Ford Madox Ford: The writer behind ‘Parade’s End’
“There is no novelist of this century,” wrote Graham Greene, “more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford.” Yet since his death in 1939, Ford has been regarded as “writer’s writer”, best remembered for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, and the staunch championship of Greene, Auden, Anthony Burgess, Julian Barnes and A S Byatt has not translated into public acclaim. This may be about to change: this evening the BBC will begin screening a five-part adaptation of his epic First World War tetralogy Parade’s End, scripted by Tom Stoppard and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.
Ford Madox Ford was the author of more than 80 books: biographies, travelogues, memoirs, literary criticism and some 30 novels. Born Ford Madox Hueffer in 1873 (he changed his surname in 1919), he was brought up by his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown. A nephew by marriage of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, he was dubbed “The Last Pre-Raphaelite” by his biographer Douglas Goldring. Yet Ford was also a modernist who championed the work of Pound, Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis. His 1915 novel The Good Soldier, while redolent of the world of Henry James and Edith Wharton, is modernist in its skilful use of an unreliable narrator, the most obtuse of the ill-starred quartet whose toxic ménage forms the subject of the novel; his rambling account dithers back and forth in time as he struggles to make sense of events he only dimly understands.
“No person telling a story in real life,” Ford explained, “begins at the beginning… for it will come back to you in patches, an incident here, another of ten years earlier… The ‘technique’ of the modern novelist is merely an attempt to tell his story as stories are really told.”
Published between 1924 and 1928, the four novels that make up Parade’s End recount the misadventures of Christopher Tietjens, a stolid Yorkshire squire with a wayward wife and an anachronistic sense of honour, plunged into the horrors – and bureaucratic imbecilities – of modern industrialized warfare. It is not a novel of trench fighting in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front, though its descriptions of combat are all the more harrowing for their restraint, but rather a sweeping panorama of English society before, during and after the war. With an unerring feel for the spirit of the age, it shows how the old order was irreparably fractured. Amid the jubilation of Armistice Day, the suffragette Valentine Wannop decides that “She was never going to show respect for anyone ever again. She had been through the mill: the whole world had been through the mill! No more respect!”
Ford’s insatiable curiosity about the workings of the world was not exhausted by Parade’s End, and in the 1930s he embarked on a new sequence of novels intended to continue his earlier work to form “an extended chronicle of our own times”. The Rash Act (1933) tells the story of Henry Martin, an American ruined in the Great Depression, confronting his destiny amid the implacable pagan beauty of the South of France. For readers of Ford’s earlier work, the book may come as a surprise. Influenced perhaps by his admiration for Hemingway, it seems less of a modernist novel than simply a modern one. The subject matter is fiercely topical once again, and the writing as fresh as the day it was written, the circituous paragraphs of Ford’s earlier work having given way to what he described (in his book Provence) as “little crisp sentences like silver fish jumping out of streams”.
The Rash Act is testimony to the powers of invention that remained undimmed to the end of Ford’s career, and to the fact that his output – the sheer volume and variety of which can appear daunting – contains, in addition to his two best-known works, much that still repays reading.
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