Ford Madox Ford (1873—1939)
The writer now known as Ford Madox Ford was a prolific novelist, poet, critic, editor, and reminiscer. He is one of the most intriguing, versatile, and often still misunderstood of the great Modernist writers. He was brought up in London, the grandson of Ford Madox Brown, the painter closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. At the turn of the century he lived on the Romney Marsh, befriending Henry James and Stephen Crane, and beginning a ten-year collaboration with Joseph Conrad. In the years before the First World War he moved to London, where he founded the English Review, bringing together many of the best established writers of the day – James, Thomas Hardy, Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Arnold Bennett – with his new discoveries, many of whom would help redefine modern literature, such as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and D. H. Lawrence. His major work of the Edwardian period includes the Fifth Queen trilogy of historical novels about Henry VIII and Katharine Howard (1906-08); the trilogy of impressionist books about England and the English (1905-07) and the novels A Call (1910) and – Ford’s best-known and most highly-regarded novel – The Good Soldier (1915). During the war he wrote propaganda; but in 1915 enlisted, serving in France in 1916-17 during the Battle of the Somme and at the Ypres Salient. He was invalided back to Britain in 1917, remaining in the army and giving lectures. After a spell recuperating in the Sussex countryside after the war, Ford lived mostly in France during the 1920s, first in Provence, then in Paris. He published his other major fictional work, the series of four novels known as Parade’s End, between 1924 and 1928. These were particularly well-received in America, where Ford spent much of his time from the later 1920s to his death in 1939.
Birth and Childhood
Ford was born on 17 December 1873 at 5 Fair Lawn Villas, Merton, Surrey, in England. He was the first of three children of the German émigré, Francis Hueffer (1845-89), a musicologist and author, and Catherine (1850-1927), painter, daughter of Ford Madox Brown, and his second wife Matilda (‘Emma’) Hill. He was christened Ford Hermann Hueffer. His father (Franz Hüffer before he Anglicized his name) had emigrated to England in 1869, and later became music critic for the Times. Ford considered becoming a composer -- a hoard of song manuscripts has survived -- but soon settled on a literary career, publishing his first book, a fairy story, The Brown Owl (1891) at the prodigious age of seventeen. His father died prematurely in 1889, and Ford and his brother Oliver went to live with their grandfather at 1 St Edmund's Terrace, Regent's Park. Their sister, Juliet, went to their aunt, Madox Brown’s other daughter Lucy, who was married to W. M. Rossetti, the brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Both the boys adored Madox Brown, and introduced a 'Madox' into their own names. Ford would call himself 'Ford Madox Hueffer' until he changed his name by deed poll in 1919 to 'Ford Madox Ford'.
Ford and Oliver were sent to an advanced primary school in Kent, then to University College School (in Gower Street, London). They never went to university; but moved through important bohemian, musical, and intellectual circles. Ford later recalled being overwhelmed as a child by the 'Middle Victorian, tumultuously bearded Great' (Mightier Than the Sword, p. 264), such as Ruskin, Carlyle, and Holman Hunt. One of his most vivid childhood memories was of offering Turgenev a chair. Ford's Rossetti cousins were precocious anarchists. Through them, he met Russian political émigrés such as Prince Kropotkin. Dr Richard Garnett, Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, was a neighbour; his daughter Olive became a close friend; also his son Edward Garnett, later an influential critic and publisher's reader, who married Constance, famous for her Russian translations.
