‘He sensed the virgin sucker at once. So we had the stories about Ruskin, and my Uncle Gabriel and my Aunt Christina [Ford claimed to be related to the Rossettis]; the Conrad and James stories; the story of the abbé Liszt’s concert and how Queen Alexandra took the beautiful infant Ford on her knees and kissed him; the ‘old Browning’ stories, and the Swinburne stories; gradually working back through the 19th century. My father was swimming in bliss, although once or twice he looked a little puzzled. And then Ford began telling how he met Byron. I saw my father stiffen.’
Richard Aldington

Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939), novelist, editor and critic, was one of the great characters of twentieth century literature. Brilliant, generous, tireless in his service to literature and to the work of those he felt talented, he was also widely disliked for an assumed haughtiness, a tendency to self-pity and, especially, an irresistible desire to fabricate, to play fast and loose with facts in the interest of impressionism. Regularly penniless and embattled, Ford was certainly a fish in not quite the right water (to appropriate his friend John Galsworthy’s remark about himself).

A real flavour of Ford comes from his letters and the novelistic reminiscences written from the last decade of his life: Return to Yesterday (1931), It Was  the Nightingale (1934) and Portraits from Life (1937).

One does not have to go as far as to claim, as Ford did in a letter to Herbert Read, ‘I learned all I know of Literature from [Joseph] Conrad and England learned all it knows of Literature from me’, to accept at least that Ford was a leading influence in Modernism. He produced more than fifty books, including The Good Soldier (1915) and Parade’s End (1924-28). He was also the enlightened editor of The English Review (1908) and, in Paris, The Transatlantic Review (1924). Ford’s wide circle of acquaintances included most of the most celebrated, late-Victorian and Modernist writers, whom he promoted, including Conrad with whom he collaborated and Ezra Pound, a friend and fellow outsider. He was also an occasional but influential poet, whose late poetry with its conversational idiom showed an emergence from archaic Pre-Raphaelite beginnings into conversational free verse.

He was born Ford Hermann Hueffer to a German music critic father and an English mother (the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Ford Madox Brown, whose influence and connections were formative for the young Ford). After a failed marriage and a long relationship with the Australian artist Stella Bowen –which necessitated he change his name –Ford finally settled with another painter, Janice Biala, in France.

An over-aged junior officer with the 9th Battalion of the Welch Regiment during the war, Ford endured a breakdown. The fierce shelling had contributed to other health problems. As he explained to the liberal politician C.F.G. Masterman in a letter at the time: ‘my lungs were found to be in a devil of a way… partly due to a slight touch of gas I got in the summer & partly to sheer weather’. It is little surprise then that the war changed Ford as a man and therefore as a writer. As his biographer Max Saunders says: ‘Everything he wrote afterwards is part of a twenty-year attempt to render and to understand the changes wrought by the war in the world and in himself.’

After an attempt at farming in England, Ford turned to Paris and later Provence (‘where I have lived for nearly all my spiritual as for a great part of my physical life.’). England offered little succour for Ford. As he wrote to Hugh Walpole in December 1930, ‘It would be impossible to find any three English people connected with books who would not automatically put a spoke in any wheel of mine that passed them by.’ America on the other hand offered a more attentive audience and, at the end of his life, a teaching role at Olivet College in Michigan when Ford was ‘tired of writing for the pot’.

Friendship was a difficult business for Ford. Although he had friends and was clearly attractive to some women, enemies seemed to proliferate. There were any number of unpleasant descriptions of him, which often conflate appearance and character, including Hemingway’s infamous sketch in his Twenties memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964) which begins,  ‘It was Ford Madox Ford, as he called himself then, and he was breathing heavily through a heavy, stained moustache and holding himself as upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, up-ended hogshead.’

More atmospheric is the comment by Iris Barry, the poet, who recalled the wartime Ford as ‘Semi-monstrous, bulging out of his uniform, china-blue eyes peering from an expanse of pink face, pendulous lower lip drooping under sandy moustache as he boomed through endless anecdotes of Great Victorians, Great Pre-Raphaelites, Henry James’. To these  caricatures with their insinuation of deceit, grotesqueness, and tiresome self-serving, can be added egotism. T.S. Eliot commented to Ezra Pound in an October 1922 letter concerning future issues of The Criterion: ‘I certainly do not want [Ford] for several numbers yet because there are a great many other people beside myself who do not like him: the difficulty, if I asked him, would be to get some of his really best work but not simply his egotistical meanderings about his own service to English literature.’

‘Ford lied like blazes’ Malcolm Cowley admitted privately. Others on the writer’s side rationalized the habit as a badge of creativity. His companion Janice Biala explained in a 1979 interview that ‘he used exaggerations to heighten a truth, as one does in any art’, and added, ‘So when Ford said that Conrad threw the teacups into the fire, it was not the literal truth – it was a creation of the ambiance, the climate of Conrad’s passionate rejection of a criticism of Marie Antoinette. This explains some of those famous “lies” of Ford, I think.’

