Book Review: An Expert Biography of a Bold and Anxious Literary Giant — Ford Madox Ford
By Thomas Filbin
Anthony Burgess considered Ford Madox Ford to be the greatest of 20th-century English novelists.
Ford Madox Ford by Max Saunders. Reaktion Books/Critical Lives Series. 216 pp. $19.
Grandson of the Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown, nephew by marriage of William Rossetti, Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was destined for literary art. The home he grew up in was filled with visiting celebrities: he sat on Liszt’s knee and offered a chair to Turgenev. He was made to feel, according to biographer Max Saunders, that the world was divided into artists and “the stuff to fill graveyards.”
In 65 years of an adventurous life he wrote novels, criticism, travel books, and poetry as well as editing, teaching, and lecturing. He enlisted in World War I even though he would have been exempt from service because he was well past military age and was a husband and a father as well. “Doing one’s bit” was almost gospel in the Victorian and Edwardian culture Ford grew up in. Although he was not an infantryman, he was sometimes in the front lines and saw death and despair at close range. Although he always seemed to need money, he managed to live well, either in small hotel rooms or cozy country cottages in England and France. And then there were the women — so many women. Married to his school sweetheart Elsie Martindale when he was not quite 21, in time the call of the wild beckoned and he had numerous affairs including with Jean Rhys (whom he mentored) and the Irish beauty and writer Brigit Patmore, who was married to the grandson of Coventry Patmore. (She also had a long friendship with D.H. Lawrence.) Ford also maintained long, semi-permanent relationships with the author Violet Hunt and artist and writer Stella Bowen. When he was 56, Ford met and fell in love with 26-year-old Janice Biala, a painter and independent spirit, who was as mad about him as he was for her. Their letters, in the words of Saunders, testify to the “emotional power, volatility, and humour” of their relationship.
This short biography is part of Reaktion’s Critical Lives series, and, predictably, it takes advantage of Saunders’s earlier two-volume biography of Ford, 1996’s Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life. But this volume never reads like a synopsis of something else. Saunders captures both the boldness and anxiety that fueled the life and work of a literary giant. Biography is as much an art as poetry or fiction; of course one must use facts or particulars as a starting point. But the subtlety of description, analysis, and interpretation infuse the material with values — ethereal and metaphysical — that rise above the prosaic.
There hardly seems to be a person Ford did not know in the late Victorian-Edwardian-Early Modernist period. He was friends with Joseph Conrad and even collaborated with him to write a novel. By Ford’s 30s his books, including a series of historical novels, had been so well received that he became a respected cultural figure: he began to spend most of his time in London. In 1908 he became the editor of the English Review, which launched the careers of modernist writers such as Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. First-issue contributors included Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, and John Galsworthy. Although Ford continued to write fiction, an editor’s perch gave him the opportunity to indulge his critical side. Saunders writes of Ford that “Whether he was writing fiction, poetry, books about places, reminiscences — or of course criticism — his work simultaneously engages in conscious reflection on its processes, genres, effects.” For him, criticism and creation were cousins, not strangers.
At the end of his life, Ford spent some time as a writer and critic in residence at Olivet College in Michigan. It earned him some much-needed money and put him in touch with American writers. Saunders writes that Ford pronounced Robert Lowell the most intelligent person he had met in Boston. Lowell later said, “That was more his low opinion of Boston than his high opinion of me.” In the ’30s as Hitler and Mussolini came to power, Ford wrote a series of antifascist pieces and spoke in favor of the creation of the state of Israel as the only practical way to avoid the extermination of the Jews.
Ford’s most praised novels are The Good Soldier (1915), and a tetralogy written between 1924-28 gathered under the title Parade’s End. The first is the tale of the destructive behavior of two couples whose relationships revolve around infidelity and emotional distancing, while the novels that make up the second detail the psychological impact of war on its participants. The character development and incidents in both works were drawn from Ford’s own life experience, both in marriage and combat. Saunders cites Rebecca West’s praise for The Good Soldier and he argues that the book “certainly set the pattern for her The Return of the Soldier, as it did for novels by Rhys, Greene, Burgess, John Hawkes, Aslan Judd, Barnes, and — surely — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.”
Anthony Burgess considered Ford the greatest of 20th-century English novelists. Perhaps it is his industry that distracts readers and critics from fully appreciating him. To be prolific is often thought of as a negative, as if churning out books diminished quality, or that there are limits when it comes to exercising talent. Ford offers us a clue to what writing meant to him in his 1914 essay “On Impressionism.” He asserts that there is a highly conscious method to literary art, claiming “I am a perfectly self-conscious writer; I know exactly how I get my effects, as far as those effects go.” Ford disavowed any expert knowledge of Impressionism as a movement as he acknowledged that he adopted its emphasis on the play of individual perception as a novelistic technique.
The volume contains numerous photos, stretching from the 1890s to the year of Ford’s death, just months before the beginning of yet another world war. Saunders writes cogently and clearly, never losing the flavor of the man, his work, or the times in which he lived.
Thomas Filbin is a freelance book critic and writing instructor at Suffolk University. His reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Boston Sunday Globe, and Hudson Review.