One day in 1914, Ford Madox Ford, then 40 years old and feeling it, found himself for a while in the custody of the youthful Percy Wyndham Lewis, a writer whose work had appeared in Ford’s magazine, the English Review, and who was about to launch a magazine of his own, the rather more intemperate Blast. Gripping Ford by the elbow, Lewis, who was as usual in incendiary mood, poured scorn on him and his associates. ‘You and Mr Conrad and Mr James and all those old fellows are done,’ he was to be heard insisting. ‘Exploded! ... Fichus! ... No good! ... Finished!’ Lewis’s beef was with literary ‘impressionism’: with novels which sought intricately to render the movements, at once furtive and immense, of a consciousness enmeshed in and inseparable from worlds not of its own making. ‘You fellows try to efface yourselves; to make people think that there isn’t any author and that they’re living in the affairs you ... adumbrate, isn’t that your word? ... What balls!’ Adumbration had been Flaubert’s method, and Turgenev’s, and James’s, and Conrad’s. It was rather ostentatiously the method of Ford’s The Good Soldier, whose opening chapters were shortly to appear in Blast. Lewis thought that people had had enough of all that. They did not want self-effacement. They wanted brilliant fellows like him performing stunts and letting off fireworks. ‘What’s the good of being an author if you don’t get any fun out of it?’
Ford told this story several times in several different ways, each time effacing himself assiduously, the better to adumbrate Lewis’s brilliant performance. The version recounted in Return to Yesterday situates Ezra Pound at his other elbow, talking incessantly in an incomprehensible accent. Ford, it would seem, could barely set foot outside his front door without importunate persons of one kind or another falling in beside him. When he lived in Holland Park Avenue, he would take his morning walk with Ezra Pound at one elbow, barely visible beneath an immense sombrero, and at the other the leopardskin-clad Mrs Gwendolen Bishop, who danced snake dances and made pottery; Mrs Bishop, although proceeding away from rather than towards her home, had in one hand a string bag full of onions, which Ford felt it his duty to carry. Ford attracted neediness. Beggars, runaways, lost property, writs, stray opinions, unwelcome confidences, random abuse: all attached themselves to him as though to a magnet. And there can have been few moments in his adult life when there weren’t at least two women competing for his sexual attention. Scandal, another kind of neediness, proved equally adhesive. He was suspected of more or less anything, from sleeping with his sister-in-law to leaving slices of bacon between the pages of the books he read at breakfast.
Return to Yesterday, first published in 1931, is a memoir of literary life in England in the Late Victorian and Edwardian eras. It begins in 1891, with Ford immersed in Kipling’s ‘Only a Subaltern’, on a train in Sussex; and ends at a country-house party in Berwickshire in August 1914, during which someone reads aloud from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then appearing in the Egoist, and war is declared. It describes two successive changings of the literary guard: from the Great Victorians to the Great Moderns (Hardy, James, Conrad, Kipling, Wells), and from the Great Moderns to really modern Modernism (Pound, Lewis, Eliot, Joyce). It also has much to say about the commercialisation of literature during the period, about literary agents, about booming and book wars. ‘So,’ Ford remarks, ‘if one can keep oneself out of it, one may present a picture of a sort of world and time.’
He never did keep himself out of the picture, of course, and never meant to. The autobiography in Return to Yesterday often amounts to little more than local colour. Ford may well be lying when he maintains that he once fought a duel in Bonn with a fellow student who trod on the tail of his dog, and got no credit for it, because duelling had suddenly become unfashionable. But the anecdote does record, as it were from the inside, both the appeal and the limitations of a certain historically specific habit of mind. More reliable, and more harrowing, is the description of his search for a cure from the agoraphobia and intense depression which afflicted him for a while in the early 1900s. Ford spent some miserable months in Continental sanatoria, existing on a diet of pork and ice-cream, or dried peas and grapes, while the specialists proposed a sexual origin for his troubles, and he lost weight dramatically. ‘Brain-Fag’ was about the best they could do by way of diagnosis, and perhaps they were right.
