A slight pricking of the thumbs

petworth reynolds macbeth & the witches

(Joshua Reynolds, Macbeth and the Witches
National Trust Collections: Petworth House and Park, West Sussex)

‘You’re not very safe around sharp things,’ the Librarian observes, watching me wrestle with sheets of kitchen roll. ‘Put some pressure on it.’

‘Everyone has little accidents in the kitchen,’ I say.

‘Not as often as you do.’

‘dear hemingway’, Ford Madox Ford began a letter in November 1932, ‘(I have cut off the top of my left thumb with a sickle and so cannot put down the capital stop)’. He had conveyed the same news to Ezra Pound, probably a little earlier: ‘i have cut off the top of my left thumb in a gardenin operation and writing is difficult to me’.[1]

No, not that: on this occasion, I merely sliced off several layers of skin from my forefinger, leaving a relatively small wound which, nevertheless, had only one ambition, one aim in life: to bleed. It took quite a while to stop it.

Ford’s letter, though. The first point of interest is that he’s still writing to Ernest Hemingway, with whom he’d fallen out in Paris during the brief life of the transatlantic review. Hemingway included unflattering portraits of Ford and Stella Bowen in The Sun Also Rises (1926) and generally wrote disparagingly about Ford in letters to various correspondents in the intervening years but there was some direct contact in 1932, partly because Ford wrote round to a good many writers, Hemingway among them, soliciting testimonials for a pamphlet issued to accompany the 1933 trade publication of Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos.

Cantos-Testimonials

(Via Peter Harrington Books: https://www.peterharrington.co.uk/authors/p/ezra-pound )

There was also the hugely admiring introduction (dated January 1932) that Ford had written for the Modern Library’s reissue of A Farewell to Arms.[2] Ford’s November 1932 letter acknowledges the copy of Death in the Afternoon that Hemingway has sent him: ‘i have been absorbing instruction from it ever since last night when i got it and shall shortly be able to talk like any aficionado’ (Letters 216). In 1935, Ford published a report for the New York Times on the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder  of the young son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne. The report was headed ‘Trial is Likened to a Bullfight’ and, in Great Trade Route, Ford described how, to his companion Janice Biala, the painter with whom he lived during his last decade, the people she met ‘were of unexampled vindictiveness and ferocity’ toward the defendant. ‘For her it was as if she were in a bull-fight crowd, every member of which would have spat on, if it could, and have tortured, the bull . . . which is not, of course, the attitude of any bull-fight crowd’.[3]

More than thirty years would elapse before the publication of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, with its cheerful defamation of several of his contemporaries, including Scott Fitzgerald, Wyndham Lewis, Gertrude Stein and Ford.

Ernst Jünger, in his classic First World War book Storm of Steel, wrote of finding the split thumb of a driver more sickening than wholesale slaughter and mutilation: ‘It’s an example of the way in which one’s response to an experience is actually largely determined by its context.’[4] Another contemporary of Ford’s, C. E. Montague, with a sly nod to the second witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth—‘By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes’ (IV, i)—had the narrator of one of his stories remark: ‘Besides, I had felt a slight pricking in my thumbs, such as usually visits me when I come near an intellectual, even one who is not a burglar.’[5]

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch

(Abraham Blyenberch, Ben Jonson: National Portrait Gallery)

The poet and dramatist Ben Jonson presumably experienced something more than ‘a slight pricking’. When he killed the actor Gabriel Spencer in 1598, Jonson pleaded self-defence but also claimed ‘benefit of clergy’, the advantage of literacy being that he was able to read Psalm 51 (in the King James Bible) in Latin. The implication was that, since only members of the clergy could do so, it was inappropriate for them to be tried in a secular court rather than a (more lenient) ecclesiastical one. Possessing the power to save you from an undesirable rendezvous with the public hangman, the Psalm came to be known as the ‘neck verse’. In this instance, Jonson was only (only!) branded on the thumb.[6]

At least the skin on my forefinger will grow back. Probably.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 216; Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, editor, Pound/Ford: The Story of a Literary Friendship (London: Faber & Faber 1982), 112.

[2] Reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 127-136.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 198.

[4] Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel, translated by Michael Hofmann (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 91.

