Ford Madox Ford was a man full of contradictions. His name sounded thoroughly English and he considered himself to be the last Tory; during World War I he said that he never felt so calm as when he wore the King’s uniform. In fact, however, his father was a German émigré, Francis Hueffer, and Ford himself was known as Ford Madox Hueffer until he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford by deed poll on June 4, 1919, as a way of downplaying his German origins. He was obsessed with ideas of what gentlemen do and do not do and he sometimes claimed that he was descended from German barons, but in fact his Münster family members were (and still are) publishers and printers.
He was an inveterate liar—or rather what the French call a mythomane, which suggests someone who exaggerates for the love of the legend and not for any direct personal gain. Or perhaps he “lied” only because he wrote so fast that he couldn’t recall what he’d already said about someone or an event. His politics were confusing. He wrote of “the true Toryism which is Socialism,” he opposed liberal democracy because it promoted plutocracy, and he had a sentimental, literary attachment to feudalism.
In many ways he can be seen artistically as the last and greatest heir to Henry James, who was a friend. Like James he often dictated all or part of his novels. He loved to play with point of view and the underlying motives of his narrator. His plots, like those of James, can sound melodramatic when summarized but in the actual telling they become so gauzy with subtlety that at moments the reader isn’t sure what exactly is going on. His characters, like James’s, are obsessed with jousting for position and often use sexual allure to gain the advantage, but they are just as likely to throw over everything out of excessive idealism.
The international theme, which fascinated James for the first half of his career, was also of great interest to Ford. After all, the narrator of Ford’s best novel, The Good Soldier, is an American who uses his American origins as an explanation of his not-quite-believable naiveté as he interacts with the wily English. There is a lot of dialogue in the fiction of both James and Ford and sometimes there are tense dramatic exchanges, full of sudden reversals, that sound scripted for the theater. One of Ford’s deepest regrets was that neither Conrad nor James, the two writers he most admired, had much respect for his work.
But if Ford is at the end of one tradition, the Jamesian, he is also at the beginning of another. As a poet he was an “imagist,” which meant that he often relied on free verse and direct sensory impressions presented in brief bursts, haiku-like, without interpretation. In prose he said he was an “impressionist,” which meant several things to Ford, though he and Joseph Conrad, who worked out their ideas together, believed that fiction is primarily a visual art and that the writer should be more concerned with the vividness of his remembered or invented images than with facts. Ford wrote:
Impressionism exists to render those queer effects of real life that are like so many views seen through bright glass—through glass so bright that whilst you perceive through it a landscape or a backyard, you are aware that, on its surface, it reflects a face of a person behind you.
For Ford experience was rarely ordered or hierarchical. It was all a jumble and the function of literature was to reproduce that confusion, though in a fashion that was clear and intentional, never random. Simultaneity was one of his artistic strategies, which is most clearly seen in Parade’s End.
Ford could be airily dismissive of factual accuracy, which he considered “pedantic,” but he remained scrupulously faithful to recording his exact sense memories. His inaccuracies got him into trouble with the literal-minded, especially since he wrote several different versions of the same events in his various memoirs. As he said in the introduction to his first volume of reminiscences, Ancient Lights: “This book, in short, is full of inaccuracies as to facts, but its accuracy as to impressions is absolute.” Further on he adds: “I don’t really deal in facts, I have for facts a most profound contempt.”
He wrote easily, sometimes fatally so, and he turned out more than eighty books, including a mammoth March of Literature late in life. He wrote book-length studies of Henry James, Conrad (with whom he coauthored three novels), Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his grandfather the painter Ford Madox Brown, and Hans Holbein, two books about New York, literary reminiscences (including It Was the Nightingale, about Paris in the 1920s), a suffragette pamphlet in 1915 (Monstrous Regiment of Women), books about Provence, books about London, books about the English character, two World War I (fairly mild) propaganda attacks on the German character, collections of poetry, literary critical essays, anthologies he edited—and of course his great and not-so-great novels.
Ford thought of himself as an experimentalist, and as an editor he championed the avant-garde, though he always feared he was older than most of his modernist friends and was being outstripped by them. In the 1920s in Paris he founded the transatlantic review, which published Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, E.E. Cummings, Jean Rhys (his lover for a while), E rnest Hemingway (who worked as his assistant editor), Gertrude Stein, Basil Bunting, and many others—so many Americans that he later claimed that more than 50 percent of his contributors were from the Midwest or West (including Pound, Stein, Eliot, and Hemingway). He published James Joyce, who, Ford said, made “little jokes, told simple stories and talked about his work very enlighteningly.” Throughout his career Ford was so generous to other writers that Pound remarked that when someone else wrote a good book in London there was only one person, Ford, who was genuinely happy about it, “one man with a passion for good writing.”