Autobiography’s main function in this picture of a sort of world and time is as an interference. It preserves the memoir from literary history: from the celebration of genius it sometimes threatens to become, from elegy. Ford took literature seriously, but not for granted. Insofar as Return to Yesterday is a portrait of the artist as a young man, it is the portrait of a young man who for much of the time would rather be a subaltern, a historian, a pig farmer, indeed anything at all, than an artist. It is a book about ‘pure letters’, and about much else besides, about politics, and suicide, and market-gardening. Literature, Ford wants to say, however luminous, cannot escape its own inconsequence; and he renders that inconsequence by a steady withdrawal of attention, emphatic but never petulant, from the performance writers make of their art. A chapter which begins momentously with Joseph Conrad, and develops into a meticulous and heartfelt tribute to Stephen Crane, concludes by recommending an old leather portmanteau as the best possible manure for fig trees. Mrs Gwendolen Bishop no doubt astonished Holland Park Avenue with the splendour of her costume; it’s the onions we remember her by.
Recollection was a habit Ford acquired at a relatively early age. Ancient Lights (1911), a book about the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, is subtitled ‘The Memoirs of a Young Man’. Return to Yesterday, which cheerfully cannibalises this and several other volumes of reminiscence, improves on them, and on much that has been written about him, by implicitly deriving the consistency of his literary method from psychic and imaginative need. Ford’s impressionism – sharply attentive to consequence and inconsequence alike, to consequence framed by inconsequence – was the product of the attribution to him, from childhood onwards, either of consequence or of inconsequence, but rarely of both at the same time.
Ford belonged to the ‘governing classes’ of the Late Victorian literary and artistic worlds: his maternal grandfather was Ford Madox Brown, his uncle William Michael Rossetti. The only possible career for the children of these classes was that of a genius. Ford’s Rossetti cousins had written Greek dramas at the ages of five, nine and fourteen respectively. It became his duty always to aspire to consequence. ‘To me life was simply not worth living because of the existence of Carlyle, of Mr Ruskin, of Mr Holman Hunt, of Mr Browning, or of the gentleman who built the Crystal Palace.’ Life was not worth living because he knew, and everyone else knew, that he did not have it in him to build the next Crystal Palace. His response to this impossible demand was to develop an ‘almost passionate desire for self-effacement’.
In Return to Yesterday, Ford’s impressionism renders the milieu of the Victorian literary and artistic Great as a collective bad hair day. Ford was no Lytton Strachey. He let the Victorian values down gently. As the values blur, the topiary comes sharply into focus: white hair cascading in patriarchal fashion, beards trimmed and buffed into the emblematic shape of a utensil (spades, mostly) or an armament (Samuel Butler has a ‘torpedo beard of silver grey’). These are hairstyles with attitude. Butler’s torpedo beard is matched by his viciousness, especially towards ‘young persons’. Frederic Harrison, the pope of Positivism, sports a ‘great, square, white beard’ (every comma counts, in that description); he, too, likes nothing better, while taking tea with Dr Richard Garnett, Principal Librarian at the British Museum, than brutally to crush the aspirations of any young person available for the purpose. Like Virginia Woolf, Ford asks where these abrupt and inexplicable furies came from.
As Ford grew older, the beards confronting him altered in hue, if not always in attitude. The director of the sanatorium where he was fed on pork and ice-cream turns out to be ‘an immense, thin man with a long grey waterfall of beard through which he passed his fingers as if cautiously before he ever made a remark’. Although clad in un-Victorian dark glasses, he, too, acted like a solvent on most varieties of human aspiration. He sought to establish the sexual aetiology of Ford’s agoraphobia by showing him ‘indecent photographs of a singular banality’. Ezra Pound, with his luxuriant auburn hair and beard, must have been a relief from patriarchal whiteness, although in some ways no less taxing.