[5] C. E. Montague, ‘A Fatalist’, in Action (1928; London: Chatto & Windus, Phoenix Library, 1936), 164.

[6] Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 48.

 

Tales of reconstruction

FMF-No-Enemy Kipling-Traffics

The latest Times Literary Supplement (3 January 2020) has a feature in which various writers select a book currently unavailable that they believe warrants reissuing: ‘Some nominations for out-of-print books that deserve to be rediscovered and republished’. Some interesting choices, a few of them enlightening, one or two slightly puzzling in the way they’re presented. Some, though not all, comment briefly on the recent publication history of their selected title. Internet searches have made tracking down secondhand copies a much less strenuous affair, while an increasing number of books now are available, or at least can be ordered, in rather disgusting print on demand versions, the older ones often simply scanned in, so with texts ranging from unreliable to unreadable.

Several books I’d not heard of at all—which was presumably the point, or one of them—and some are triumphantly on the money. Ruth Scurr, for one, with her highlighting of the wonderful Alethea Hayter; and Elizabeth Lowry chooses Kipling’s Traffics and Discoveries, which is a fine collection: she quite rightly mentions ‘They’ and ‘Mrs Bathurst’ and I assumed that they at least would be included in the intriguingly titled Collected Stories from Everyman. The second one is but, bafflingly, while ‘A Sahib’s War’ and ‘“Wireless”’ are, ‘They’ is not. The Everyman is a handsome volume but even 900 pages is not enough to gather up all the best, or a wholly representative range, of Kipling’s stories, as several editors have no doubt discovered.

Still, the main points of interest for this reader were, firstly, the title of the piece: ‘Tales of reconstruction’; and secondly, the book whose subtitle provides the TLS heading: Ford Madox Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction. It’s chosen by the estimable Alexandra Harris: it was published, as she says, in 1929, and mostly written ten years earlier.

It’s of particular interest because, firstly, that’s where the name of this blog comes from; secondly, because while some of the contributors mention recent reprints, Harris doesn’t add anything to that ‘1929’. There was, though, a 1984 Ecco Press edition, a straight reprint of the original Macaulay edition; then the first UK edition, which I edited for Carcanet Press in 2002. It went out of print a few years back and Carcanet haven’t reprinted it but, after a couple of years when secondhand copies advertised on the ABE website were offered at ridiculous prices, there are several copies currently available for quite reasonable sums.

The Carcanet volume didn’t attract much attention when it appeared, less than I’d expected for the first British edition of a book by a major British writer, after a gap of more than seventy years. A short but invaluable notice from Alan Judd, eminent novelist and biographer of Ford; and a very brief review in the Guardian by someone who seemed to have read the first dozen pages and left it at that. For Alexandra Harris, it is ‘one of the most arrestingly original books I know about the experience of landscape.’ She adds that Ford ‘finds a language of numbness and revelation that anticipates Woolf’s “moments of being”; he works through layers and collages that we might now associate more readily with Sebald.’

That’s well said: though I may be biased, having mentioned Sebald in my 2002 introduction. A very interesting feature anyway: and a few titles I’ll certainly look out for. Perhaps not the Ford though: I seem to have several copies already.

 

Raising a glass

FMF-GS-viaNYRB

(A Good Soldier)

Today is the birthday of Humphry Davy (1778), Cornish-born chemist and inventor. He spent the summer of 1805 in the Lake District and climbed Helvellyn with Wordsworth, Southey and Walter Scott., as Richard Holmes relates in The Age of Wonder. ‘They talked of Coleridge, who was still absent somewhere in the Mediterranean, and writing home ever less frequently.’ Davy would later write (Works, I, 220): ‘Our histories of past events are somewhat like the wrecks upon the sea-beach: things are often thrown up because they happen to be light, or because they have been entangled in sea-weed: i.e. facts are preserved which suit the temper or party of a particular historian.’

It’s also the birthday of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces; of the artist Paul Cadmus (of whom Guy Davenport wrote eloquently); and of Penelope Fitzgerald.

On this blog, though, edging ahead even of Fitzgerald, is Ford Madox Ford (1873), to whom a good many friends and acquaintances will be raising a glass today, perhaps remembering John Dowell in The Good Soldier:

‘You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people, to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.’

