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.
Judd’s is then not a sad story, but a portrait of a good-hearted and under-valued man, a truly serious writer who perhaps never attained that perfect integration of personality great writers are expected to achieve, and in actuality rarely do. For Judd, Ford is a man who made mistakes, but usually out of a generosity of spirit. He is also a dedicated artist, a man who himself wrote every day, served the cause of literature, and set his standards high. Among the millions of words he wrote is work of major importance, including several great novels and a body of significant poetry. In short Judd sees him as a major writer, needing respect and reassessment. And so he was, for two reasons.
One is that he was ubiquitous in the history of the Modernist movement, and the fifty years of his writing life follows its curve, from bright begining to sad end, almost exactly. He published his first book when he was eighteen at the start of the 1890s, when we can fairly say the Modern movement began, and in his twenties he was collaborating on novels with Conrad, with whom he fixed upon the technique of “Impressionism.” “We accepted the name of impressionists because we saw that life did not narrate but made Impressions on our brains,” he wrote in Joseph Conrad: A Personal Reminiscence (1924). “We in turn, if we wished to produce an effect of life, must not narrate but render impressions.”
In 1908, when he founded what he called his “aube de siècle Yellow Book,” The English Review, he not only united the work of the older generation (James, Conrad, Hardy, Bennett, Wells, and others) to the work of “Les Jeunes,” like D.H. Lawrence, Pound, and Wyndham Lewis, all of whom he discovered in the magazine, but learned the new techniques of Vorticist hardness from the new generation. In Paris in the 1920s, editing the brilliant Transatlantic Review, he supported Joyce during the writing of Work in Progress, while fighting the cause of other experimental work, and drawing for his own fictional techniques on Joyce and Proust. His death fittingly came as the age faded, just between the valediction of Finnegans Wake and the coming of the Second World War.
The other reason is, of course, his own achievement, which has in it enough major books to make a reputation. Judd makes a special claim for the poetry, reprinting some of the less available work at length in his book. His Collected Poems, appearing in 1913, coincided with Imagism, and they cross narrative methods with tight and hard Impressionist techniques in a way Pound deeply admired. He called Hueffer’s “On Heaven” (“And so she stood a moment by the door/Of the long, red car. Royally she stepped down, / Settling on one long foot and leaning back / Amongst her russet furs,” etc.) “the best poem yet written in the ‘twentieth-century fashion.’ ” Hueffer’s poems were not Imagist intellectual and emotional complexes caught in an instant of time; he liked to spread into a story. But as Judd shows, reprinting “The Starling” from this collection, they had a Modernist hardness, and stand up very well.
Above all, there were the novels. In The Fifth Queen sequence of historical romances, and particularly in The Good Soldier and again in the volumes of Parade’s End, Ford created a body of fiction in which his sense of history and formal techniques are at times comparable with Faulkner’s. These are all historical novels, chronicling the complex deceptions of a dying social age to which Ford was attached but from whose hypocrisies he had suffered profoundly: The Good Soldier is not a story Ford had “heard.” It was a story of suffering he had experienced.
There are many reasons for thinking The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End novels major works of the century, but one of them is Ford’s treatment of the theme of the man of honor corrupted by sexuality. These are famously works of “Impressionist” technique, but what justifies the method here, as in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, is that creating an impression is precisely how society functions, the way it can conceal sexual transgressions, hypocrisy, and corruption. The cuckolded narrator of The Good Soldier is an American who had “never sounded the depths of an English heart.” “Heart” is the key word of the novel, which is set in the German spa town of Nauheim during the belle époque years. Here the central characters pretend to “heart disease” in order to conduct illicit liaisons and to preserve their two white marriages, for neither wife will, for different reasons, have sex with her own husband. The intricate relationship among Edward Ashburnham and his wife and the narrator, Dowell and his wife involve intricate systems of deception. The innocent Dowell attempts to unravel the false impressions and deceits confronting him, and his baffled decoding itself helps to construct the difficult fragmented technique of the novel. In a world of polished social surfaces where everything is masked or deliberately left unspoken, it takes an art of indirection to get to, well, the heart of the matter.