Through the Garnett family, Ford met Conrad and James, the two writers who were most intimately to shape the kind of writer he himself became, and from whom Return to Yesterday accordingly keeps a certain distance. The book opens with a description of his first encounter with James, at that time very definitely bearded and masterful. Dinner proves to be something of an ordeal, as James sits sideways to him across the corner of the table and interrogates him mercilessly about his habits and opinions. Ford’s answers are received with ‘no show at all of either satisfaction or reproof’. In fact, he might just as well have remained silent, since James, having absorbed all this information, does nothing with it, but instead lets himself go in a ‘singularly vivid display of dislike’ for the persons rather than the works of Ford’s family circle. James’s deduction from the fact that Dante Gabriel Rossetti once received him at tea-time in what he thought was a dressing-gown is that the eminent artist had been ‘disgusting in his habits, never took baths, and was insupportably lecherous’. What’s worse, Rossetti habitually devoured ‘masses of greasy ham and bleeding eggs’ for his breakfast. James goes on to denounce W.M. Rossetti (hopelessly dull) and Swinburne (couldn’t swim). It is, in its shamelessness, a magnificent performance, and it reduces the inoffensive young person at whom it is directed to less than nothing. ‘I do not think that Mr James had the least idea what I was, and I do not think that, till the end of his days, he regarded me as a serious writer.’ Conrad, whom Edward Garnett brought to Ford’s cottage at Bonnington in September 1898, was not much of an improvement. Every inch the ship’s captain, he thrust his hands firmly into the pockets of his reefer-coat and pointed his ‘black torpedo beard’ in a vaguely navigational manner at the distant horizon. Ford he mistook for the gardener. Like James, Conrad was capable of rages which were ‘sudden, violent, blasting and incomprehensible’.
The hurt Ford felt is understandable. It was one thing to be shouted at by some patriarch you’d unluckily got yourself the wrong side of, and quite another to find that men you held in veneration, men who had taken the trouble to interrogate you extensively about your personal and professional affairs, men who furthermore did not hesitate to ask you for advice and support when it suited them, could still treat you like an idiot or a criminal. The Great Victorians put Ford out by rages which he knew, on reflection, to be arbitrary and generic (though no less mortifying for that). The Great Moderns made him wonder whether there wasn’t something in him which provoked rage. He began to take it personally.
Indeed, he found in his own annoyingness a certain strength, or at least evidence that he was not a person to be easily overlooked. By the time he had acquired protégés of his own, as editor of the English Review in 1908 and 1909, and then, from December 1923, of the Transatlantic Review, passive or indirect provocation was a way of life. He intended the young writers he promoted to turn on him, to betray him, to insult him behind his back, and they did not let him down. It would no doubt have been a grave disappointment had Wyndham Lewis taken him by the elbow only in order to whisper mellow commendations in his ear.
Lewis was further to oblige with some wonderful descriptions of Ford as a kind of new patriarch equipped with post-Victorian attitudes and matching facial hair. Ford, Lewis wrote, ‘was 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. Over the gaping mouth damply depended the ragged ends of a pale lemon moustache.’ The outbursts of high-octane bile Ford coaxed from other people form a necessary complement to his reminiscences. In March 1924, for example, Ernest Hemingway, then assistant editor of the Transatlantic, favoured Pound with his opinion of the editor. Ford, he admitted, could ‘explain stuff’: ‘but in private life he is so goddam involved in being the dregs of an English country gentleman that you get no good out of him.’ Return to Yesterday describes the formation of this lemon-and-pink flabbiness from the inside.
Ford’s ascent to lemon-and-pink flabbiness in the years before the war coincided with his emergence as a serious novelist, notably in The Good Soldier, which he wrote under the joint tutelage of James and Conrad. The Good Soldier is often described as the finest French novel ever written in English, and it might also be thought of as the finest Conrad novel ever written in English. It is a book about betrayal, about the realisation that moral soundness allied to high tone and high colour is compatible with sexual and emotional ferocity: a lesson Ford had begun to learn a long time before, at the hands (or the beards) of the Great Victorians. The narrator, John Dowell, effaces himself to the point of colluding with, or ignoring, or not even noticing, his wife’s seduction by his best friend, Edward Ashburnham, the perfect English gentleman. Dowell (Do-Well?) observes that he has had 12 years of ‘playing the trained poodle’, 12 years of faithful ministering to the very people who have betrayed him. In August 1914, Wyndham Lewis brought the proofs of the novel’s opening chapters with him to the country-house party in Berwickshire.