 

Bowling googlies

Willis-Headingley

Third test at Headingley, 1981: Willis bowling
(Photograph:  Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock via The Guardian)

Bob Willis died a few days ago. Famous English fast bowler. Headingley 1981. 130. 18 runs. 8 for 43. Pretty arcane stuff for those who never follow test cricket, as a lot more people did in the days when it was on the BBC rather than tucked away on commercial channels. For those who did—probably those of a certain age—those figures are as instantly evocative as, say, the opening seconds of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And, in all likelihood, many of them watched a video of the highlights of that famous day and the narrow victory that seemed impossible until Willis blew the Australian batsmen away. A devoted follower of Bob Dylan, he added the name to his own by deed poll—becoming Robert George Dylan Willis—a craziness I could relate to, having been guilty myself of inflicting thunderous versions of ‘Tombstone Blues’ on drinkers in an upstairs bar and roaring ‘House of the Rising Sun’ into the microphone of a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the bare floorboards of somebody’s upstairs room – not the true original, rather the arrangement that Dylan had ‘borrowed’ from Dave Van Ronk.

So, after playing my part in a highly un-Darwinian scenario, that is, sitting on the step at the back door, gripping the cat tightly with both hands, saying ‘Drop it, Harry! Drop it! Drop the damned mouse, Harry!’ until he tired of growling at me, slackened his hold and watched Robert Burns’ wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie scurry off to the neighbour’s fence—survival of the weakest—after playing that part, I say, I turned on my computer and watched Willis play his own rather more heroic part on that far-off day made vibrantly present again, his odd, angled, jerky run-up, the tumbling wickets, Willis hardly reacting much of the time, fiercely concentrated, always reaching for the second sleeveless sweater while another batsman trudged back to the pavilion.

H-waiting

There have been a few famous cricketing writers—Conan Doyle, Harold Pinter, A. A Milne, P. G. Wodehouse, Siegfried Sassoon and, most notably, Samuel Beckett. And cricketing references often occur as indications of a certain kind or class of Englishness. Henry Green’s sly humour has one of his characters, Alexander, in a fogbound London, ‘bowling along in his taxi the length of cricket pitches at a time, from block to block, one red light to another, or shimmering policemen dressed in rubber.’[1]

I don’t recall Lawrence Durrell particularly as a cricketer—he’d done a bit of boxing, I believe—but a 1958 essay, ‘Old Mathieu’, bristles with cricketing references. ‘He utters the words with the hangdog air of a cricketer who might say: “We have been forced to invite three American baseball players to join the Test team!”’ Durrell wrote. And, ‘Talking of [wine] he sounds rather like old Wilfred Rhodes discussing famous spin-bowlers of the past.’ Then: ‘On his lips the famous names sound full of the regional poetry of old county regiments or county cricket teams decimated in a year of bitter crisis.’ Near the close: ‘It is not unlike a spell at the nets under an exacting yet patient coach.’ And: ‘(I am reminded of a difficult shot to cover-point – or of a glide through the slips.)’[2] Or was that an outside edge, Larry?

Ford Madox Ford employs cricketing references several times in Parade’s End, as he does in No Enemy, which has a chapter, ‘A Cricket Match’, also included in the original French, ‘Une Partie de Cricket’, as ‘Envoi’.[3] In Ancient Lights, he straight facedly asserts that writers in England, being ‘well aware that they are not regarded as gentlemen’, all ‘desire to be something else as well. Sometimes, anxious to assert their manhood, they cultivate small holdings, sail the seas, hire out fishing boats, travel in caravans, engage in county cricket or become justices of the peace.’[4]

But perhaps his most extended engagement with the subject occurs in a late work, Great Trade Route, where he recalls his visit to the United States thirty years before, and tells the story of Philadelphia’s cricket team, claiming that he met a young man in 1906 who ‘introduced into the English game’ the googly. In a footnote he mentions that ‘the patient and omniscient gentleman who reads my proofs’ has pointed out to Ford that the googly was invented by an Englishman named Bosanquet. Ford assures him that he’s not forgotten Bosanquet but insists that in late 1906 his friend ‘bowled to me in the nets for a quarter of an hour or so balls that broke back both in the air and on the ground and that I found absolutely unplayable. His fellow cricketers who were more used to them played them more easily. They were there called “googlies.”’ His friend afterwards went with a cricket team to England and, Ford says, ‘it certainly seems to me that it was after 1907 that Bosanquet distinguished himself with the googly’.[5]

