Dangerous Liaisons

Frank Kermode

  • Ford Madox Ford by Alan Judd
    Collins, 471 pp, £16.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 00 215242 8

Attitudes to Ford Madox Ford (né Hueffer) vary; some think he wrote some very good novels, and some do not; some aren’t bothered by his lies, and some are. And while some find his personal conduct endearing others demur. He was in many respects a mess, a creator of chaos. Ezra Pound, who liked and admired him, once said ‘that if he were placed naked and alone in a room without furniture, I would come back in an hour and find total confusion.’ Though on the whole he seems to have enjoyed his life, his health was not good and he was subject to nervous breakdown. He was remarkably and on the whole uncomplainingly unlucky. One can understand why some liked and some pitied him (Arthur Mizener’s biography is called The Saddest Story, the title Ford had wanted for The Good Soldier) but also why some have always found him irritating.

He made large and largely just claims for himself, as selfless benefactor of English letters, restorer of the art of the novel, counsellor to many good and promising writers. His admirers naturally endorse these claims, and others have to concede that they were not without substance. Contemporaries called him ‘Fordie’, and laughed at his fibs; his posthumous reputation has been affected by similar condescensions. Even his most impressive books have had to spend more than half a century in the waiting-room outside the canon.

His private life, with its scandals, lawsuits, flights, disappointments and unachieved ambitions, was promising material for gossip and later for memoirs and biographies. He was very well known, very prone to pratfalls, just the type people gossip about. Despite an appearance often found grotesque – Wyndham Lewis’s ‘flabby lemon and pink giant’ – he was to the end attractive to women; but his marital history was for the most part disastrously gossip-worthy.

Professing a rather voulu Tory-Catholic agnosticism, a noblesse oblige (though he wasn’t noble, only, as he liked to insist, a gentleman), he sometimes behaved in ways that could, even in those days, embarrass his friends. Pound shrewdly told him he wasn’t sure ‘that the beastly word gentleman hasn’t caused you more trouble in yr/ bright little life than all the rest of the lang ... you AVE got a rummy job lot of “idees recues” ... you HAVE bitched about 80% of yr/ work through hanging on to a set of idees recues.’ Ford was capable of explaining his social position by saying that Arnold Bennett, being of humble origins, would shrink at the sight of a policeman, whereas to people of Ford’s class policemen were servants you sent to fetch a cab when it rained.

The gentleman business wasn’t all talk, however. Quite unnecessarily, since he was 41, he volunteered for the Army in 1915 and served in the trenches as an infantry officer. He may have fibbed about some of his war experiences but seems on the whole to have done well despite his unsoldierly sloppiness. As Alan Judd remarks, his war service deserved more praise than it got – another instance of his chronic bad luck.

Allen Tate once told me that after Ford’s death he helped Janice Biala, Ford’s widow, to sell the author’s papers to Princeton. They rented a pick-up truck and set off to deliver them, but they must have been packed with a carelessness more appropriate to their author than to their destination, for somewhere along the New Jersey turnpike Tate observed in the rearview mirror Ford’s papers blowing irretrievably out of the boxes on to the road. Whether this was the whole truth, or merely what Ford himself would have called a truth of impression, I don’t know, for Tate (a Catholic-Tory Southern gentleman) was also capable on occasion of being uneconomical with the truth. Still, the story does make the point that Ford’s disorderliness, and his bad luck, lingered on.

He was the distinguished editor of two important literary magazines, the English Review and the Transatlantic Review, but characteristically ran into terminal problems on both papers. He launched D.H. Lawrence; he was for years Conrad’s indispensable prop; he was close to his revered Henry James, though perhaps less close than he thought. He was on companionable terms with Wells, Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and the ungrateful Hemingway. Throughout his life he strove to keep up with les jeunes; Lawrence called him ‘everybody’s blessed uncle’.

He wandered irrationally about the world, living for a time in Germany only because he thought, quite wrongly, that if he got naturalised there he could get the divorce his wife refused him in England. He lived in Paris, where he knew everybody, and spent his last twenty years in America, where he soon became part of the literary scene. Among the authors he charmed were William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate and Robert Lowell.

How a biographer inflects the story of Ford in the telling will depend on his own moral and aesthetic assumptions. Sympathetic accounts can deal with the lying by polishing up the excuse offered by the author himself (though it works better for what he wrote than for what he spoke) – namely, that fiction can give a truer impression than pedestrian factuality. There is really very little more to be said: if you like Ford you repeat this explanation in some form. Arthur Mizener, though he tends to be judicious rather than enthusiastic, maintains that there is a significant connection between the truth-enhancing lies of the memoirs and Ford’s methods as a novelist.