In the summer of 1915, Ford, the son of a German father and an English mother, got his commission as a second lieutenant in the Welch Regiment (Special Reserve). He arrived in France in July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, but was thought too old for frontline duty, and soon found himself with the battalion transport in Bécourt Wood, near Albert. On 28 or 29 July, a shell exploded beside him, and he lost his memory. In the Casualty Clearing station at Corbie, he hallucinated a congregation of immense shapes in grey-white cagoules. The shapes, with their grey-whiteness and their ‘dreadful eyes’, were German soldiers; but also, he later came to realise, a version of the ‘minatorily bearded’ and ‘tumultuous’ Great Victorians who had made his childhood a misery. By 23 August, he had rejoined his battalion, which was now in the Ypres Salient near Kemmel Hill. Ford’s ‘Corbiephobia’, as he called it, was at least an acknowledgment, in its identification of the soldier’s helplessness with the child’s, that the ‘strafings’ to which a person is subjected in warfare are generic and arbitrary. Thereafter, he couldn’t take it quite so personally when a sniper took a shot at him or his commanding officer doubted his powers as a leader of men (this he thought a little unfair, since First Line Transport was ‘composed mostly of mules’).
The most significant outcome of Ford’s experience of war at the sharp end were the four novels collectively known as Parade’s End (1924-28). When he reflected on that experience, he did so obliquely, most often in fiction, and well after the event. The companion volume to Return to Yesterday, It was the Nightingale (1934), begins with his demobilisation, after a series of administrative postings, in January 1919. Parade’s End weaves backwards and forwards in time across the gap opened by the war, without ever closing it. The world before the war was one thing, Ford maintained, and the world after the war another. They could not be spoken about in the same terms.
Carcanet’s volume of ‘war prose’ demonstrates to vivid effect that the gulf separating one world from the other was not as wide as he sometimes made out. Max Saunders, the author of an indispensable two-volume biography of Ford which treats the war as the natural division in his career, has pulled together a rich variety of reflections on conflict and its aftermath. These are, as it were, notes for the war memoir Ford might have written, but didn’t. Whether conceived as fiction, reminiscence, essay, lecture, preface or letter, they all move, as Saunders puts it, ‘between questions of war and questions of psychology and aesthetics’. The pièce de résistance is the fragment of a novel to be called ‘True Love & a GCM’ which Ford wrote between September 1918 and March 1919.
‘True Love & a GCM’ describes Gabriel Morton’s experiences as an infantry officer on the Western Front, his partial recovery from shell-shock, and his disillusionment with the civilisation in whose name he fought. Like Ford himself, Morton is in recollection’s grip; his past ‘came back to him’, Ford says, echoing a formulation ubiquitous in Return to Yesterday and the other memoirs, ‘in waves’. Its most troubling episodes – his father’s death, the end of his affair with a married woman, Hilda Cohen – do not have to be summoned. They announce themselves when he is least expecting them. The fragment never quite gets round either to the ‘true love’, or to the General Court Martial: like Ford himself, Morton has fallen foul of his commanding officer, and we must assume that he would at some point have found himself in the dock. Its value is that it enables one to begin to understand how the author of The Good Soldier became the author of Parade’s End.
‘True Love & a GCM’ could be said to demonstrate the underlying consistency of Ford’s fictional technique. As in The Good Soldier and Parade’s End, episodes in the protagonist’s life are described not in the order in which they took place, but in the order (or disorder) of their recurrence: the past has significance insofar as it recurs in the present, the present insofar as it will recur in the future. The intensity discharged by memory is the intensity of an impression rather than of a fact or a value. An impression is not an epiphany. It does not reveal the meaning of an event, so much as enable the event itself to perform the function of (to stand in for) meaning. Thus, all that Morton can remember about the miserable conclusion to his affair with Hilda Cohen is her stepping into a cab outside Marble Arch Tube Station, and the driver pulling down his flag. ‘That was how his past life came back to him, in those scenes of strong colours, remembered with strong emotions, though they seemed to be memories of no emotions whatever.’ Impressionism does not resolve or even palliate self-estrangement, because it is at one and the same time both the self and the estrangement.
He had nothing; he was almost nobody. His only possessions, apart from remembrances, seemed to him to be, in a tent in a camp, a disreputable bed, some dirty army blankets which he would have to return to store, a washstand made of a sugar box that supported someone else’s tin basin and that contained an old pot of vaseline, some damp army papers and, possibly, a field pocket book or two and an old razor strap.