Ford himself often repeated this view, once in a letter to his daughter, ‘I to give you what I see to be the spirit of an age, of a town, of a movement.’ Return to Yesterday begins with a similar disclaimer: ‘So this is a novel… Where it has seemed expedient to me I have altered episodes that I have witnessed but I have been careful never to distort the character of the episode. The accuracies I deal in are the accuracies of my impressions.’

Return to Yesterday describes Ford’s experiences between 1894 and 1914, using material from Thus to Revisit (1921), for Ford was a great reteller of anecdotes. Here we are treated to glimpses of Conrad, of Stephen Crane (who could kill a fly on a sugar cube with the bead-sight of a revolver) and of Henry James (with his ‘astonishingly ornate man-servant’). As Arthur Mizener reckoned in his Ford biography, The Saddest Story (1971), nearly all his anecdotes ‘illuminate the character of the man Ford is describing, or at least the character Ford believed the man to have’. What we remember are the private glimpses of the great interacting with him. There is, for example, a quirky image of Henry James: ‘Once, after I had sent him    one of my volumes of poems, he just mentioned the name of the book, raised both his hands over his head, let them slowly down again, made an extraordinary, quick grimace, and shook with an internal joke….. Shortly afterwards he began to poke fun at Swinburne.’

One has to say that the ‘garrulous self-esteem’ one critic of the time found in the book does not mar Return to Yesterday. There is outright confession. He tells us, for example, that ‘I am one with the struggling millions who cannot read me’ and admits that while James disliked his family circle, thinking them bohemian, ‘I, on the other hand, considered myself as belonging, by right of birth, to the governing classes of the artistic and literary worlds.    I have said that I was not an agreeable young man.’ Generally though, confession is flavoured with self-regard. So Ford confesses to his laziness at school, but adds that ‘I was always head of my school classes, and     the favourite of my masters.’ As far as his adult reputation is concerned  he concedes that ‘England, I knew, would always regard me as, rather comically and a little suspiciously –too damn in earnest.’ The effect is to suggest that it is his commitment that has doomed him whereas, as a matter of fact, he has by now mentioned that ‘at one period I must have been one of the most boomed writers in England’.

Ford’s self-portrait emerges as that of a patient man who has ‘suffered from many injustices and slights’. His dedication to literature is total, as ‘it is the only means by which humanity can express at once emotions and ideas’. Yet for all his energies he has been doomed to martyrdom: ‘As far as I can remember, except for Ezra, not one of the writers whose first manuscripts I printed or whose second efforts I tried to give lifts to –not one of them did not in the end kick me in the face, as the saying is.’

With his next book of reminiscences, It Was the Nightingale, Ford’s again offers a disclaimer, ‘I have tried then to write a novel drawing my material from my own literary age.’ He then discloses the novelistic ‘wiles’ he   will employ –techniques which mark his best prose –‘the time-shift, the progression d’effet, the adaptation of rhythms to the pace of the action.’

The book begins with Ford’s  being demobbed in an England depressed  by the loss of the war generation. He has dealings with editors and writers there (with George Moore and especially Galsworthy) but then the action moves to Paris, appropriately enough since the book’s opening sentence reads, ‘There was never a day so gay for the Arts as any twenty-four hours of the early ‘twenties in Paris.’ Ford has realised he is ‘not English at all’, that Art is his nation (‘I used to feel in the company of those who were  not artists the same sort of almost physical, slight aversion that one used, during the war, to feel for civilians’). Much is taken up with an interesting account of the establishing, running and demise of his magazine, the initial approach having come from Ford’s brother, Oliver (‘the sparkling jewel of the family whilst I was its ugly duckling’).

The author is in his element in Paris’s artistic circles, since he prefers Picasso, Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, to the English or classical traditions, though he remarks ruefully at one point: ‘My sympathies are altogether with revolutionary work and with no other… But I cannot see that my own work is the least revolutionary. I go on my way like a nice old gentleman at a tea-party.’ He recounts observing Stein driving the chariot of her car  (‘a vehicle of the original model of my namesake’). He listens to Picasso turn on carping admirers. Hostesses invariably bring him into nervous public conversations with James Joyce. He retells an amusing anecdote about Proust and Joyce meeting in a circle of admirers and, not having read each other’s books, discussing instead their shared maladies.

The vital importance of art is again a theme in the book, being in Ford’s view the only source for humanity to ameliorate itself. Free from rivalry, he argues that as long as art is accomplished it does not matter who accomplishes it, yet Ford’s worries about his literary-self linger: ‘all over the world there are, I am aware, gentlemen and ladies lamenting that I don’t write as I wrote when I was eighteen or twenty-seven or thirty-six or forty- five. Or even fifty-four’. The fact is also that while the English press greet his work with ‘rapture’ the reading public often stay away. He wonders if the problem is in his adopted name. Firstly his publishers hated ‘Hueffer’, because readers are reluctant to buy a writer whose name they cannot pronounce, and then he considers perhaps that ‘Ford’ had them thinking that his books ‘must be about automobiles, or Detroit –or against bankers’.