Bosanquet_bowling

(Bernard Bosanquet: Photograph by George Beldam, 1905)

Well now. Philadelphia certainly did have a good cricket team, which declined as baseball became the country’s dominant sport. Ford was indeed in Philadelphia in 1906 and a team from there did visit England: the third and final tour was in 1908. Bernard Bosanquet actually captained a team that visited Philadelphia in 1901 and it was during the previous English season that he first used the googly in a first-class match. Around 1903, the delivery he’s now famous for became more widely known as ‘a googly’. So Ford’s chronology is a little out while his statement that cricket was dying in England at the time is puzzling. Hayward, Hirst, Hobbs, Woolley: the period up to the First World War is sometime termed the golden age of cricket. And in 1906, when Ford was in the United States, his beloved Kent had actually just won the county championship for the first time.

In ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, the eminent Ford Madox Ford critic, Joseph Wiesenfarth, whose other areas of expertise include the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the work of George Eliot and Jane Austen, begins: ‘To “bowl a googly” is a term from cricket that means to catch a batsman off guard by throwing a very tricky pitch. Idiomatically and figuratively, it means to catch someone unawares with something unexpected.’

pride-and-prejudice-sort-of_final_image-only_landscape_300dpi

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen)

A fine essay, well worth seeking out – still, I pause briefly over that strikingly American construction, ‘throwing a very tricky pitch’: even my minimal knowledge of baseball is enough to locate such terms in that lexicon, rather than a cricketing one. Cricket has bowlers rather than pitchers; and in a cricketing context, the word ‘throwing’ is treated with great wariness, having been central to several long running ‘chucking’ controversies in the past (Griffin, Meckiff, Griffith, Muralitharan). More to the point—and this applies to Ford as well—a googly is not just ‘tricky’. It’s a trickster, an illusion, a feint, a sleight-of-hand. It has had, for most of its life, a very specific meaning: a ball delivered with an apparent leg-break action but behaving as an off-break when it touches the ground, that is, it spins in one direction while the manner of its delivery had led the batsman to believe that it will spin in precisely the opposite direction.

Wiesenfarth cites Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader—in which the British monarch has gone off-piste to the extent of reading novels and wanting to discuss them with other people—before moving on to Austen: ‘When the author of six classic novels of manners takes to getting some people drunk and throwing others out of windows, we could say that Jane Austen bowls us a googly.’[6] We could. And yes, in that sense, we might well make a case for Ford bowling his readers a googly in the process of telling us the story of the googly’s invention, his sprightly version of the googly origin myth.

 

 

Notes

[1] Henry Green, Party Going (1939), in Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 401.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Old Mathieu’, in Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 365-368.

[3] First published in Bibliotheque universelle et revue suisse, 85 (January 1917), 117-126: Max Saunders, ‘Ford Madox Ford: Further Bibliographies’, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 43:2 (2000), 155.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 246-249.

[6] Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, Style, 51,1 (2017), 1-16 (quotations from first couple of pages).

 

 

Camelot and St Cecilia

Sea-2

You don’t need an alarm clock in a pitch-dark Dorset bedroom if you can draw on the services of a cat with breakfast on his mind. Tucked away a little here but fifteen minutes’ walk brings you down to the sea, dead calm early in the week, less so later.

A little under seventy miles across the English Channel is Alderney, in the Bailiwick of Guernsey. The northernmost of the Channel Islands, it was the home from 1946 of T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King, plus more than twenty other books, even though he died at the age of fifty-seven.

