes heroic, sometimes absurd, but always serious writer in the great adventure of constructing the modern arts and “the critical attitude”—an adventure in which he indeed played a central part.
Nevertheless, several biographies duly came, the most important of them so far being Arthur Mizener’s The Saddest Story (1971)—the title was not wasted after all. Mizener had earlier written a brilliant life of Scott Fitzgerald, The Far Side of Paradise (1951), and the two stories come out curiously similar—tales of writers who fail to deliver the promise expected of them, of careers that fade. Ford’s was the saddest story for several reasons. Mizener’s hero remains a bundle of assumed identities, a man whose talent never cohered. He trifled with his powers, lost the direction of his life, conspired with his own failures. He wrote too much, fell out with his friends, admirers, and lovers, quarreled with publishers, and remained poor through folly as well as natural generosity. He got himself privately and then publicly into sexual scandals of his own making, and lost his reputation through them. His books were prolix and too various, he could never hold an audience, in his lifetime or afterward. Indeed he remains to the present what he had been to many of his contemporaries: “poor Ford.”
When Noel Annan reviewed Mizener’s book in these pages,2 he summed up the general impression: whatever Ford achieved he managed to turn to dust by his own efforts. It is certainly not hard to catalog his many errors and omissions. Yes, he wrote far too much (eighty-two books, four hundred articles) in far too many forms: children’s fiction, historical romance, political polemic, rambling reminiscence, literary criticism (much of it of high quality), a great many poems, a great many novels. He had to, to make a living, but the proportion is not in his favor. He knew, loved, encouraged, collaborated with, but then generally fell out with, many writers (James, Conrad, Lewis, Wells, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway), some of them better writers than he was (as he gladly acknowledged). His best fiction, dealing with people of refined and complex consciousness, is contained in its social scope (though no one more brilliantly portrayed the British mandarin class). He was an important innovator, but never consistent in purpose or direction: as he admitted in the preface to The Good Soldier, “I had never [before] really tried to put into any novel of mine all that I know about writing.” He was also immensely kind and helpful to other writers, and that is not easy to forgive—as Hemingway demonstrated in the various essays of A Moveable Feast, where he turned on all his benefactors, but especially Ford.
He also died, in Deauville, France, in June 1939, when the mind of the world was on other things, and there were more important elegies to write. His funeral, immediately before the start of war, was chaotic; it was typical that he was buried in the wrong grave. With the war the era he had represented vanished. He believed in a Flaubertian perfection, but he himself did not contribute to modern aesthetic theory, as Eliot or Rilke did, nor was he a great formal innovator like Joyce. As his partner of the Twenties, Stella Bowen, put it: “He was a writer—a complete writer—and nothing but a writer.” Despite revivals of his work, he has never found the reputation he deserves. While Virginia Woolf is held by many critics to be the greatest of Modernist English novelists, the author of The Good Soldier, perhaps the greatest English Modernist novel, still largely remains, a hundred years after he started writing, and fifty years after his death, poor Ford.
But was the story really so sad? Alan Judd, a fine English novelist and a former diplomat, thinks not, and his new biography is notable for its companionable tone and its literary sympathy. This is one writer acknowledging another (for Ford truly is the writer’s writer), one clubbable gentleman acknowledging another. Mizener’s book (with 150 pages of notes) was a work of immense scholarship; Judd does not add greatly in this respect. But the essential difference lies in interpretation. Mizener’s work may have won Ford new attention, but it did not find favor with Ford’s last female companion, Janice Biala, or with his daughter. Judd’s study, written with Biala’s support, is the work of an enthusiast—a portrait of a man with depths beneath the shallows, character behind the disguises, weight within the corpulence, and the power of an artist. It could be said that where Mizener gave Ford a tragic American life, Judd gives him a complex, social, and British one.