Troubled heartsBMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d3644 (Published 15 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3644
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Ford Madox Ford was a poet and prosateur who composed eighty books yet he is virtually forgotten today. When his memory is revivified the researcher, swanning through a compendium of articles, finds that interest has converged towards the prose, specifically the novels, rather than the poetry. His posthumous state was made explicit when a 2012 documentary was televised with the title,“Who on earth was Ford Madox Ford?”
Ford was born in 1873 and died in 1939, by chronology, by bent, and by physique a doppelgänger of G K Chesterton, born in 1874 and died in 1936. Both writers expired in their sixties, after having produced a warehouse of literature that makes their heirs today appear relatively unlettered. Ford, eighty books by the age of sixty-five, and Chesterton, a round hundred. But fecundity was not the only trademark of these corpulent goliaths. There was a suppleness in their art. A laxity of approach. They were many-sided.
Although the novel was the form that was profitably popular, they showed that literature was far more than novel-writing, and, besides penning a brace of novels each, created digressions that yielded volumes of poetry, plays, travelogues, and critical works of shelf-breaking weight. These digressive tangents are proof of such Edwardians being men-of-letters who had a staggering latitude in their artistry. Together these behemoths were the beasts that hauled the entirety of British literature from the Victorian age into an Edwardian age of modernism.
Ford Madox Ford, as a name, was not readymade. Christened “Ford Hermann Hueffer,” he was born in the 1870s, the son of a German who had settled in London and wedded an Englishwoman of bourgeois slant. After his father died, Ford was raised by his maternal grandfather––Ford Madox Brown––a painter of stature for whom the boy acquired a regard. “Ford Hermann Hueffer” altered his name to “Ford Madox Hueffer” to deepen his attachment to a loving grandfather.
Years later Ford was caught in a fracas in which, when replacing one wife with another, he found himself in the midst of ladies, irate and cat-fighting, each of whom was claiming to be the legitimate Mrs Hueffer. He shrank away by twisting his name from “Ford Madox Hueffer” to “Ford Madox Ford.” Beyond the legalities, he gauged that his new name, a nom-de-guerre, would look shapely on the spine of a book. Transformed, from 1919 onwards he was the writer Ford Madox Ford.
Unencumbered by the snare of relationships, Ford continued with his prolixity, sloughing off a book and more each year. Mentioned with a rarity now, in his heyday his name was a byword for books and publishing. His seat in the house of AngloAmerican letters was not a side-perch by a wall, but located somewhere in the middle. He was acquainted with a bevy of authors of eminence by being involved in their publication. Pimpled with typing errors, skewered with crossings-out, the manuscripts arrived daily as a mound of paper on his desk.
Founder of the magazines, the English Review and the Transatlantic Review, Ford was a nurturer of Graham Greene, and, during a hunt for talent, published an American, the émigré Robert Frost, and, at editorial duties, was once intimidated by a wild-eyed D H Lawrence who stood raffishly in the doorway asking if his story was to be printed. Ernest Hemingway, when not squinting down the barrel of a gun or oafishly stabbing the keys of his typewriter, was known to speak ill of Ford. And out of these nears, the one with whom he had the nicest friendship was Joseph Conrad. The illustrious Pole, when he was a neophyte, co-wrote a handful of books with the help of Ford. A seafarer from Poland, Conrad started in English Literature as an apologetic novice and ended with the confidence of a bewigged barrister strutting airily about a courtroom.
A departure from the sedentary and sedulous lifestyle of the writer came for Ford when, a hundred years ago, in 1916, he went soldiering in the Battle of the Somme, a theatre of the First World War which dehumanised a million men. Overweight, over forty, too soft, Ford volunteered to fight against a Germany with which he had emotional ties and which was the country of his father. Shocked and bespattered with blood, he was sent home, to resume a career that had seen him publish “The Good Soldier” in 1915.
Becomingly, as the finale to a life in letters, Ford wrote a 900-page opus on the progression of reading and writing down the ages. He was concerned not only with Britain but wanted to exercise an internationalist outlook. Appearing as “The March of Literature – From Confucius' Day to Our Own,” the encyclopaedia, when printed in 1938, was a review that gathered in its cloak the antiquities of China, the writings of Roman poets, the tapestries of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and in its latter sections covered a linkage of writers over the centuries all the way into the 1930s in which the author was living.
Ford twinned this book with another that was less panoptical in remit, but also occupied with creative writers and their work. The second book had a title that explained the role of literature in society. It was called “Mightier Than the Sword.” Consisting of sketches of authors he had known personally, men, perforce, because social norms precluded his proximity to women, this book had morsels of comment from a man-of-letters about aspects of the written word :
“And that too makes immensely for the superiority of Latin over English as a means of conveying thought; the eye gets as tired of travelling over lines on paper as do the feet on long roads. But this matter does not end there, for it is not with the eye that the competent reader reads. It is with his brain. It is not letters but ideas that his mind takes in, one by one.”
––from the memoir “Mightier Than the Sword” (1938) by Ford Madox Ford
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