If The Good Soldier is the classic novel of a dying age in which social forms hide corrupt substance, then the Parade’s End sequence—which certainly consists of Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), and A Man Could Stand Up (1926), and may or may not include Last Post (1928), Ford was never sure—takes the tale of honor deceived very much further. This is surely the classic English novel about the Great War itself, showing British society brought to the point of extremity and chaos. W.H. Auden said that the sequence “makes it quite clear that World War I was a retribution visited on Western Europe for the sins and omissions of its ruling class, for which only they, but also the innocent conscripted millions on both sides must suffer.” It is a very plain reading, but suggests the vast historical intentions of the book, and its theme of Spenglerian decline, as the world moves from an honorable feudalism to the age of crass modern materialism and sterile bureaucracy, which is inevitably followed by war itself.
Parade’s End tells two stories side by side. One is a social story—nothing less than the story of “the public wants of a decade,” which involved the replacement of an older aristocracy by a new, hard mandarin class. The other is the psychological story, of the gradual collapse into madness of Christopher Tietjens, the last “Christian gentleman,” the ultimate English hero (with a great estate and also a German name), whose one wish is to take “the last train to the old Heaven.” Even by 1912, when the main action starts, with a scene in a very modern railway coach, his world has fallen into sterility and crude materialism, and his marriage, to a deceitful wife pregnant by another man, into disarray and recrimination. His purgatory is the wartime battlefield, but the outside world, a corrupt and fragmenting culture, penetrates. Tietjens’s life in the trenches is intruded on by “money, women, testamentary bothers,” and his adulterous wife Sylvia vindictively pursues him as far as the battle front.
Rightly read as a war novel comparable to Dos Passos’s USA, Parade’s End is also the ultimate Condition of England novel, tracing the collapse of a class, the decline of a historic value system, the defeat (followed by the rebirth) of a man of honor, and the slow corruption of the truly good soldier. But the war, in which he is gassed and goes mad, ends the cycle, and marks the beginning of a new life for Tietjens. With the help of his “new woman,” Valerie Wannop, he is able to cut himself off from his own past. He lives on, the curse of ancestry now shifted from his shoulders, into the postwar world and a fresh identity and sexual life.
When we read these books in the light of their author’s biography, we can see very clearly how much Hueffer/Ford was writing from life. By the time he was writing them Ford felt doubly threatened by two women, to whom he also felt honorably bound, although passively. One was his wife, with whom he had broken to start an affair with Violet Hunt. The other was Hunt herself, the subject of two new and illuminating biographies.
Violet Hunt, sometimes known as Violent Hunt, was, like Ford himself, a child of Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers, her father a watercolorist, her mother a novelist of three-decker romances. She was strong-willed and had a taste, she said, for “irregular situations,” which must have been partly stimulated by her mother, who when Violet was thirteen offered her to John Ruskin to marry. A few years later she was setting out to attract Oscar Wilde; she was soon the model and then the mistress of George Boughton, a painter much older than herself. She then became the long-term mistress of Oswald Crawfurd, the former British consul in Oporto, writer and libertine, who ran three or four mistresses at a time and duly gave Hunt both unhappiness and syphilis.
Hunt was now a kind of literary groupie, but one with talent. (Of the two biographies, Belford’s is better on temperament, Hardwick’s on British social nuances and on the novels.) She was a habituée of “convenient little restaurants with private rooms upstairs,” and she slept with the briefly heterosexual Somerset Maugham and (but which aspiring and radical woman writer did not?) with H.G. Wells. She saw herself as both a classic female flirt and the new woman. She met Hueffer through The English Review, where she was among his published discoveries. Hunt thought she had rescued him from a suicide attempt (it seems to have been a piece of Fordian drama) and supported him. But by now she was ready for marriage, and Hueffer, unhappily married and a man of honor, was not. (During the agonized course of their relationship she did not reveal her syphilis to him until much later, possibly because she did not understand the disease herself.)