From 3 Connaught Square, Alderney, on 22 November 1950, White wrote to his friend David Garnett: ‘The reason why I am sober is that last Friday the 1st lieutenant of our local submarine threw me out of a window while we were amiably conversing about ju-jitsu. He did not mean any harm, and in fact has done nothing but good, as I fell on my head. It has altered something inside. I was unconscious for hours.’[1]

 

White

(T. H. White)

My Fridays are not like that – though I’m not a total stranger to ‘amiably conversing’. Garnett was a friend of long standing and plays a large part in the biography of White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, also a friend of Garnett. In 1949, a man called Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape visited White and, feeling a bulky object under the settee cushion on which he was sitting, extracted the typescript of The Goshawk, a record of White’s attempt to train a hawk in the mid-1930s. Howard read it, took it back to London and wanted Cape to publish it. White was reluctant; Garnett then read it and agreed that it should be published, whereupon White wrote to Howard: ‘If Bunny Garnett says that the Hawk book is really good, I will consent to publishing. I have not read it since I wrote it, long before the war.’[2]

David-Garnett

(David ‘Bunny’ Garnett)

White and his Hawk book are a major thread running through Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She refers to the period in which White drafted the book, the collective impulse to recover and draw upon England’s history and domestic culture. ‘It was a movement that celebrated ancient sites and folk traditions. It delighted in Shakespeare and Chaucer, in Druids, in Arthurian legend. It believed that something essential about the nation had been lost and could be returned, if only in the imagination. White, caught up on this conservative, antiquarian mood, walked with his hawk and wrote of ghosts, of starry Orion naked and resplendent in the English sky, of all the imaginary lines men and time had drawn upon the landscape. By the fire, his hawk by his side, he brooded on the fate of nations.’[3]

Richard_Burton_and_Julie_Andrews_Camelot

(Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in Camelot: Wikipedia Commons)

The fate of nations. White’s Arthurian stories reminded me of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical based on them, Camelot, directed by Moss Hart and hugely successful on Broadway, starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. In turn, ‘Camelot’ became inextricable from the administration of John F. Kennedy, following Jackie Kennedy’s 1963 Life interview, when she quoted lyrics from the Lerner-Loewe production. And today is, of course, the 56th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the day on which Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis both died too, though a little overshadowed then by events in Dallas. Just thirty years later, it was Anthony Burgess’s turn (he was born in the same year as Kennedy).

It’s also Saint Cecilia’s Day, she being the patron saint of musicians. On 25 July 1914, in his regular column in Outlook, Ford Madox Ford quoted John Dryden’s ‘Less than a god they said there could not dwell…’[4]
This is from the third stanza of ‘Song for St Cecilia’s Day, 1687’:

What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound.
Less than a god they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell
That spoke so sweetly and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?

Woodville, Richard Caton, 1856-1927; Marshal Ney at Eylau

(Richard Caton Woodville, Marshal Ney at Eylau: Tate)

In 1928, Ford would publish a novel called A Little Less Than Gods, about Marshal Ney and Napoleon’s hundred days, its writing intimately involved with the history of the Ford–Joseph Conrad relationship. The Dryden poem is quoted, or rather, slightly misquoted, in Chapter V.[5] In his final book, The March of Literature, Ford quoted the whole stanza and commented that, for him, it was ‘the most pleasurable verse in all English poetry’, adding: ‘It further confirms our argument that English poetry depends upon music and died when music died in England.’[6]

That’s a nice example of the Ford who so admired the ‘sweeping dicta’ of his friend Arthur Marwood, partial model for Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End. And T. H. White was not immune to the habit, writing in 1950:

‘I believe that the peak of British culture was reached in the latter years of George III: that the rot began to set in with the “Romantics”: that the apparent prosperity of Victoria’s reign was autumnal, not vernal: and that now we are done for.’[7]

Hmm. . . ‘now we are done for’. Still, make a note of that. Just in case.

 
Notes

[1] David Garnett, editor, The White/Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 246.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. H. White: A Biography (New York: Viking, 1968), 243.

[3] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (London: Jonathan Cape, 2014), 104.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits—XLVI. Professor Cowl and “The Theory of Poetry in England”’, Outlook, XXXIV (25 July, 1914), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, A Little Less Than Gods (London: Duckworth, 1928), 108.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 605.

[7] T. H. White, The Age of Scandal (1950; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000), 17.

