- 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.
A second important point made by Green, a less directly political and more historical one, is that, whereas The Good Soldier was a French-style novel (‘the best French novel in the language’, as the phrase goes), the Tietjens tetralogy Parade’s End is an ‘English’ novel, or rather a novel in which Ford ‘welded the sophisticated modernist insights he had perfected in 1915 with the more expansive reportorial functions of a Dickens or a Thackeray’. The war, Green says, had two effects on Ford as a novelist. It jolted him out of ‘realism’ into ‘impressionism’. ‘Realism’ is ‘a register of a world in which the boundaries between Man and both his organic and inorganic environment are clear and non-problematic’, and the contrast between the opening of Parade’s End, the description of Tietjens and MacMaster in a first-class railway carriage, and the opening of No More Parades, a purely impressionistic evocation of an army hut under bombardment, gives us the ‘intuition’ that the old world has finally collapsed. Secondly, the war democratised Ford, and thereby democratised Tietjens. Christopher Tietjens, as a result of his love for Valentine Wannop and his experience of trench warfare, is prised out of his class prejudices. Such a humanist and sentimental theme would not have been admissible in a ‘French-style’ novel, and we are to see in Ford’s own war experience one of the factors which called forth his new ‘English’ style.
Green is full of illuminations, large and small, in regard to the Tietjens novels: for instance, when he points out that ‘Tietjens’ mastery of his horses is twice contrasted with Campion’s lack of control over his car,’ or that ‘the “twenty tea-trays”, a metaphor for Campion’s lethal motor-car, will in the next novel be metamorphosed into the German shelling of Tietjens’ unit’, and ‘the extravagant silver service of the Duchemins will be conjured into the “candlestick”, a metal bar inside a shrapnel shell, which is to destroy Pte Morgan.’
Another virtue in his book is that it presents a comprehensive and coherent argument – one which demands, if you are going to disagree with him, an equally coherent argument. I think I do disagree with him, actually – in a way, at least. What it comes down to is that I believe the old ‘aesthetic’ approach to Ford (not that Green despises it) is the right one, after all. Much turns on the relative valuation of The Good Soldier and the Tietjens tetralogy. I have just reread The Good Soldier and found it even better than I had remembered. The Tietjens books, though: they are remarkable, often poignant, and full of astonishing feats of writing, but they are littered, surely, too with mad (and peculiarly Fordian) bathoses and absurdities. Ezra Pound’s friendly home truth seems to me to have been plumb right: ‘Fordie, you’ AVE got a rummy lot of “idées reçues”. Not sure that the beastly word gentleman hasn’t caused you more trouble in your bright li’l life than all the rest of the lang.’
The Frenchness of The Good Soldier is to the point here. It was a very rich tradition, this ‘Frenchness’, within which Ford and Henry James and Conrad worked. And one strand of it came from Balzac. I refer to the theme of the Lamb thrown to the Wolves: the spectacle, implacably presented by the novelist, of innocence cast to its devourers amid the total misunderstanding of motives and with no glimmer of hope that things should be otherwise. The theme, and the particular pathos which attached to it, was, of course, a favourite of Balzac’s (see Le Cousin Pons, Le Curé de Tours and Le Père Goriot), and it was also central to Henry James (think of ‘Daisy Miller’ and The Wings of the Dove), as it was to Ford.
The other strand of French tradition comes from Flaubert, and the important point about this Flaubertian strand, in the present connection, is that it requires the novelist to write de haut en bas – to seem to look down on his human creations from a great height. Of course, this looking-down is a trick of rhetoric, a very powerful artistic device akin to irony, and is not to be taken literally. The undertone of Flaubert was, on the contrary, human solidarity. It asserted: ‘I am myself that fool ... I am just such a fool, in my own way, and you would have all the right in the world to look down on me also.’ (What damned the work of Richard Aldington, another Frenchifier, was that he had not heard this undertone.)
A favourite subject-matter for these Frenchifying novelists (whose residence in the town of Rye H.G. Wells pretended to consider a national threat) was, very properly, Englishness: they liked to present to themselves, as an artistic problem, the deep mystery of English ‘honour’, English manners and English impassiveness. The rendering of the supposed English ‘inarticulacy’ was the sort of challenge they loved. And it is a fact worth remembering that, during the period of Ford’s collaboration with Conrad, Ford’s idea of dialogue was mainly stammering and dots: it was left to Conrad, of all people, to put in the plain sense.
Such, then, was the French inheritance of Ford when he came to write The Good Soldier; and in that novel he managed to make every part of it effective. His chosen situation in the novel, an innocent English lamb thrown to the wolves, provided the true Balzacian pathos. His mode of presenting it, through the eyes of an alien, the rich American Dowell, allowed its Englishness to figure as a mystery – so much so that this ‘mystery’ is the very heart of the novel. And finally, he presents an English country-gentleman hero who – though his American friend grows to admire and love him – is an utter and hopeless fool, so that a de haut en bas tone is entirely justified in depicting him. Now Ford was a fool himself, a holy fool on the largest possible scale: it is the theme of the Lowell and William Carlos Williams poems and of all the memoirs of him. He was, and knew it, quite as arrant a muddler as this Good Soldier, though in a different sphere. Thus it need not surprise us that this novel should have been his masterpiece.