Faced with the risk of scandal, the two lovers concocted a plan worthy of the novelists both of them were. It was alas based on opposite premises: Hunt desperately wanted to get into a marriage, and Hueffer to get out of one, with his first (and, as she was to remain, his only) wife, Elsie. He took residence in Germany, to claim his German nationality (his father was a German come to Britain four years before his birth) and to gain a German divorce. This would be followed by marriage in France to Violet. In an interview more fiction than fact, Hueffer indicated to a newspaper reporter that these formalities had been gone through, when they had not, and he returned to Britain with Violet calling herself “Mrs. Hueffer,” the wish preferred to the deed.
For the deception, both would pay heavily. The true Mrs. Hueffer used the courts to claim her rights, and Hueffer, who by now was coming to seem happier with neither, found himself caught between two very possessive women, who whether they wanted him or not certainly wanted his name. His friends withdrew from the growing public scandal, James and Wells denied him support, and he found himself confronted by the codes of sexual hypocrisy in a culture where, as his novels were to illustrate, marriage is a mask for a secret, consensual system of promiscuity. If The Good Soldier expresses this hypocrisy, Parade’s End went on to explore the next destructive stages of a deteriorating relationship.
By now Hunt had revealed her syphilis to him and was also demanding Hueffer’s bodily presence. It seems very likely that he joined the army mainly to escape her, being too passive to declare his separation in any other way. Certainly her tenacious and increasingly vindictive pursuit of him fed the character of Sylvia in the Tietjens novels, which, despite Belford’s more positive interpretation of her character, surely remains one of the strongest portraits of the exploiting aggressive woman in modern literature.
The four volumes of Parade’s End follow such a story, through from the age of social hypocrisy to the simplicities of the postwar world, where Tietjens forgoes his past and settles down to postwar small-holding with his “new woman.” Valerie Wannop was based on Stella Bowen, Ford’s much sweeter-natured next mistress. When Hunt continued her pursuit, he moved to France and changed his name to Ford. Hunt herself became a writer of some distinction, using her novels largely to score points with him, while the first Mrs. Hueffer also kept up the pressure, publicly denouncing Ford to the very end.
In Britain Ford’s reputation never recovered from the scandal over Violet Hunt, and it may account for the cool reception of The Good Soldier. But his years in postwar Paris were happier, Ford finding most of his support among the American expatriate community; hence the Transatlantic Review. He became one of the mentors of Modernism, a writer’s writer, and regularly visited and taught in the United States. He had several more affairs, often with American women (details of a new one have just emerged, between the British and American editions of Judd’s book). There was one with Jean Rhys, another writer whom he encouraged, and who described their affair in the novel Quartet. His final relationship with Janice Biala lasted for nine years until his death.
As an old English Tory who had sought to claim the literary and the sexual rights of bohemia, Ford had good reason to see the jumble of his life and his sexual relations as “a long sad affair.” He himself behaved with what he believed to be honor; we may, in a time of changed relations between men and women, interpret it differently. But his later relationships, in a less imprisoned atmosphere, were more serene, and after Hunt most of the women he loved continued to admire him.
Most of the writers who listened to him learned from him, and he never ceased to care about writing, and for writers. He has perhaps two reputations, one in the United States, where his standing as an important Modernist is perhaps more visible, and another in Britain, where he did, in time, find his successors. Evelyn Waugh’s Second World War trilogy, Sword of Honour, owes much to Ford, down to the theme of the chivalrous hero who is defeated by sexual betrayal. The late Graham Greene, who was a dedicated admirer, along with others like Eudora Welty, once said of him that there was no novelist of the century more likely to live; there are plenty of younger writers who also think so. Judd, I think, is right. It is not such a sad story, after all.
May 30, 1991