 

A wink and a wave: Jean Rhys

jean-rhys-teresa-chilton-independent

(Jean Rhys by Teresa Chilton via The Independent)

‘I am very astonished that the BBC like my work’, Jean Rhys wrote to Maryvonne Moerman (9 November 1949). It seems, she went on, ‘they thought I was dead – which of course would make a great difference. In fact they were going to follow it up with a broadcast “Quest for Jean Rhys” and I feel rather tactless being still alive!
‘However I’m cheered up too for if they can make a fuss of me dead surely they can make a little fuss though I’m not.’[1]

Rhys had seen an advertisement in the New Statesman a few days earlier, asking anyone who knew of Rhys’s whereabouts to contact Hans Egli – the husband of the actress Selma Vaz Dias, who had adapted Good Morning, Midnight and wanted to make contact with its author.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the 1927 edition of The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford wrote: ‘I had in those days an ambition: that was to do for the English novel what in Fort Comme la Mort, Maupassant had done for the French.’[2] Also published that year was The Left Bank, Jean Rhys’s first book, a volume of stories with an introduction by Ford, ‘Rive Gauche’. The affair between Ford and Rhys was over by then: it has been, unsurprisingly, written about at length, by all four participants—Ford, Stella Bowen, Rhys and her husband Jean Lenglet—and by their biographers and critics.[3] In Paris in December 1924, the painter Paul Nash and his wife Margaret bumped into Ford and Rhys at the Gare de Lyons. Nash referred to her as ‘the ghost’, Margaret also thought her ‘ghost-like’. The writer Alexis Lykiard, who knew Rhys late in her life, described her as ‘a truly helpful revenant’.[4]

In her ‘Introduction’ to Rhys’s Collected Short Stories, Diana Athill remarked, noting the title story of Tigers are Better-Looking (1968) as an example, ‘there is more humour in Jean Rhys’s observation of life than is usually recognised’.[5] At the end of ‘The Day They Burned the Books’, one of the stories in that collection, the narrator and Eddie both retrieve one book from the library that Mrs Sawyer is burning: Eddie has Kipling’s Kim but it’s been torn and ‘starts at page twenty now’; while the narrator—who doesn’t at first know what she has because it’s ‘too dark to see’— is ‘very disappointed’ because her book ‘was in French and seemed dull. Fort Comme La Mort, it was called. . . . ’[6]

Fort-comme-la-mort.jpg  Like_Death_NYRB

Rhys was very familiar with Maupassant’s work. In 1953, she wrote, in a letter to Morchard Bishop (novelist and biographer: real name Oliver Stoner):

I read a letter in the Observer last Sunday from some editor – Peter Green – promising to accept any story up to (of) the standard of “Boule de Suif”. Well I should damned well think he would! [ . . . ] Poor Boule de Suif. They won’t let her rest –
The thing is I very much doubt whether any story seriously glorifying the prostitute and showing up not one but several British housewives to say nothing of two nuns! – their meannesses and cant and spite – would be accepted by the average editor or any editor.
And “La Maison Tellier”? Well imagine – (Jean Rhys: Letters, 99)

To Selma Vaz Dias, about ‘The Day They Burned the Books’, she commented that it was ‘fairly recent’ and that readers would need to realise that it was about the West Indies ‘a good while ago when the colour bar was more or less rigid. More or less.’ She went on: ‘Also I don’t think I’ve got over what I meant when I called the book “Fort comme la mort” –   (Jean Rhys: Letters, 105)

There’s a nice touch of ambiguity about that phrase ‘got over’: primarily meaning ‘conveyed to the reader’, no doubt, but with a lingering shadow of ‘recovered from’. Jean Rhys never did set down her memories of Ford outside the pages of her fiction, so I like to think of that use of the Maupassant title as something like a wink or a wave from across the street. Although, come to think of it, though the edition of Christina Rossetti’s poems is bound in leather (and the more expensive books are to be sold, not burnt), it goes into the heap to be burnt. Ford always praised Christina as the finest poet of the nineteenth century and wrote about her often.

Rhys-Tigers

Jean Rhys’s contribution to the ‘Memories and Impressions’ section of The Presence of Ford Madox Ford comprised just seventy words:

I am writing my autobiography and have tried to say all I know about Ford Madox Ford in that. Of course his great generosity to young writers was very well known both in London and in Paris. He was willing to take a lot of trouble for those he thought of promise.
I learnt a good deal from him and can’t think of anyone who has quite taken his place.[7]

Alas, that autobiography remained unfinished. There were difficulties, her editor Diana Athill observed, since Rhys’s writerly honesty meant that she was reluctant to include dialogue that she couldn’t be sure she remembered exactly; also, ‘that much of her life had been “used up” in the novels.’ So the end of the main text has Rhys showing some of her writing to Mrs Adam, wife of the Times correspondent in Paris, who suggests having it typed and sending it to ‘a man called Ford Madox Ford’.[8] 

 

 

Notes

[1] Jean Rhys: Letters, 1931-1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly (London: André Deutsch, 1984), 61.