Of course, as his most ardent admirers admit, those methods permitted some bad writing. Of Ford’s eighty-something books there may be no more than a dozen for which the keenest Fordites can make strong claims, and there is still disagreement even about the books at the top of the list. The Good Soldier and Parade’s End. There are eight volumes of wordy, circuitous and unreliable memoirs: but these epithets also describe some of Ford’s best writing, which can depend on irrelevances that turn out not to be irrelevant, digressions that do not digress, imperceptive narrators, an unwillingness to relate what happened in the order of its happening. Unless you can see reasons for all this indirection you might well think even The Good Soldier inexplicably fussy. Ford’s quite copious poetry can also put one off by its seemingly self-indulgent lack of concentration, but Pound gave reasons for admiring it.

In this country Ford has enjoyed the advocacy of Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett, but the busiest and also the most effective of Ford’s admirers have been American. Though Carcanet have done well over here, and items like the latest issue of Agenda testify to continuing English interest,[*] the republication of Ford’s books has been largely the work of Americans. Arthur Mizener’s five hundred-page biography was, as he admits, thought by Janice Biala to be an unfair portrait (‘He had a romantic need ... to see himself as admirable and his defeats as undeserved, to revise in his imagination his actual conduct in such a way as to make himself the virtuous victim of a malicious world’). But despite this coolness Mizener remains an indispensable source.

There is also quite a lot of mostly American academic criticism, some of it good, but Mr Judd has little time for that kind of thing. He rather deprecates articles about the complexities of The Good Soldier, though he himself has little to say about it, except that he thinks it very good. A novelist himself, he offers some unstartling aperçus about novels, but he prefers to issue homely advice: reading the novels themselves will do us more good than reading anything he might say about them. This is a misjudgment of his audience, who are likely to be reading his book because they have already read, for instance, The Good Soldier. But perhaps it’s just as well: Judd devotes many pages to reprinting Ford’s poems, which he greatly admires, but he hasn’t much idea what to say about them either. Fluent enough in his biographical narrative, and given to sage reflections on the tortuosities of life and personality, he is not a resourceful critic.

He has interviewed many people and consulted a lot of unpublished material as well as the eighty-odd books, prompted by the great affection he feels for Ford. The result is a more indulgent portrait than Mizener’s, but Judd’s refusal to provide references and footnotes deprives it of authority. It is beside the point to argue that Ford would himself not have bothered about such things. Ford wrote a different kind of book for a different kind of readership; readers of this book are likely to be the very people who want to know where the material, old or new, comes from. That his subject was indifferent to authority is far from being a reason for a biographer to act on the same principle.

For instance, it would be helpful to be told on what authority Judd says The Good Soldier was written in 1913. Part of it appeared in the first issue of BLAST in 1914, and the whole book came out in 1915. It makes great play with the date 4 August; Ford, in defiance of plausibility, wants the wicked Florence to have taken every important step of her career on that date. It was her birthday, it was the day on which, 21 years later, she began her world trip. Exactly a year later, she was seen leaving a man’s bedroom; on the anniversary of that misdemeanour she married Dowell; three years later to the day, she met the Ashburnhams at dinner, and after nine more years she killed herself, on 4 August 1913. It does appear that whatever Ford is hinting, he was hinting it after 4 August 1914. And he was superstitious about that date, later claiming, with what veracity I cannot say, to have lost his money in a Wall Street crash on 4 August.

Here, then, at length but without references, is the tale of Ford from beginning – Pre-Raphaelite childhood – to end – a professorship at a small American liberal arts college. His precocity is demonstrated, the question as to whether he really did have an affair with his wife’s sister is gone into. The long, deplorable relationship with Violet Hunt is again described. Famous friendships are recounted, silly lies are examined and excused – the one about having been at Eton, the one about brilliantly putting down Lloyd George on a golf course. What Judd rightly emphasises is that Ford was a giver, believing that the preservation and furtherance of artistic talent was his permanent responsibility; and also that he was a deeply experienced but irresponsible student of destructive sexual passion. It was neat of Judd to notice that when Ford first got married his father-in-law had him served with an injunction forbidding him to have sex with his wife; and that, when he left that wife, she got an order for the restitution of conjugal rights, amounting to an injunction to resume the practice. Ironical repetitions and reversals of this sort make a pattern in Ford’s life.

He is good on Ford’s women, all in their different ways admirable, except perhaps Violet Hunt. Ford needed them in ways Judd understands, as he seems to understand the almost inexplicable devotion of these women, for he forgives as they did the genial evasions, blunders and absurdities of the man. He writes like a convert, even to the point of declaring that the truest biography of Ford would be a novel dealing in impressions, not in facts, but he has not chosen to write such a book; had he done so, the complaint about lack of documentation would of course be irrelevant.

[*] Agenda: Ford Madox Ford (Special Double Issue, 1989/90). An unpublished piece of Ford’s on ‘Pure: Literature’ is a weak specimen, but there are good contributions by Philip Davis, Carol Jacobs and David Trotter. Sondra Stang and Carl Smith have an authoritative essay on Ford’s musical compositions. There is also a touching poem by Dachine Rainer which incidentally throws some light on the way women can fall for Ford, even posthumously.