Marriage, Collaboration with Conrad, and Early Successes
In 1894 Ford eloped with his school-girlfriend Elsie Martindale, the daughter of Dr William Martindale, a prominent analytical chemist, who opposed her marrying someone with such unreliable financial prospects. Ford and Elsie married in Gloucester on 17 May 1894. They left London, and settled in Bonnington, on the Romney Marsh; in 1901 they moved to the Bungalow, Winchelsea. They had two daughters, Christina (1897-1984) and Katharine (1900-78). Ford befriended the authors living nearby: Henry James, Stephen Crane, and H. G. Wells. It was also during this period that he met the sceptical Tory mathematician, Arthur Marwood (1868-1916), on whom he was to base many fictional characters – especially Christopher Tietjens, the protagonist of Parade’s End. In 1898 Edward Garnett had introduced Ford to Joseph Conrad -- the writer who was to have the deepest influence on him. They decided to collaborate on a novel about pirates. It was the beginning of a decade of apprenticeship, intimacy and frustration. When Romance was published in 1903, after five years of intermittent collaboration, its lukewarm reception was deeply disappointing. Ford’s marriage was under strain -- he is thought to have had an affair with his sister-in-law, Mary Martindale – and he had a severe agoraphobic breakdown in 1904. He was sent to Germany, for a 'nerve cure' near some of his German family – an experience which provided the setting for much of The Good Soldier.
After his return to England, Ford began at last to find success. He spent more time in London, and his study The Soul of London (1905) was 'boomed' in the papers. This was followed by two other volumes making up a trilogy about England and the English (1907). At the same time he wrote a trilogy of historical romances about Henry VIII's wife Katharine Howard: The Fifth Queen (1906); Privy Seal (1907) and The Fifth Queen Crowned (1908). He was to define himself (with James, Crane, and Conrad) as an 'impressionist' writer; which for him entailed not only a psychological emphasis on the processes of perception, but a provocative freedom with fact reminiscent of the Decadent movement.
Violet Hunt, The English Review, and The Good Soldier
As he became increasingly prominent in London literary life, and further estranged from his wife, he moved to a flat at 84, Holland Park Avenue. From there he founded and edited the English Review, and consolidated the classic canon of early modernist literature virtually singe-handed, earning himself the reputation of one of the century's greatest literary editors: He was to remain a lifelong friend of Ezra Pound, recently arrived in London, who thought him the best critic in England, and became one of his fiercest champions, arguing that modernist vers libre was enabled by Ford's insistence that poetry should be as well written as prose. The Review lost money, however, and Ford was ousted as editor (though he continued to contribute) after fourteen monthly issues.
Ford became involved with the novelist and socialite Violet Hunt (1862-1942), and went to live fairly openly with her at her house in Kensington, South Lodge, on Campden Hill Road. Though he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1892, he was rarely a practising Catholic, and attempted to divorce his wife. When she refused, Ford and Hunt conceived the dubious idea of his going to live in Germany and becoming a German citizen in order to secure a divorce there. But Ford’s application for German citizenship was turned down, and the divorce probably never happened. Nevertheless, he and Hunt claimed it had. When she was reported in the press as being 'Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer', Elsie Hueffer sued for libel, and won. The case was a society scandal from which Ford's reputation took much of the next century to recover. The strain of the episode took its toll on Ford and his relationship with Hunt, but unleashed some of his best writing, especially in The Good Soldier. He began dictating it to Brigit Patmore, with whom he had become infatuated. The novel is a masterpiece of modernist technique, using an unreliable narrator to piece together a complex plot of sexual intrigue and betrayal through elaborate time-shifts.
The First World War
Ford joined the army in 1915, serving as an officer in the Welch Regiment. It was an escape from a life that had become intolerable, and he appears to have wanted to die. When he was sent to the Somme in July 1916, only two weeks into the bloodiest battle in British military history, he nearly did die: a shell explosion concussed him, and he lost his memory for three weeks, forgetting even his own name for a few days. He was sent back to the front, this time in the Ypres Salient. But he became ill again, suffering from pneumonia, probably exacerbated by exposure to poison gas. His wartime experiences went into Parade's End , now increasingly seen as one of the greatest literary works about the First World War, and by some critics as the greatest English war fiction, and one of the greatest English novels.
Ford was sent to convalesce in the South of France, but when he returned to the front he had to be invalided home. He served for the rest of the war mostly in the North of England, attached to the Staff and lecturing troops. While staying with Violet Hunt on leave he had met Esther (‘Stella’) Bowen (1893-1947), a young Australian painter who had come to London to study at the Westminster School of Art under Sickert. They started corresponding, and soon became lovers.