[2] See W. B. Hutchings, ‘Ford and Maupassant’, in Ford Madox Ford’s Modernity, edited by Robert Hampson and Max Saunders (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), 257-270.

[3] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, Volume II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work (London: André Deutsch, 1990); Joseph Wiesenfarth, Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005); Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘Quartet with Variations: Ford Madox Ford, Stella Bowen, Jean Rhys, Jean Lenglet’, in Ford Madox Ford’s Cosmopolis: Psycho-Geography, Flânerie and the Cultures of Paris, ed. Alexandra Becquet and Claire Davison (Amsterdam: Brill Rodopi, 2016), 175-187.

[4] Alexis Lykiard, Jean Rhys Revisited (Exeter: Stride Publications, 2000), 13.

[5] Diana Athill, ‘Introduction’, Jean Rhys, The Collected Short Stories (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), ix.

[6] Jean Rhys, Tigers are Better-Looking (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 43. ‘Fort comme la mort’ was the original title of ‘The Day They Burned the Books’: Jean Rhys: Letters, 100.

[7] Jean Rhys, in a letter to the editor, 28 July 1978: Sondra J. Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1981), 214.

[8] Jean Rhys, Smile, Please: an unfinished autobiography, with a foreword by Diana Athill (London: André Deutsch, 1979), 5-6, 155.

Differences and pretexts

Crows

To his brother Julian, two months after the end of the First World War, Aldous Huxley wrote that freedom ‘is the only thing in the world worth having and the people who can use it properly are the only ones worthy of the least respect: the others are all madmen, pursuing shadows and prepared at any moment to commit acts of violence. The prospects of the universe seem to me dim and dismal to a degree.’[1]

The Guardian recently reported the results of a poll jointly conducted by academics from Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh. They found that a majority of voters in England, Wales and Scotland surveyed ‘believe that the possibility of some level of violence against MPs is a “price worth paying” in order to get their way on Brexit’: of the Leave voters who took part in the study, this was true of 71% in England, 60% in Scotland and 70% in Wales. And all this just a little more than three years after the murder of MP Jo Cox by an extreme right-wing terrorist who shouted ‘Britain first!’ Perhaps even more depressing, the majority of remain voters also felt that the risk of violence towards MPs was worth it if it meant the United Kingdom would stay in the EU – 58% in England, 53% in Scotland and 56% in Wales.

(As a cheering footnote, voters overwhelmingly felt that the potential destruction of the country’s farming and fishing industries would also be a price worth paying for getting the result they wanted in the Brexit negotiations.)

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/oct/24/majority-of-voters-think-violence-against-mps-is-price-worth-paying-for-brexit

To-West-Bay-Trees

‘The point to be made about the GREAT TRADE ROUTE’, Ford Madox Ford wrote to E. C. Cumberlege of Oxford University Press on 27 October 1936, ‘is that it is not the book of a meditative gentleman who stands before ruined temples and pours mournful soliloquies on old unhappy things, but as it were the testament of a man usually of action who has spent a long life not only on writing and study but on digging, editing, carpentry, cooking, small holding, fighting both literally and metaphorically and in every kind of intrigue that could advance what he considers to be the cause of good letters…’[2]

Great Trade Route was published by Oxford in January 1937 (and by Allen and Unwin in the United Kingdom). ‘But no sort of civilization is possible’, Ford writes there, ‘when difference of opinions can be considered a pretext for murder . . . or even for physical violence.’[3]

A good many political and social commentators have lately been asking: ‘What sort of country do we want to be?’ Or, perhaps more realistically: ‘What sort of country has this become?’ The answer to the first question must be: better than this. And the second? It’s complicated – at least, we hope so.

 

 

Notes

[1] Letters of Aldous Huxley, edited by Grover Smith (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969), 173-174.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 264.

[3] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 291.