Ford Madox Ford by Alan Judd Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Ford Madox Ford was an amazingly prolific writer of novels, works of criticism, and books dealing with the history and culture of his native England. Grandson of one of the eminent Pre-Raphaelite painters, Ford Madox Brown, in 1919 he changed his name from Ford Hermann Hueffer, partly in a delayed reaction to the anti-German sentiment in England occasioned by World War I, partly in homage to the memory of his grandfather. Since he was perpetually short of money, much of Ford’s work was done hastily and carelessly to meet publishers’ deadlines. The novelist Alan Judd in this biography, however, makes a strong case for giving Ford a far more important place in modern literature than he is usually accorded.

Critics have almost universally focused their attention on Ford’s best-known novels, The Good Soldier (1915) and the tetralogy centered around World War I, Parade’s End (1924-1928). Critical opinion for many years has placed both these books among the classics of modern literature. Judd sees considerable value in other works, including the nonfiction work The Cinque Ports (1900) and the trilogy defending one of the wives of Henry VIII, Jane Howard, entitled The Fifth Queen (1907-1908). In addition, Judd maintains that Ford was one of the progenitors of modern poetry, citing testimonials from poets as diverse as Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell to suggest that Ford’s occasional poetry contained the seeds from which poetic modernism grew.

Earlier biographies, especially Arthur Mizener’s The Saddest Story (1971), have emphasized Ford’s many loves and his lifelong problems with money. Judd’s book finds these matters unavoidable but mostly irrelevant, arguing that Ford’s life is important only because of his writing and editing, and that a biographer’s job is to place those literary activities foremost. He does, nevertheless, devote considerable attention to the less-literary aspects of Ford’s life.

There is no question of the unconventional nature of Ford’s life, especially his relations with women. It is Judd’s conclusion that Ford was not much interested in sex, but that he had a compelling need to be close to women. He married Elsie Martindale in 1894, against the wishes of both their families. The marriage produced two daughters and lasted through various trials for about twelve years, until Ford’s presumed affair with his wife’s sister and a more protracted and public affair with the novelist Violet Hunt led to a breakdown of the marriage and separation.

He lived with Hunt for several years and went through some kind of ceremony with her that they seem to have believed was official, but Elsie, as long as they both lived, refused to give Ford a divorce. When Hunt publicly called herself “Mrs. Hueffer,” Elsie sued her and won, in a much-publicized trial that gave Ford’s reputation in a blow from which it never really recovered. Several of his literary friends, especially Henry James, cut him off entirely, and even his closest friend and sometime collaborator, Joseph Conrad, found Ford’s behavior indefensible. The two men were never as close again.

Early in World War I, Ford’s enlistment as a junior officer in the British army, at the age of forty-two, was at least in part prompted by the desire to get away from Hunt, who had begun to terrify him. Judd argues that Ford’s motives were also genuinely patriotic, and that he served well, despite a service record that contains strongly negative reports on his effectiveness from one of his commanding officers. There is no question that he was shell-shocked in 1916 and that his health suffered permanently from conditions at or near the front. He was sent back to England in 1917 and left the army in 1919. By that time he had begun to live with a young Australian artist, Stella Bowen, with whom he had a third daughter in 1920.

In the mid-1920’s, while living in Paris and giving encouragement to younger writers of the “Lost Generation,” he had an affair with another writer, Jean Rhys, but his relationship with Bowen lasted until 1928 or 1929. By 1930 he had contracted his final liaison, with the painter Janice Biala. Biala remained with him during the final decade of his life, which was spent in France and in the United States, where during his final years he was a visiting writer at Olivet College in Michigan. Biala, who gave Judd considerable help in the writing of his book, said that Ford had acknowledged...

(The entire section is 1827 words.)