Glorious ninth (or eleventh): Ford’s Encyclopaedia


Hugh Kenner writes somewhere about the highly instructive experiment of going back to an encyclopaedia entry, once you actually know something of the subject to which it refers, and realising how much that entry has been altered by your enhanced knowledge. One of my favourite brief outlines of Ford Madox Ford’s life and work, of the encyclopaedic entry type (‘About the author’), appeared in the back pages of an American edition of one of his best-known works, managing four major errors in a dozen lines, while the prize exhibit among Ford scholars is probably the edition of one of his major novels which displays on the front cover an illustration placing the action of the book in entirely the wrong century, while, on the back cover, failing twice to spell the author’s name correctly. Between those covers, the last section of the text has mysteriously vanished.

That’s an individual perspective, of course, a personal, even specialised interest. But even in the case of Ford (a writer still not that widely known), a good many readers would surely have noticed the flawed nature of the Times obituary of Ford’s death. ‘Rather eccentric in selection of Ford books mentioned,’[1] Ford’s bibliographer comments of it. You might say that: the obituary fails to mention either The Good Soldier or the Parade’s End tetralogy. It does include a reference to the biography of his grandfather—though a mysterious painter named ‘Fox Madox Brown’ also features on this occasion.[2] But then at least one obituary of Herman Melville settled on Typee as his best book (though getting the publication date wrong) while omitting to mention Moby Dick at all.[3] (Although, as my old teacher, the late Tom Ingram, wrote in the margin of my essay, Typee is ‘still a damned good book.’)


(Ford Madox Brown: Tell’s Son – Ford as model)

Like his friend Ezra Pound, Ford was wary of what he once termed ‘the half-learning of encyclopaedias’,[4] and made great play with them in several of his novels. In Some Do Not. . ., Christopher Tietjens is described as being ‘a perfect encyclopaedia of exact material knowledge’ – though this is stated not by the narrator but by Tietjens’ chief, Sir Reginald Ingleby. Tietjens diverts himself by ‘tabulating from memory the errors in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of which a new edition had lately appeared.’ But this, as so often, is a seemingly innocuous detail which expands, under informed scrutiny, into labyrinthine complexities, as the editor’s lengthy footnote explains.[5]

Later, his memory damaged by a shell-blast, Tietjens will work his way through precisely that encyclopaedia, though he will, as he realises, be forced out of his job on the pretext of his having no more general knowledge than is contained in it.

‘In the old days’, Ford had written just before the war, ‘a publisher had to consider what was Literature. [ . . . ] Now it was just a business. You found out what the public had to have. For what Mr. Sorrell supplied was just that. He gave them encyclopaedias’.[6] In that same year, in his short story, ‘The Case of James Lurgan’, the Encyclopaedia Britannica made another appearance: the doctor has ‘a copy of the ninth edition of this useful work in his dining-room’.[7]


The ninth edition: Ford’s father had written for that edition, while his uncle, William Rossetti, wrote for the famous – the celebrated – eleventh edition, and even enlisted Ford’s help in revising his articles for it, mainly on Italian painters.[8] The eleventh edition appeared in 1910-1911, so Ford’s repeated references to the ninth edition are, I think, a joke—which is probably the explanation for a good many oddities and suspected errors in his work.

In his memoir of 1911 (that year again), Ford’s preface is addressed to his daughters: ‘To the one of you who succeeds in finding the greatest number [of errors] I will cheerfully present a copy of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, so that you may still further perfect yourself in the hunting out of errors.’ Later in the book, he writes: ‘My father was a man of an encyclopaedic knowledge and had a great respect for the attainments of the distinguished.’ Yes, I think those last nine words save Ford needing to write fifty pages on his relationship with his father, even without the following sentence: ‘He used, I remember, habitually to call me “the patient but extremely stupid donkey.”’[9]

Ford Madox Ford died in the Clinique St François, Deauville, on this day, 26 June 1939. He was just sixty-five years old.


[1] David Dow Harvey, Ford Madox Ford 1873-1939: A Bibliography of Works and Criticism, (New York: Gordian Press, 1972), 425.

[2] ‘Obituary’, Times (27 June, 1939), 16.

[3] Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume 2, 1851-1891 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 921.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 129.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 6-7; 13 and note.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (London: Constable, 1911), 7.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Case of James Lurgan’, The Bystander, XXXII (6 December 1911), 540.

[8] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 195. David Jones lost his treasured copy of the eleventh edition in a bet with Evelyn Waugh on a point of history and Waugh arrived next morning in a taxi to collect it. See Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 169.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), xv, 41-42.