Commentary Magazine

On Ford Madox Ford

Modern biography began as an attempt to look past the discreet veil thrown over public lives by official Victorian biographers. Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria went to an extreme in exposing human frailties and was in turn corrected by the more balanced view of biographers who took up such modern disciplines as sociology and psychology. In our own time, modern biography has traveled so far from its original debunking impulse as quietly to have returned to the magisterial extensiveness of the Victorian form.

Actually there were two kinds of Victorian biographies, one titling itself “The Life and Letters of . . . ,” and the other “The Life and Times of . . .”; both were essentially collections of documents strung together by the biographer’s narrative. Aside from their now discredited aim of imposing an officially acceptable portrait, these old-fashioned biographies sought, as their titles suggest, to leave either a record of the period or the record of a man’s life as he had written it in letters, journals, and autobiography. Recent biographies, in returning to extensive quotations from such documents, show a greater affinity with the 19th-century impulse to provide a historical record than with the early modern delight in exposé.

The modern, definitive biography, often three volumes or the equivalent in length, just like the Victorian three-volume novel, has come under attack for a tedious slavishness to too many facts, for lack of sympathy with its subject, and for failure to provide a coherent explanation of the life it so exhaustively traces. All of these criticisms, while more or less well taken, reflect not on the modern form of biography, it seems to me, but on its practitioners. There is nothing about thoroughness and accuracy that necessarily leads to boredom; on the other hand, even a biographical essay will seem interminable if its author has not mastered the form. Perhaps because there has as yet developed no biographical calling comparable to the novelistic one, and additionally because critics have only recently begun to treat biography as an art, the new biographers have often failed to utilize and control the formal elements of their art.

In modern biographies, for example, one too often loses the developmental pattern—how old, one wonders, is the subject at the point of each adventure in life (biographies used to trace this at the top of each page—“aetat 55,” as Boswell’s Life of Johnson has it); what does he look like at each stage; which behavioral peculiarities are now typical of him?

Arthur Mizener’s biography of Ford Madox Ford1 has been accused of most of the failings of the exhaustive modern biography, especially lack of sympathy. The truth is that Mizener actually has suppressed certain unfavorable details about Ford, toward whom he holds the biographer’s correct mixture of sympathy and understanding. Both of these qualities are apparent in an excellent introduction which assesses Ford’s life and works. The works are further discussed in a long appendix on Ford’s novels as well as in the narrative itself, and Mizener consistently uses his biographical insight to provide the most dependable literary criticism of Ford that has ever been written. But what Mizener has failed to do is reflect his grasp of the subject onto his day-to-day narrative of Ford’s life, with the result that the reader is forced to do a certain amount of the biographer’s imaginative work—to infuse the narrative with that drama of the passage from birth to death that one experiences simply by glancing at the photographs before one even starts to read a modern biography.



Beginning in 1892, when he was eighteen, Ford Madox Ford turned out nearly two books per year until his death at the age of sixty-three in 1939. In the same period, he regularly wrote travel articles, book reviews, prefaces, and letters, some of which have been collected into additional volumes since his death. Along the way he lived with four women and had affairs with at least four others, suffered two nervous breakdowns, had his health broken during two years’ service in World War I, and spent a good deal of his time reading and correcting the manuscripts of others, first as editor of the English Review in 1908-09 and later as editor of the Transatlantic Review in 1923-24. Apparently he needed as well to turn out a steady stream of his own words to justify himself in the face of private and public criticisms of his conduct. Unable to deal with the scandals that seemed to attach themselves to him, Ford went beyond being autobiographical in the manner of most of the novelists of this century; he made his fiction a nearly explicit defense of his life.

Ford had managed to create public scandals both when he eloped at the age of twenty-one with eighteen-year-old Elsie Martindale, and when he left her for Violet Hunt, who became the second of four Mrs. Fords, none of whom he could legally marry after the first, who would not give him a divorce. All the time that he was tangled in the legal proceedings which accompanied his private life, Ford not only wrote profusely but experimented with nearly every conceivable form of prose narrative: he published children’s books, science fiction, historical romance, and novels of utopian satire, suspense, adventure, political allegory, and Jamesian comedy of manners. Remarkably, in story after story, an idealistic hero is victimized, usually by a vindictive woman resembling first Elsie Martindale, then Violet Hunt. Like Ford, the hero has a talent for allowing such women to ruin him financially and in the eyes of the public, but unlike Ford his actions are explained not by bad luck and poor timing, but by a stubborn chivalry which takes the form of his refusing publicly to defend himself against a woman, and his insistence on paying debts of honor while omitting to call in the debts owed to him.

This most prolific writer, then, had essentially one story to tell—an idealized version of the repeating pattern of his own life. One time in his career, when he was forty and writing his fifteenth novel, Ford told this story in a small masterpiece, The Good Soldier. His original, sentimental title for this book was “The Saddest Story,” the title Mizener has taken for his biography of Ford. Like everything else about the novel, the fortuitous change in title, suggested by Ford’s publisher, had the effect of just sufficiently reducing the sentimentality with which Ford viewed his own situation to free his talents for their single, appointed triumph.



