- Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life by Max Saunders
Oxford, 632 pp, £35.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 19 211789 0
In 1915, Ford Madox Hueffer became Ford Madox Ford – by deed poll. Around the same time, at the age of 41, he enlisted for active service in the British Army: ‘I have never felt such an entire peace of mind as I have felt since I wore the King’s uniform. It is just a matter of plain sailing doing one’s duty, without any responsibilities, except to one’s superiors and one’s men.’
People close to him were not all that surprised when he joined up. As they saw it, this was just Fordie’s latest bid for a clear-cut identity: a uniform, a rank. No longer would he need to wonder who his ‘superiors’ really were. Nor would he have to worry about keeping his underlings in line. The Army was not literary London. In the military scale of things, the likes of General James and Colonel Conrad would, of course, look down on him. At the same time, salutes were guaranteed from Privates Lawrence, Pound and Eliot; even from Lance-Corporal Lewis. And in the Army, you got paid: paid every week, not just when you happened to get lucky – which, in Ford’s book-writing life to date, had not been very often.
By 1915, Ford had published over forty books – novels, poems, historical romances, propaganda, local history, lit crit – but he was still waiting for a windfall. Even his just published novel The Good Soldier, praised on all sides as his best, had earned him next to nothing. Worse still, he was getting the feeling that English Letters thought they could get by without him: without his books, his deeply-felt art-worship, his editorial acumen, his messy life. Only five years ago, he had been kow-towed to as the ‘Olympian’ editor of the English Review, dispensing mysterious ‘instinctive’ judgments from on high, holding court in his Holland Park Avenue apartments. Now his authority was on the wane. Had he ever been truly valued ‘for himself’?
But then, what was this self that he called his? And where did it belong, in Literature’s great call-up? Was he a left-over Pre-Raphaelite – a post Pre-Raphaelite? The grandson of Ford Madox Brown, he had spent his childhood trying to fathom the Rossettis. He was named after his maternal grandfather, and Brown had been the subject of his first grown-up publication, a homage-ful biography. His imagination, however hard he tried, might never quite be free of pale lost lilies. Or was he a proto-Modernist, the wised-up decoder of rebarbative new talent? Where did the best of his own writing fit? Was his ‘impressionist’ aesthetic a throwback to the Nineties or a blueprint for les Imagistes?
Ford cared about such definitions. James and Conrad condescended to him as he himself now wished to condescend to Pound and his weird Modernist disciples. In Ford’s version of his own career, he had served a long apprenticeship to excellence – not least in his tense partnership with Conrad – and, in his late thirties, had much to offer the aspiring young. But neither the old guard nor les jeunes quite saw him as ‘the real right thing’. Conrad made use of him but never really thought that he belonged in the big league. James, if pressed, would have called him slapdash, unreliable, too vulgarly worried about money. Lawrence, though always grateful and affectionate, reckoned that his discoverer would, in the end, turn out to be too stuffily insistent on technique. Only mad Ezra, the American, seemed certain of Ford’s worth.
This feeling of forever being somewhere in-between was Ford’s ongoing curse, or so he would have said. And of course the more he pondered it, the worse it got. The either/ors piled up, sometimes to breaking-point. Was he English or German? Pre-1914 he could take his pick, and did – but now, in wartime, a Hueffer could only be a spy. Another spur, this, to enlistment. And if he really was British, where did he fit in the class set-up? Was he a clubland gent up from the shires or was he a big-city chancer, all airs and no substance? Ford’s fictional heroes are usually well-acred but unworldly and he would certainly have wished to be like them. In the matter of money, was he a giver or a taker? Ford was hugely generous when in funds but/therefore frequently in need of bailouts and cash-in-advance. By 1915, he was more or less bankrupt.
Ford – called many-modelled by a waggish friend – was always popular, but never quite knew why. In society, he came across either as too lordly or too keen to please. His tall stories, though, were passed around with ribald glee – indeed, some of them still are. Was he a liar or a dreamer? At the time, his fabulations were widely indulged. Sometimes they were based on fact – at other times: well, nearly. In any event, he seemed – or needed – to believe his own big talk: talk about the great figures he had been so chummy with, or about how he had influenced this or that turning-point in literary history. Nowadays the big talk does him harm: he infuriates critics and biographers by leading them down false trails and blind alleys, and they are inclined to punish him as a result. In 1915, quite a few people looked forward to hearing his News from the Front – and so did he.
Ford was of course famously popular with women – as they were popular with him. And this was a key either/or. Was he – this plump bookman, rabbit-toothed, short of breath, with moist eyes and straggly lemon-coloured hair – in truth a vile seducer, as so many of his primmer associates believed, or was he just too gullibly anxious to be love-struck, all the time? In Ford’s novels, a bumblingly polygamous male hero is constantly having to explain himself to some vengeful, manipulative shrew – or, if the shrew won’t listen, to her rather pretty, sympathetic friend:
For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.
So, for a time, if such a passion comes to fruition, the man will get what he wants. He will get the moral support, the encouragement, the relief from the sense of loneliness, the assurance of his own worth. But these things pass away; inevitably they pass away as the shadows pass across sundials. It is sad, but it is so. The pages of the book will become familiar; the beautiful corner of the road will have been turned too many times. Well, this is the saddest story.