One might suggest, though, that Ford’s Modernity, though perfectly genuine, was already in a sense old-fashioned by the time he achieved this masterpiece. By the time he wrote it, Joyce, Proust and Lawrence had all found a way to move on from the French Naturalist novel, a way which abolished the privileged spectator, with his aloofness and looking-down, and more directly exploited the author’s common humanity.
At all events, see what happened when Ford took to writing an ‘English’ novel, Parade’s End. I find myself in disagreement with Robert Green here: for surely Ford was not in the least an ‘alien’ or an ‘outsider’? It is true he had a German father: but he was born and brought up in England. And since he grew up in a wide and fascinating social circle, centring on the Pre-Raphaelites (and as he often stressed in his memoirs, the artists of his circle were thoroughly roast-beef and plum-pudding in their style), he had every qualification for feeling English and for understanding the English. For the purposes of The Good Soldier he adopted the pose, natural to an alien such as Conrad or James, of finding the English a mystery – and a very fruitful pose it was. But it would not have been honest for him to persist in it in his later novels, nor did he.
However, the abandonment of the French stance brought difficulties. It was not possible for him in an ‘English’ novel to sustain aloofness towards his hero. He was forced into demanding that his readers should sometimes, not just have sympathy for his hero, but sympathise with him – a very different matter. One queer effect of this is that the de haut en bas tone is transferred from the artist-narrator to the hero Tietjens and to other characters in the novel, in whom it takes a social form. A very outrageous form, moreover : yet, it appears, Ford has got himself in the position of asking us to endorse it. Among novels of this degree of seriousness, Parade’s End wins the prize for preposterous dicta. ‘If ... if your second brother is killed ...,’ says Sylvia Tietjens. ‘But your eldest brother ...’ ‘He,’ replies Tietjens, ‘has got a French woman near Euston station. He’s lived with her for over fifteen years, of afternoons, when there were no race meetings.’ What on earth is one to do with such a remark, which really belongs on the revue stage? And then there is Tietjens’s sweetheart Valentine Wannop, who, we hear, has gained her wisdom about life in ‘the world of Ealing and its county councillors, who over-ate and neighed like stallions’. And again it is, we cannot help reflecting, a funny notion of ‘comradeship’ and escape from class prejudices which expresses itself thus: ‘An immense sense of those grimy, shuffling, grouching, dirty-nosed pantomime-supers came over him [Tietjens] and an intense desire to give them a bit of luck.’
It does seem, though, that Ford is, weirdly, imagining himself as actually and realistically like Tietjens in certain ways – and ways demanding of admiration. A vast muddle is thus caused. For Tietjens’s de haut en bas attitudes, very well observed and even poignant when considered from the ‘specimen’ point of view, and of course essential to the development of the story, are appalling from any other point of view. What could be more desolating than the Tietjens attitude of prizing detailed knowledge and factual precision for their own sterile sake, and as a kind of deliberate put-down to feeling: ‘For Tietjens – again she admitted – had a marvellous gift for old furniture: he despised it as such, but he knew it down to the ground.’ What more idiotic and worse than Kiplingesque than valuing human beings according to the factual information they provide? ‘You look at a dozen men, each of them not by any means detestable and not uninteresting: for each of them would have technical details of their affairs to impart ...’ Yet it seems that Ford is, in some confused way, identifying with these stultifying attitudes. What I suspect is occurring is that he is equating them with the inspiring doctrines of Imagism: unsentimental precision, ‘absolutely accurate presentation’ and ‘direct treatment of the “thing” ’. Tietjens, with his cult of factual precision, is being related to Pound’s artist figure of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. Such equations are the life of art, but this one doesn’t work at all.
In general, I feel that Parade’s End – courageous and distinguished effort as it is, and streets away from The Forsyte Saga – doesn’t quite work and has to be thought of as a magnificent ruin. Green makes an excellent point about the post-war novels among which Parade’s End belongs. ‘The sheer length of so much post-war fiction – of Arnold Zweig’s Trilogy of the Transition, R.H. Mottram’s Spanish Farm trilogy, as of Parade’s End – is but one indication of the novelist’s delight in that reprieve granted to all survivors. Though Zweig, Mottram and Ford are all, in different degrees, critical dissenting novelists, their fiction is united by a certain “testamentary” quality, the determination to publish a belief in man’s power to survive the unspeakable.’ But when he goes on to speak of the ‘historical solidity’ of Parade’s End, or when he speaks earlier of The Good Soldier as a footnote to Proust, I cannot go along with him. Artistic solidity in The Good Soldier I freely grant Ford. But historical solidity is the last thing I would credit him with. His rash fantasies on the subject of ‘feudalism’ do not suggest it, and whenever Parade’s End loses artistic solidity, which is quite often, it dips – or so it seems to me – into social and historical phantasmagoria. I would go to Proust for a picture of a grande cocotte or of life in a French military academy, but I would not go to Ford for a picture of a First World War general or of a suburban life in Ealing.