Portraits from Life: Memories and Criticisms of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G.Wells,  Stephen  Crane,  D.H. Lawrence,  John Galsworthy, Ivan Turgenev, W.H. Hudson, Theodore Dreiser, A.C. Swinburne appeared in1937. Again the book is a ‘novel’ of sorts: ‘I am, that is to say, a novelist, and I want [the ‘circle of strong personalities’] to be seen pretty much as you see characters in a novel’. The next page reaffirms his technique, his deepest article of faith: ‘For factual exactitudes I have never had much use. I have, I repeat, been trying to make you see these people whom I very much loved –as I want them seen.’ We are similarly treated to a restatement of his belief in the centrality of Literature, the writer further shaping his point: ‘The novel is a form –is probably the best, or indeed the only form –of education because the really conscientious novelist, all out to render his day, will come nearer to the truth than either the moralist or pedagogue who have always some arrière-pensée with which to stultify their instructions.’

The book has an arresting image with which many readers may relate: Of the great writers he says, ‘When you read them you forget the lines and the print. It is as if a remotely smiling face looked up at you out of the age and told you things. And those things become part of your experience.’ With  a novelist’s omniscience we learn of James’s ‘almost panicked resolve to be dazzlingly clear’, which leads to his prose being obscured ‘in a sort of cuttlefish cloud of interminable phrases’. We read of Conrad’s ‘curious, Oriental courtiership’, how he would ‘greet the humblest of human beings with gestures of  servility’. We  learn that Lawrence ‘had  so  much need  of moral support to take the place of his mother’s influence’ as to keep everyone ‘in a constant state of solicitude’. We are treated to a glimpse of Hardy, ‘a kind, small man, with a thin beard, in the background of London tea parties’ and Turgenev the ‘white-haired, white-bearded, and surely beautiful colossus’ and Swinburne is memorably rendered as ‘beautiful and shining and kind so that when he came on the scene, drunk or sober, all was gas and gingerbread and joybells and jujubes’.

This last reference to the sweets refers to the fact that some of these reminiscences are from Ford’s childhood, which explains a preoccupation with size – Turgenev’s hugeness and the fact that Swinburne’s chin is described as not reaching much above the level of the door handle. The young Ford, apparently an attractive blonde child, seems regularly to  have been dandled on the knees of greats like Turgenev. Being of the Pre- Raphaelite circle allows the young Ford an amused perspective. So, ‘Mr Hunt had a voice like a creaking door, endlessly complaining’ and ‘Mr. Ruskin fairly hissed like an adder’.

And always there is Ford Madox Ford, larger than life. His chapter on Wells begins, ‘Mr H.G.Wells and I must have been enemies for more years than I care now to think of. And the situation is rendered the more piquant by the fact that one or the other of us must by now be the doyen of English novelists –though I prefer not to discover which of us it is.’ If, as one  critic detected, there is a faint flavour of malice in this work, what makes Portraits from Life a success is, as V. S. Pritchett noted, that ‘Somehow Mr. Ford escaped the peculiar seriousness of his seniors in the period.’

It is always a pleasure reading Ford. The writing is wonderfully accomplished, exhibiting the kind of craftmanship, the stylishness he admired in others. At one point he tells us with characteristic hyperbole that by 1890, ‘The literary Language had grown perfectly unfit for the communication of any kind of daily thought, or indeed for any kind of thought at all.’ Consequently, while working with Conrad, he succeeded in evolving ‘a vernacular of an extreme quietness that would suggest someone of some refinement taking in a low voice near the ear of someone else he liked a good deal’.

Finally, ought we to take Ford at his word when he cautions us against making the same faux pas that he once did: ‘You should never say to a novelist that you prefer his “serious” writings to his fiction though I find that such few novelist friends as I have always say that to me. But novel writing is a sport infinitely more exciting than the other form so that almost all writers would prefer to be remembered by their imaginations rather than by their records’. It probably would be a mistake, but one I would make cheerfully. Like Dickens or Turgenev, the man rivals his fiction. In fact we might well agree with V.S. Pritchett, who suggested in his essay, ‘Fordie’, that we could think of Ford Madox Ford himself as ‘as an incurable and dedicated work of fiction’. Warts and all he is certainly one of the most entertaining.

Tony Roberts’s fourth book of poems, Drawndark, appeared in 2014. He is also the author of an essay collection, The Taste in My Mind (2015), and the editor of Poetry in the Blood (2014), all from Shoestring Press. Concerning Roberts’ poetry, Al Alvarez wrote of ‘an authentic adult voice, tender, ironic, relaxed and highly educated’. Reviewing his prose, John Forth found ‘a detailed map of the age … condensed to appear as table talk’.

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