A lot of Ford’s best writing comes packaged as doleful apologia, and so does some of his worst. In the best, though, his eloquence is masterful, unerring. And it is also knowingly seductive. He once said that, in his fiction, he aimed for ‘a limpidity of expression that should make prose seem like the sound of someone talking in rather a low voice into the ear of the person that he liked’.
The above ‘saddest story’ speech from The Good Soldier is delivered by the book’s artless American narrator, John Dowell. ‘I know nothing of the sex instinct’ is Dowell’s general line but we are not sure that we believe him. He knows more than he is letting on; or he wants to know more – and quite soon. When he comes to assess the adulterous Ashburnham – the seducer of his, Dowell’s, wife – he hopes that he has not ‘in talking of his liabilities, given the impression that Edward was a promiscuous libertine. He was not; he was a sentimentalist.’
And so was Ford, we think. Sentimentalists get into muddles; libertines move on. Ashburnham, Dowell assures us, was a good man: a sort of feudal saint, in fact, always looking to reduce his tenants’ rents, helping drunks and prostitutes go straight, subscribing to hospitals, handing out prizes at cattle shows. Was it surprising that such a man, so open, so large-hearted, so alive, should find it hard to rein back his emotional largesse? In The Good Soldier, Ashburnham is not allowed to have his say, which sometimes means that Dowell has to elucidate on his behalf. If this also means that Dowell has to slip out of character for a few paragraphs, so be it. Ashburnham – Ford, with some vehemence, believes – ought to be given a fair hearing:
As I see it, at least with regard to man, a love-affair, a love for any definite woman – is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory, A turn of the eyebrow, a tone of the voice, a queer characteristic gesture – all these things, and it is these things that cause to arise the passion of love – all these things are like so many objects on the horizon of the landscape that tempt a man to walk beyond the horizon, to explore. He wants to get, as it were, behind those eyebrows with the peculiar turn, as if he desired to see the world with the eyes that they overshadow. He wants to hear that voice applying itself to every possible proposition, to every possible topic; he wants to see those characteristic gestures against every possible background.
Is this what Ford really meant by ‘impressionism’? Maybe so. As a novelist, he celebrates conditions of alert passivity. He strives – begs, even – for a seeing of all points of view, ‘an exhaustion of aspects’: a recognition, in short, that one woman’s libertine may be another’s noble-spirited self-giver. More than with most writers, Ford’s art pleads for an understanding of Ford’s life. And in consequence, if we wish to deal kindly, it pleads, too, for an understanding of each human life, its many-sidedness, its susceptibility to erroneous interpretation. If, on the other hand, we’re feeling – in our many-sidedness – a bit hard-nosed, we might complain that his novels were too often damaged by having to serve as silvery-tongued back-ups to whatever life-muddle he happened to be engaged with at the time of writing.
Ford hated having his intimate life talked about and, in his public persona, he liked to strike postures of fierce reticence. Some hope. According to the tenets of the day, he was a pretty shocking fellow, with his love-affairs, his breakdowns, his lawsuits, his ‘wrecked friendships’, his cash-flow. There was always a Ford scandal on the go. Chief among these, in the period covered by Max Saunders’s first volume, was his liaison with the writer Violet Hunt, with whom he lived as man and wife – or wife and man – after deserting Elsie Martindale, the legal spouse he had newsworthily eloped with in his youth. Elsie, a Roman Catholic, refused Ford a divorce and when Hunt began calling herself Mrs Ford (well, Mrs Hueffer) a much publicised libel case ensued. Ford – in a complicated offshoot from the case – was sent to Brixton for ten days and, as with the Army, he took prison in his stride. ‘The apostle in bonds’, Pound – of all people – called him, rather shrewdly. For ten days, Ford was able to see himself as a martyr in the cause of many-sidedness. He also, for ten days, knew who he was: a humble convict.
Max Saunders’s first volume ends with Ford setting off for war. Parade’s End is yet to come, and we should really defer judgment, on both Ford and Saunders, until each of them gets to grips with that strange, haunting, self-indulgent work. Saunders, in this immensely scholarly book, tracks in detail and with ardent empathy the links between Ford’s muddles and Ford’s fiction, and to this end digs up a number of forgotten texts. On the matter of life-art connections, Parade’s End should test him to the full.
So far, so good, though. Saunders’s fifty-plus pages on The Good Soldier do justice to Ford’s celebrated ‘time-shifts’ and happily concede the influence of James. Their real interest, though, is biographical. Saunders has found a real-life model for John Dowell and argues persuasively (with biographical support) that Ashburnham’s suicide was forced on him by the knowledge that Nancy was actually his daughter.
Has this theory been proposed before? Not that I know of. All in all, Saunders’s Good Soldier chapter had the effect of altering my reading of a book I thought I knew – a book I thought was marred by Ashburnham’s implausible exit – so I, for one, am grateful. And, in consequence, all the more eager to read Saunders’s next volume. And after that, I will, I hope, propose that Saunders prune his two volumes into one – if only to allow the narrative some air. At the moment, the life is somewhat buried by the work: a Fordian irony, indeed.
To date, there have been six biographies of Ford, the two best-known being Arthur Mizener’s and Alan Judd’s. Mizener still stands up pretty well, although Saunders would say that he was too heavily influenced by his conversations with Ford’s daughter. Judd’s is flashily readable, with no footnotes, and ridiculously overrates Ford’s verse. On all the evidence so far, Saunders’s is likely to become the standard Life. But then, Ford himself would surely, and touchingly, have reckoned that six Lives were far too few.