With Love and Squalor
"GOD DAMN AND BLAST my soul!" the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown used to warn his grandson. "I will turn you straight out of my house if you go in for any kind of commercial life." But he added: "Beggar yourself rather than refuse assistance to anyone whose genius you think shows promise of being greater than your own." Ford Madox Hueffer, the old artist's grandson, was born into the Rossetti circle. After World War I he changed his Germanic last name to Ford. His achievements included the authorship of 81 books, as well as the more or less legal possession of four wives. Following his grandfather's quixotic instructions, he was feckless about money and generous beyond his means. His life was in some ways as melancholy as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Mizener's celebrated previous subject.
Ford founded and then ran the century's two most brilliant literary journals, the English Review (London, circa 1909) and the Transatlantic Review (Paris, circa 1923). He possessed a rare perception of genius in others. The list of writers Ford published early reads like a mail-order come-on to some 20th century great-writers anthology: Conrad, Galsworthy, Pound, E.M. Forster, Hardy, H.G. Wells, Henry James, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce, and a chesty 25-year-old American whom Ford enraged by referring to as "young Hemingway." "Hurray!" H.G. Wells once shouted at a dinner for Ford. "Fordie's discovered another genius! Called D.H. Lawrence!"
Unfortunately Ford had a compulsive need for gratitude. When not enough of it was forthcoming, he reminded people of their debt, or made grandiose public claims for himself. The classic case, which Mizener seems to put in factual perspective at last, is Ford's decade-long collaboration with Joseph Conrad, an idea proposed by Conrad in 1898.
Romantic Belief. Ford later said that he was the virtual author of Conrad's story Amy Foster and that he was both better off and better known than Conrad. Both claims were balderdash. Yet as Mizener shows, Conrad did owe a good deal to Ford, who did in fact once write a 16-page installment of Nostromo. To show how close their literary relationship was, Mizener quotes a letter from Conrad proposing to sell one of Ford's stories as his own. A newspaper syndicate had asked for a story, but Conrad had none ready. Could Ford spare one of his? "I'll put in a few of my jargon phrases," Conrad concludes, "and send it on."
Ford's domestic affairs were a shambles from the beginning. In personal crises he tended to react "like a jelly at bay." He harbored a romantic belief in the restfulness of free love, along with a notion of himself as the last of the true 18th century Tory gentlemen, devoted to simplicity, probity and order, but mercilessly chivvied by the mean-spirited modern world.
Ford transformed these inner tensions into fiction that made him, at rare best, one of the finest novelists of the century. Parade's End, his tetralogy about a last Tory gentleman—the much-chivvied Christopher Tietjens—mirrors, with love and squalor, the death of prewar British society. The Good Soldier (1915) is so subtle and shapely a domestic tragedy that it very nearly makes good the narrator's extravagant claim: "The death of a mouse from cancer is the whole sack of Rome by the Goths, and I swear to you that the breaking up of our little foursquare coterie was such another unthinkable event."
Re-created in scholarly biography, Ford's breakdowns, his fibbing, his colossal self-pity seem sad, messy, asinine and above all repetitive. He viewed publishers as "tradesmen" and quarreled with them endlessly. Ford was fond of women and attractive to them, in part because he shared with his hero Tietjens the view that you seduce "a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her." Yet one feels he fully deserved Violet Hunt, the intellectual succubus for whom he broke up his first marriage in 1909 and who became the model for one of fiction's most ferocious females, Tietjens' wife Sylvia. Violet's real-life amours included pursuit by—or of —both H.G. Wells and Henry James, as well as six pages' worth of other men.
Ford finally broke away. Eventually he found two ideal women—Stella Bowen, an Australian painter, who lived with him from 1919 to 1927, and another painter, Janice Biala, who stayed from 1930 until his death in 1939 at the age of 66. "When Ford wanted anything," Stella wrote, "he filled the sky with an immense ache that had the awful simplicity of a child's grief."
Authors rarely live as well as they write, and Ford was clearly due for an exhaustive scholarly biography. Ford's life, however, is notably unhelpful to his public reputation. Lovers of his novels will still settle for some brief epitaph like Robert Lowell's: "Ford, you were a kind man and you died in want."