Stella Bowen, France, and Parade’s End
When Ford was demobilised in 1919 he and Stella set up house together, in a picturesque Sussex cottage auspiciously called Red Ford, in Hurston, Pulborough. He wanted to get back to the land, and start a new life, becoming a self-sufficient farmer. His bricolage was ramshackle, and his pigs died. But the experiment worked. He regenerated himself, metamorphosing into 'Ford Madox Ford', and beginning to write once more. He needed to change his name now that he had two ex-partners fighting for the right to be 'Mrs Hueffer'.
Ford and Bowen moved to a larger and more comfortable cottage before their daughter, Esther Julia (‘Julie’) (1920-87), was born. But they found the damp and mud of Sussex winters oppressive. The poet Harold Monro offered them his house on Cap Ferrat in 1922. Ford wrote a wry fantasy poem, Mister Bosphorus and the Muses, dramatising his need to turn from a cold and philistine North to the Latin-based civilisation of the Mediterranean. It was his credo, but also a farewell to England. Ford began Some Do Not . . ., the first volume of Parade's End, at Cap Ferrat, continuing it as they travelled North through France during the summer, finishing it in Paris, where Ford was to be based through the rest of the 1920s. Parade's End is more expansive than The Good Soldier, following its intelligent protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, through the traumatic changes in recent British society: Edwardian unrest, the war; post-war reconstruction. It is also another major work of European modernism, continuing Ford’s experiments with presentation: exploring mental multiplicity, time, memory, and ‘stream of consciousness’.
Paris in the 1920s and the transatlantic review
In 1923 Ford and Stella Bowen settled into a cottage in the Parisian artists' colony known as the Cité Fleurie at 65, Boulevard Arago. There he was to be once again at the centre of another literary revolution, and to act as uncle to the next generation of the Avant-Garde. With Pound's help, he founded the transatlantic review, and published James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and the young Ernest Hemingway, whom Ford took on as a sub-editor. One of his latest discoveries was Jean Rhys, with whom he had a brief affair. When Conrad died in 1924, Ford wrote a memoir, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1924), one of his most moving books, combining reminiscence and criticism. The third part, titled ‘It is above all to make you see . . .’, catalogues the principles and techniques that Conrad and Ford developed in their collaborative discussions, and has been seen by many as a milestone in the history of novel-criticism, and as an essential handbook for a writer of fiction.
Biala, America, and Life-Writings
The younger writers and critics he befriended – Douglas Goldring, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Robert Lowell, John Crowe Ransom, Graham Greene – ensured his reputation as a writer’s writer. The American New Critical school valued his technique, especially in The Good Soldier (which was filmed by Granada Television in 1981, starring Jeremy Brett). Later criticism has also focused on Parade’s End (which was filmed by the BBC in 1964, starring Ronald Hines and Judi Dench) for its treatment of war, shell-shock and social change. Influential writers and critics who have championed Ford’s fiction include W. H. Auden, Malcolm Bradbury, Anthony Burgess, Samuel Hynes, Frank Kermode, Colm Tóibín, A. S. Byatt and Julian Barnes. Biographies of Ford have been written by Goldring, Frank MacShane, Arthur Mizener, Alan Judd, and Max Saunders.
Ford’s major novels have rarely been out of print, and Carcanet Press in Manchester has been bringing the best of his prolific other work back into print since the 1980s. The Ford Madox Ford Society was founded in 1997, numbering amongst its members Gore Vidal, Ruth Rendell, A. S. Byatt, Julian Barnes, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Bill Nighy, and Tom Stoppard, who has adapted Parade’s End for a new BBC television series.
For further short biographical accounts of Ford, see Sara Haslam’s entries in The Literary Encyclopedia (www.litencyc.com) and also The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, vol. 1, Twentieth-Century British and Irish Fiction (2010), ed. Brian W. Shaffer et al., pp. 132-36.