Early on in Pound’s career, before World War I, Ford had played a decisive part. Ford was living in a village in Germany and Pound came to visit with his first real book of poems, Canzoni. Pound was twenty-five and arrived in Giessen wearing a green shirt with glass buttons. Ford was thirty-eight. The older man couldn’t bear the artificiality and pretentiousness of Pound’s poetic diction. As Hugh Kenner puts it in The Pound Era:
The summer was the hottest since 1453. And into these quarters marched jocund Ezra Pound, tendering his new book that chaunted of “sprays [to rhyme with ‘praise’ and ‘rays’] of eglantine above clear waters,” and employed such diction as “hight the microcline.” Ford saw that it would not do. The Incense, the Angels, elicited an ultimate kinesthetic demonstration. By way of emphasizing their hopelessness he threw headlong his considerable frame and rolled on the floor. “That roll,” Pound would one day assert, “saved me three years.”
Ford fervently believed—and persuaded Pound—that a writer should write “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t in some circumstance, in the stress of some emotion, actually say.” Indeed Ford’s prose, more than that of any other writer of his period, sounds spoken. As he said in 1938 about his much earlier collaboration with Conrad, he tried to evolve for himself “a vernacular of an extreme quietness that would suggest someone of some refinement talking in a low voice near the ear of someone else he liked a good deal.” This could just as easily be a Jamesian precept and in our own day Colm Tóibín (especially in The Master and Brooklyn) seems to be subscribing to this hypnotic practice.
Ford was born in 1873 in Merton, Surrey, now part of London. His German-born but fiercely pro-British father, the music critic for the Times, died when Ford was just fifteen years old. The boy went to live with his maternal grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. When he was eighteen he published his first book, The Brown Owl, a fairy tale for children; when the very shy Ford was introduced to Thomas Hardy, the great, much older writer thought it must be a nature book, questioned the musicality of the title, and reduced Ford to stammering silence.
The next year Ford converted to Catholicism to please his German relatives, though he seems to have been interested in the church more as a force for order than as an invitation to religious ardor. By 1898 Ford was married to Elsie Martindale, a childhood sweetheart, and was collaborating with Joseph Conrad, with whom he co-authored three novels, The Inheritors, Romance, and The Nature of a Crime. In letters to friends Conrad could be catty about the much younger Ford, but Conrad—who was always broke, often blocked, and terrified of missing serialization deadlines—needed the ever fluent Ford. Not many novelists before Conrad and Ford had collaborated (one thinks of the Goncourt Brothers and Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but few other pairs of literary authors come to mind), and indeed their work together produced nothing memorable beyond their theorizing about the novel, though each of them did extraordinary independent work during their years of collaboration.
Conrad wrote, among other things, Nostromo and Ford wrote a trilogy of historical novels about Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, The Fifth Queen, Privy Seal, and The Fifth Queen Crowned. Conrad praised him for leading the historical novel to its apotheosis, but the trilogy suffers from the usual Monty Python–sounding “period” dialogue: “Ignoble, ignoble, to twit a man with that Eton villainy,” or “Oh moody and suspicious artificer. Afflavit deus! The wind hath blown dead against Calais shore this ten days.” Nevertheless the trilogy is often counted as one of Ford’s (few) enduring works.
Although Ford was physically awkward and wheezed and was obese and looked like a seal with his limp blond hair and mustache and liquid eyes, he was a successful womanizer and moved from Elsie to her sister to Violet Hunt, an ex-lover of H.G. Wells, and on to half a dozen other women, and each time he was convinced he was in love. Elsie, his first and only wife, refused to divorce him; if she had done so Ford would surely have married at least two of his subsequent loves. For the most part his women were writers, often of note. He was usually nearly penniless and living on the cheap in falling-down cottages in the English countryside, and once he even declared bankruptcy. The Good Soldier went into a second printing but earned only £67. Nevertheless he traveled extensively, to America and to his beloved Provence in particular, and appeared to be cheerfully bohemian in his values.
In 1915 he wrote The Good Soldier. Although in the same year he published two books of war propaganda, The Good Soldier, despite its title, is distinctly about the privileged pre-war world of rootless invalids, real or imaginary, visiting Continental spas and entering into dangerous amorous intrigues. A case can be made that Ford was dramatizing in this novel if not the events at least the tensions underlying his own messy love life. The plot undergoes so many surprising reversals that halfway through the reader can’t imagine what possibly could come next—and is he or she surprised!