There, tantalisingly, the fragment ends. It leaves Morton very much as Ford himself was at the end of the war.
‘True Love and a GCM’ matters because in it Ford found a subject which neither Conrad nor James would have known what to do with. In a letter to Conrad, he expressed the hope that his descriptions of trench warfare might come in handy should his eminent colleague ever decide to do anything ‘in this line’, or want to ‘put a phrase into the mouth of someone in Bangkok who had been, say, to Bécourt’. There is no sign of the person from Bécourt in Conrad’s later fiction. Persons from Bangkok had always been Conrad’s line, persons from Bécourt became Ford’s. The description of a raid Morton leads into no-man’s-land relishes the kind of detail which was to become commonplace in the war memoirs of Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves, but which would not have been consistent with Conrad’s method, or James’s. Morton’s overwhelming fear, as he crawls towards the enemy trenches, is that he will put his hand into ‘something nasty’, like a dead German. Hardy alone, perhaps, among Ford’s contemporaries, would similarly have investigated the nausea this fear induces (when the fastidious Henry Knight, in A Pair of Blue Eyes, clambering in the dark over the rubble left by the collapse of a church tower, puts his hand ‘plump’ on something he cannot at first identify, something ‘stringy and entangled’, we know that events have taken a sinister turn).
Another respect in which ‘True Love & a GCM’ diverges from The Good Soldier is in the minute attention it devotes to class, and to the pressure put on long-standing distinctions and allegiances by social change. Like Parade’s End, it has as much to say about the havoc wrought by social pathology as it does about the havoc wrought by enemy action. In The Good Soldier, Dowell defines Edward Ashburnham’s recipe for good soldiering as ‘true love and the feudal system’. Ashburnham’s aspiration to feudalism remains more or less intact, at least in Dowell’s eyes, even if his aspiration to true love does not. In ‘True Love and a GCM’, by contrast, as in Parade’s End, it is the feudal system itself which can no longer be trusted. Feudalism no longer enjoys the degree of social and economic security which once enabled it to forget its origin in seizure. Whereas Ashburnham is a landowner – although one whose estates, like his adulteries, are astutely managed by his wife – Gabriel Morton, despite having been brought up in the shadow of minatorily bearded PreRaphaelites, earns his living as a chartered accountant. The aspiration to gentle-manliness manifests itself only in the benign neglect with which he treats his own position in the world. It is no more than a negative quality, the obverse of the meticulous scrutiny to which he subjects the ‘wildcat finances’ of apparently respectable limited companies.
It is the residue of that negative quality, converted into actual good soldiering, into selfless concern for the wellbeing of the men under his command, which earns Morton the hatred of his commanding officer, an ex-town councillor from Eastbourne. Had the GCM ever taken place, Morton’s arrival in court, no doubt pinioned between attendants even more terrifying than Ezra Pound and Mrs Gwendolen Bishop, would have put feudalism itself on trial. In Parade’s End, Christopher Tietjens, the ‘last English Tory’, also manages to incense his superiors, although not to the point of court-martial; and he does eventually find true love. But the only way he can support himself, after the war, is by selling antique furniture to rich Americans. The feudal system has transformed itself into a heritage industry.
‘True Love and a GCM’ and Parade’s End shrink that system – from the dimensions of a social and political tradition still powerful enough to sustain a mythology of proper conduct to the dimensions of an idiom. When Hilda Cohen rejects Morton, she rejects his version of Englishness; her serene brutality indicates as firmly as any amount of strafing from COs and enemy artillery that there is no future for feudalism. ‘She had come up from Eastbourne to give him, wordlessly, the giddy mitten.’ Hilda Cohen knows that the sex war is also a class war.A woman from Eastbourne, married to a Jewish businessman whose books he refuses to doctor, compels Morton to start remembering where he himself came from: a process the ex-town councillor will eventually complete, with a little help from a German shell. The scale of his defeat is registered by the shrunkenness of the language in which he acknowledges it. I’ve no idea what a giddy mitten is, but I imagine that Bertie Wooster collected a few of them in his time.
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