The mark of Ford’s life, like that of his recurring hero, was indefiniteness. Ford seems to have been one of those people whom you cannot pin down. Some autonomous process is going on in them and though they see you and hear you—indeed, may even years after a conversation recall what you said better than you can yourself—they never seem to be in direct contact with you. They show up at appointments, yet somehow it always seems a surprise when they do, so unclear had they seemed about the time and the place. As the process of fictional justification grew more important to him, Ford seems to have lost the ability to experience life directly. Eventually he could tell what had happened to him only in the act of setting it down in fiction, just as his characters could come to know their own emotions only in the act of attempting to recall what had happened to them. As he grew older, even the people who knew and loved Ford best treated with him from a certain distance—he became “dear, old Fordie,” a genius underneath his vagaries, but not someone with whom you could be intimate or direct.

Though highly self-conscious, Ford lacked self-knowledge, and though a sharp observer of behavior, understood little about people. The message of one of his early books was that “the heart of another is a dark forest.” Critics of The Good Soldier have taken its narrator’s confession that he knew neither his own heart nor those of his wife and best friend as evidence that Ford meant the narrator to be taken ironically; but in fact he speaks for Ford himself. The character, Dowell, is generous and selfless to the point of pathology, and so was Ford. When Romance, one of his collaborations with Joseph Conrad, was published, Ford tried to help Conrad out of his financial difficulties by writing an anonymous review calculated to elevate Conrad’s reputation alone. In addition, Ford gave up his own writing time to take down, in shorthand, installments of Conrad’s novels when his friend had trouble meeting his deadlines. Years later Ford, already well-known for his exaggerations, had his reputation seriously damaged when Conrad’s wife attacked his claim, since substantiated, that he had gone so far in helpfulness as to have written parts of these books.

When he began to work with Conrad, Ford had already developed a literary method that corresponded to the lack of definition in his own personality. This was impressionism, later to be refined into the sophisticated technique of The Good Soldier. At its inception the method consisted in minute descriptions of characters and events without authorial hints about motivation or plot. Everything is to be deduced from the author’s close rendering of what each character sees and hears and from how he expresses himself (usually, with irritating Fordian verisimilitude, in broken phrases). It develops often in a Ford novel that the characters, and sometimes the narrator, are reacting to the unfolding of the same situation that the reader is trying to penetrate. The subject and drama of Ford’s books thus center not in what is happening or has happened but in the process of discovery shared by the characters, the narrator, and the reader.

Though impressionism’s minuteness of description, with its resultant confusion in the reader’s mind about just what it is that he is witnessing, reminds one of the French nouveau roman, Ford’s impressionism paradoxically expressed not the modern French writer’s distrust of reality but rather Ford’s faith that reality could be trusted to reveal itself if only he closely reproduced the appearances behind which it hid. For his method Ford deserves his reputation as a modernist, but his spirit remained less than modern, and this may be part of the reason why his method ended up running away with him. For too often he traced impressions so exhaustively as to create a jumble of contrasting effects too minute and too numerous to serve as objective correlatives of his characters’ experiences. The simple truth about most of Ford’s books is that they are often incomprehensible both in their action and their significance. The only written recognition of this fact that I have seen appears in an epigraph to The Saddest Story; it comes from a suitably cryptic letter by Ezra Pound about Ford:

Yes. Yes. F. a prubblum—knew more than any—see how good—is, when obeyin F’s formula—‘n’ then F. don’t & cobwebs, etc etc

When he was good he was very, very good, but when he was bad . . . cobwebs.



In his own time Ford was attacked not for obscurity but for twisting the truth in his autobiographies and memoirs. As early as 1910 he defended himself against his critics by insisting that his truth lay in the accurate rendering of his impressions of men and events, and that the accusation of lying only reflected his critics’ vulgar need for a mundane objectivity. In principle Ford was right, of course; and indeed, his memories of Conrad, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, and others remain entertaining and valuable.2

On the other hand, Ford’s autobiographies are, on the whole, disappointing; and they fail, it seems to me, precisely because their method is unsuitable to their form. No writer, in point of fact, can reproduce reality in an autobiography: no matter how accurately truthful he attempts to be, he must end up with a written version of what happened, not the thing itself. It does not follow, nevertheless, that one may just as well employ an impressionistic method as attempt accuracy. Though one ends with an impression, the results of beginning with one are very different from what they are when one struggles to reproduce the reality that was. For, out of the tension between memory and history arises the art of autobiography.



For Ford, what had begun as a method of containing personal experience became, beginning with his memoirs and autobiographies, largely an end in itself. Like Dowell in The Good Soldier Ford wrote at his best when he used impressionistic memory to recapture the painful moments of his past; in giving them form he gave them meaning. But at some point in his career Ford began to live life itself impressionistically; thereafter, his books became impressions not of events but of his impressions of events, and then—“. . . cobwebs.” Thus impressionism acted as an addictive drug, beginning by obliterating Ford’s pain, ending by obliterating his personality.

