Fools

P.N. Furbank

  • Ford Madox Ford: Prose and Politics by Robert Green
    Cambridge, 218 pp, £16.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 521 23610 X

Ford Madox Ford has been lucky in his admirers, if ‘luck’ is the word. It is no small thing to have inspired two such magnificent poems as Lowell’s ‘Ford Madox Ford’ and William Carlos Williams’s ‘To Ford Madox Ford in Heaven’. And you may say that his luck holds: for Robert Green is also an admirer, but his book is thoroughly sensible, unbedazzled and discriminating, the book of someone who has heard of other writers and is in no kind of ‘Special relationship’ to Ford. What he has set out to do, and it is a wise economy, is to study Ford, not, as is customary, as literary craftsman and ‘Modernist’ fictional innovator, but as ‘a man who wrote at a particular point in time and in particular places’, and from the point of view of his response to ‘astonishingly rapid changes in European politics and culture’. Ford, that is to say, as a thinker.

From a political point of view, Ford, as Green depicts him, was in a quandary. He found himself, at the time of the Boer War, bitterly hostile to the encroachments of ‘collectivism’, both the Webbs’ variety and that imperialist collectivism represented by Joseph Chamberlain. Yet he had little viable or credible to offer as an alternative – at most, a vague romanticism about ‘feudalism’, as supposedly incarnated in the English country gentleman, and an equally vague notion (perhaps this came a little later) of ‘Gallic altruism’. And in this, Green says or implies, his mixed nationality made life more difficult for him. For he could have no loyalty to his father’s Germany – Bismarckian bureaucratism being even more repellent to him, and being, moreover, an influential model for Fabian collectivists. On the other hand, being only half-English, he did not – so Green says – really understand the English country gentleman. ‘As an alien, Ford could not command that innate familiarity with the minute tremors of upper-class behaviour ascribed to Tietjens or to Ashburnam.’

The lack of any convincing political programme was, Green says, what inhibited Ford’s early essays in fiction. There was, for instance, the novel The Inheritors – the first fruits of his collaboration with Conrad, but mainly his own work. It was a rather dotty piece of satirical Science Fiction (so Green says – I confess I haven’t read it), in which some invaders from the Fourth Dimension (identifiable with Chamberlain, Beatrice Webb and Milner) conspire with the Duc de Mersch (King Leopold of the Belgians) to ‘civilise’ Greenland’s Eskimos. The protagonist of the novel, Arthur Granger, is an aristocratic and unsuccessful novelist who betrays his own cherished chivalric ideals for the sake of a girl-agent from the Fourth Dimension. And the gesture of the novel, as epitomised in Granger, is an ‘aristocratic superiority’ crossed with a rather unfeeling pessimism. The novel, as Green puts it, ‘demonstrates the close connection between literary failure and the fragility of those beliefs the novel upheld’. Ford’s difficulties as a novelist at this period are akin to the political difficulties of Balfour confronted with Chamberlain.

Ford’s political outlook was, even explicitly, a matter of bafflement, says Green. Moreover, there seemed at first no satisfactory bridge between his confident radicalism as an artist and his conservatism as a social thinker. However, a resolution was achieved, and a bridge found, in The Good Soldier, the novel he began a year before the First World War. (By the way, there is what seems to be a minor slip in Green’s book: he dates the publication of The Good Soldier as 1915, but says that he published no fiction during the war.) In this novel, the tragedy of this ‘feudal’ English country gentleman at bay is filtered through the consciousness of an alien, an American, whose reaction is – in the highest degree – a bafflement and incomprehension, or at best a fatally slow progress towards comprehension. His bafflement artistically validates Ford’s political posture of bafflement.

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