Ford Madox Ford

fordmadoxford256Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) was born Ford Hermann Hueffer, the son of Francis Hueffer (born Franz Hüffer), music critic for The Times, and Catherine, the daughter of the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. When their father died in 1889, Ford and his brother Oliver went to live with Ford Madox Brown, whom they loved, and both took the name Madox as their middle name. Ford Madox Hueffer, as he now was, had problems with the German-ness of his last name in the period up to the Great War but (“with typical self-damaging insouciance”, as John Clute puts it in his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry) did not actually change it to Ford Madox Ford until 1919 (as Max Saunders notes, this had may also have had something to do with the fact that two women with whom he no longer lived were both claiming the title Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer).

Ford published seventy-eight books in his life-time. Among these are several which are science fiction or fantasy (see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction link above). His very first book, The Brown Owl (1892), was a children’s fantasy. The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story (1901), which he wrote with Joseph Conrad, is about a future scheme to colonize Greenland (along the lines of contemporary plans to develop the Belgian Congo). His fantasies are often noted  for time-slips: they include Ladies whose Bright Eyes (1911) (revised in 1935), in which someone goes back to the fourteenth century, and Vive le Roy (1936), describing a struggle for power in a future monarchical France.

His best known books are his realistic novels: The Good Soldier (1915) and the Parade’s End sequence, beginning with Some Do Not… (1924), “now increasingly seen as one of the greatest literary works about the First World War” (Saunders). Both have been screened by the BBC; the 1964 treatment of Parade’s End starred Judi Dench and Ronald Hines, and the 2012 version, written by Tom Stoppard, starred Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Ford was born in Merton (Surrey), the eldest of three children, and moved in fairly exalted cultural circles: as a child he met Ruskin, Holman Hunt, Turgenev, and the Garnetts, and his uncle and aunt were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti. He went to University College School, on Gower Street in London, but never went to university. In 1894, when he was twenty-one, he eloped with the seventeen-year-old Elsie Martindale, and married her in Gloucester. They settled first in Kent and in 1901, in Sussex. Ford met with and befriended some of the local authors: Henry James, Stephen Crane and H.G. Wells. In 1898, Edward Garnett (father of David Garnett), introduced him to Joseph Conrad, and they produced three collaborations together: The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1909). Most critics agree that these works were not as good as either could produce on their own, but they are important explorations of the art of the novel.

Almost without exception, Conrad scholars find Ford an oaf and a liar, capering on the margins of their hero’s career, telling tales out of school about the Master’s views of this or that, and taking credit for far too much of the writing of far too many Conrad novels to be credible. Similarly, Ford scholars find Conrad a cold-hearted, mean-spirited manipulator, taking Ford’s hospitality, his money, his connections and in many cases his hands, heart and mind, while simultaneously belittling Ford and Ford’s work to others. […] Ford was indeed a liar, though a largely benign one, and Conrad was a heartless, fickle user of people (though he seems not to have noticed, for the most part, just how heartless he was) (Marc Demarest).

In 1904, Ford suffered some kind of breakdown, and recovered at a sanatorium in Germany, which featured in his The Good Soldier (1915). He was becoming estranged from his wife, and moved to London, where in 1908 he founded The English Review, which published the early work of such writers as D.H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound. His wife refused to divorce him, and Ford started living with Violet Hunt; when a newspaper called Violet Hunt “Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer” Elsie Hueffer sued for libel and won. It was an extremely busy time in Ford’s life in literary terms too: apart from The English Review (which he only edited for a year) he published 34 books between 1905 and 1915. There then followed a fallow period, in part the result of his war service: he published no novels between 1916 and 1922 inclusive, only Thus to Revisit (1921), a critical work, and two poetry collections: On Heaven and Poems Written on Active Service (1918) and A House (1921). Between 1923 and his death in 1939 he published a further 27 books: novels, poetry, literary history, and travel.

Ford’s war experiences were extensive, as he moved from the writing of propaganda to fighting at the Battle of the Somme to being a significant figure in the training of soldiers.

During the war, Ford would stay with Violet Hunt when on leave, but there met Stella Bowen, an Australian painter, with whom he set up house together in 1919 (this is the occasion on which he changes his surname from Hueffer to Ford). He and Bowen moved to France, first to Provence and then to Paris: there he founded The Transatlantic Review, where again he “discovered” and published young writers, including Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. (One of his discoveries was Jean Rhys, with whom he had an affair.) He separated from Bowen in 1928, and in 1930 met Janice Biala, with whom he lived for the rest of his life, moving between Paris, New York and the south of France. He continued writing to the end, which came to him at Deauville only a matter of weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War.

As a rather sad footnote, I quote from a letter that H.G. Wells wrote in 1945 (a year before his death). It was addressed to Douglas Goldring, and it was about Ford Madox Ford/Hueffer. (It is in vol. 4 of David C. Smith’s edition of Wells’s letters, no. 2782.)

Your story of F.M.H. misses one primarily essential fact. In the 1914-18 war he was a bad case of shell-shock from which he never recovered. The pre-war F.M.H. was torturous but understandable. The post-war F.M.H. was incurably crazy. He got crazier and crazier. Fill in that gap and you will have your story complete.

For the basics of Ford’s life, see Max Saunders in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Saunders’ full biography is much more extensive: see Ford Madox Ford: a Dual Life. Volume I: The World before the War  and Volume II: The After-War World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).



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