It is hard to say when or how Ford started living life impressionistically. If, as it seems to me, he did so in reaction to difficulties, then one can suppose him to have begun to withdraw from a direct confrontation of experience with his first wife’s growing shrewishness—Ford usually represented pain as a man’s recollection of a woman’s verbal cruelty. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1904 when Romance, the product of a decade of collaboration with Conrad, failed to sell. Impressionism could still for a time after this serve as a way to hold on to sanity: this is what Dowell uses it for in The Good Soldier, as a self-protective way of ordering his maddening past. During World War I, however, a shell bursting near Ford brought on a loss of memory from which he suffered for three or four years. After this time his characters seem to be remembering not scenes which the reader might hope to reconstruct but, as in the case of Tietjens, the hero of Parade’s End (who also suffers memory loss in a shelling), an existence that was fragmented to begin with.

His friends had always been aware of the lack of definition in Ford’s character. Despite his generosities, his literary relationships tended to suffer from one or another kind of confused misunderstanding over a promise, an invitation, a manuscript. By 1909 Conrad had decided that he was “a megalomaniac who imagines that he is managing the Universe and that everybody treats him with the blackest ingratitude. . . . I do not hesitate to say that there are cases, not quite as bad, under medical treatment.” Conrad was talking about Ford during a period of breakdown over his loss of the editorship of the English Review and the breakup of his first marriage. But after the war the early descriptions of him by enemies like Wyndham Lewis and friends like Conrad began to be applicable to his permanent condition. H. G. Wells was cruel in describing the later Ford, but his use of the word “tortuous” suggests that he was talking about an undeniable exacerbation of Ford’s vagueness.

The pre-war F.M.H. [Wells always knew him as Hueffer, the name Ford changed in going from Violent Hunt to Stella Bowen] was tortuous but understandable, the post-war F.M.H. was incurably crazy. He got crazier and crazier.

Not crazier, in fact, though he could have been called that right after the war, but vaguer and vaguer—and more eccentric. He became “messy” not only in his relations with people but literally so with his person and belongings. Hemingway tells what Mizener omits—that it was hard to be in a room with Ford because he smelled. The descriptions by friends of a great Falstaffiian elephant, with, in Robert Lowell’s poem about him, “mouth pushed out fish-fashion, as if you gagged for air,” all suggest disorientation, the triumph over his life itself of an art of indefiniteness.

Increasingly, Ford attached to himself the self-idealization that he had begun by projecting onto the characters in his books. Near the end, he supplied the trustees of Olivet College with information for the citation to be read as he was awarded an honorary degree. It may have been a joke that he was playing this time, but the imaginary details made up the familiar myth of himself that he had built up in conversations over the years.

At the Olivet commencement on June 19, Professor Akley, the college orator, found himself telling the assembled company that Ford was “a Dr. of Agriculture of the university of Sorbonne,” that he had “known war as a colonel in charge of two regiments in action,” that he had been the “first to praise Dreiser in England, first to credit Joyce and Stein . . . first to publish a short story by Arnold Bennett and by Galsworthy” and was the “guarantor of Conrad’s first novel, Aylmer’s [sic] Folly.”

“Dr. of Agriculture” stood for Ford’s love of Provence, where he often kept a kitchen garden, and perhaps for the francophile propaganda book he had written during the war—the French might have awarded him a degree for it had they wished to. He had been attached, as a second lieutenant, to two different regiments, yet, though the shell-burst by which he was stunned qualified him to speak as often as he did on the subject of war, he had never been in action or at the front. He had to his credit an honorable record as friend and editor of the authors he named, and of others as well, but he was not quite their first discoverer or their last resort. Ford’s life and books had become suffused with a William Morris-like utopianism consisting of praise for the market gardener, the small producer, Provence, organic foods, noblesse (which he lacked) oblige, the Catholic church (to which he didn’t belong), and 18th-century Toryism (which didn’t represent his politics). He became, sadly, a fat, wheezing Lear who but slenderly knew himself.



To a point Ford’s dedication to his art commands sympathy and respect—one cannot forget Robert Lowell’s line: “Tell me why the bales of your left-over novels buy less than a bandage for your gouty foot.” But then one should not forget, either, that the same impressionism which Ford took up as a tool to shape the meaning of life into art came to dominate his very mode of living. Leading the artistic life involved in his case not simply the writer’s devotion to art but a sacrifice to it of that reality without which the artist of all people has no dependable starting point.

The artist must live as other men but regard life differently from the way they do. When once he begins to conduct his life in accordance with his artistic views, he loses the possibility of interpreting the experience of his fellows. This is what is meant by being too “literary.” The writer’s treatment of life may be as recherché as he pleases to make it, and yet readers will trouble to learn how to decipher him. But when once his subject lacks the touch of common humanity, his method suddenly appears arbitrary and obscure. Ford began by regarding his life sentimentally and ended by living it so. At just one point, before the war changed him, he looked at the facts with just the necessary impressionistic heightening to produce The Good Soldier. It was a work that wrested art from life, but it could not, in his case, rescue life from art.




1 The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford, World, 616 pp., $20.00.

2 Excerpts from Ford's eight volumes of reminiscences have been collected in Your Mirror to My Times: The Selected Autobiographies and Impressions of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Michael Killigrew, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 392 pp., $10.00.

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