(Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Paris 1923)
‘Pray pardon my minute examination of such matters. That is my preoccupation in this world.’—Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger”’, Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 572.
Born on 17 December 1873, Ford Madox Ford grew very fond of decades, as markers and aids to memory. The Good Soldier had hatched within him for a decade before he wrote it, he said. In Provence, he remembered a snowstorm in Carcassonne, noting that snowstorms happened there ‘once every forty years or so. That was in 1913, when I was refreshing my memory as to the Albigeois martyrs of that city…’ Every forty years or so. Exactly the span of Ford’s life at that date. In the ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to The Good Soldier, he wrote: ‘I had always entertained the idea that…I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty…’ And again: ‘on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted’. In 1913, too, he published his fortieth book.
Let me try some ten-year intervals. 1883 is the date that Ford’s biographer gives as the date of his ‘earliest surviving letter’, sent to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown: ‘We went on to the rocks yesterday & they were dotted over with sea anemones. We saw a lizard & I caught it & let it go after & then Harri & I lifted a stone up & we saw a snake which seemed to wake up in a strang[e] manner & then went lazily into some grass.’
In 1893, Ford—under the name of ‘Fenil Haig’—published his first book of poems, The Questions at the Well, dedicated to Elsie Martindale, with whom he would soon elope. In October, his beloved grandfather died. Ford would publish his biography of Ford Madox Brown three years later.
‘But now, at the ebb, the river’s flight
Seaward ceases, and in its might
The sea rushes on in smooth delight.
Spray-bright and sparkling from stem to prow
With dripping oars and heaving bow,
The boat holds on’.
1903 saw the publication of the most substantial of the three collaborative works Ford wrote with Joseph Conrad, Romance (Smith, Elder & Co., 6s.).
‘Before then I had not lived. I had only waited—for her and for what she stood for. It was in my blood, in my race, in my tradition, in my training. We, all of us for generations, had made for efficiency, for drill, for restraint. Our Romance was just this very Spanish contrast, this obliquity of vision, this slight tilt of the convex mirror that shaped the same world so differently to onlookers at different points of its circle.’
In 1913, following the trial of The Throne, edited by his friend René Byles, which had referred to Violet Hunt as ‘Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer’, prompting Ford’s wife Elsie (they were never divorced) to sue, Ford and Hunt roamed around the South of France: Montpellier, Carcassonne, Beaucaire, Las Tours, Tarascon, St. Rémy-de-Provence. They went to Corsica for a week. By the close of the year, Ford had begun writing a novel called ‘The Saddest Story’. It became The Good Soldier.
(Elsie Martindale c. 1895 by Catherine Hueffer – Ford’s mother)
‘So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: “Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!” And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.’
In 1923, he was in France with Stella Bowen, first at the Villa des Oliviers, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, at Ardèche, Saint-Agrève, Tarascon, and Paris. The American printer William Bird printed Ford’s Women & Men at the Three Mountains Press. By the end of that year, Ford had published The Marsden Case, Mr Bosphorus and the Muses , was already well-advanced upon his great tetralogy, Parade’s End, and was launching the transatlantic review.
In the South the sombrero’d poet,
His harlot having gathered the scattered coins,
Rose slothfully and stretching out a hand
White but not overwashed beneath the benevolent moon,
Shouts out his indolent verse, accustomed rhymes
POUR for AMOUR and PURE to match AZURE
And a scratch on the guitar, a diamond flash
In the birchen shadow. Gesture with the hat
And so to bed beside his harlot. . . . Ah!
In the scented azure night.
(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, c. 1932)
In 1933, now with Janice Biala, he published The Rash Act and one of his finest books, It Was the Nightingale.
‘A social system had crumbled. Recklessness had taken the place of insouciance. In the old days we had seemed to have ourselves and our destinies well in hand. Now we were drifting towards a weir . . . ’
By 1943, Ford was four years dead, one of four major modernists to die within the three years 1939-1941, together with Yeats, Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Sixty-five when he died, he’d published eighty books, several of them among the best the twentieth century has to show. He is buried in Deauville.