BOOKS LIVES: Mr Hueffer and Mrs Ford

FORD MADOX FORD: A Dual life by Max Saunders, OUP pounds 35
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The Independent Culture
A PIVOTAL figure in British writing, Ford Madox Ford was instrumental in launching the careers of both D H Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis. He founded and edited two of the most influential and glittering literary magazines ever - the London Review and later, in Paris, the Transatlantic Review - where he published Hardy, Yeats, Chesterton, Wells, Belloc and Hemingway. He coined the term "work in progress" for the gobbets of Ulysses which he published in the Transatlantic Review. He collaborated with Conrad, and guided Ezra Pound. He also wrote The Good Soldier in 1914-5, and that alone should be enough to secure his place in the halls of greatness forever. And yet Ford is not much read these days.

It is a high-risk strategy to write about a neglected writer, especially if you want to go over his work in detail. Ford wrote about 80 books, of which only nine are still in print. The two masterpieces, The Good Soldier and the four books which make up Parade's End are easy enough to find. But even since Alan Judd's lively biography of Ford five years ago, the Fifth Queen trilogy and A Call have gone out of print. And Max Saunders is writing a critical biography, a scholarly two-volume work intended to correct the small factual errors of previous works, as well as the larger errors of interpretation. This first volume takes us from Ford's birth in 1873 to 1916. A second is due to appear in September.

Saunders likes Ford, the man. For instance, Ford always had a reputation for being something of a liar, but Saunders does not regard Ford's mendacity as a moral weakness; he was not a vicious liar, but rather given to improvement. He would tell an American audience that he went to Eton or Harrow as opposed to his obscure public school, not to aggrandise himself, but because the American would not understand his point if they had not heard of the school. Ford did always want to make his audience see the point. And where previous writers have supposed that the practice was unconscious, Saunders thinks that Ford saw himself clearly. In the best of his novels Ford judges human dilemmas and frailties so beautifully that I am inclined to accept Saunders' argument for Ford's insights into his own life.

Saunders is equally acute on the limitations of reading the novels as romans a clef. If you can see Ford in one of his heroes, you can see him in the villains as well. If he was driven by the need to justify his actions, he knew that no human motivation is immaculately pure.

His name was originally Ford Herman Hueffer. Grandson of Ford Madox Brown, young Fordie was born into the pre-Raphaelite clan which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, and he was therefore afflicted with expectations of genius. His father told him not to write books. His grandfather forbade him to get an ordinary job. He published his first book when he was 17 and never had a "proper" job.

It might be said that Ford contrived to make his own life extremely complicated. He married Elsie Martindale, against her family's wishes, when they were both very young, and had an affair with her mentally unstable sister during the decade they were together. By 1909, relations with Elsie had broken down and he had embarked upon a second "marriage" to an older woman, the literary groupie Violet Hunt. Elsie sued when Ford allowed a newspaper to describe Violet Hunt as Mrs Hueffer. He changed his name to Ford Madox Ford in 1919, partly because of anti-German feeling arising from the Great War; partly to point out that he had not changed it in the course of the war; and partly - perhaps - so that he could call Violet's successors Mrs Ford.

He was also financially incompetent or careless - both the magazines crashed, taking his own and other people's money with them. Ford never really made a living, and when there was money he always imagined that it was the beginning of much to follow, so he spent it. He had invariably spent the advance on any book before he started writing it.

That said, his generosity was legendary, both financially (he lent pounds 200 to Conrad which he would never ask for, even when in straitened circumstances himself, apparently regarding the money as an "investment in literature"), and in terms of his time and applause. He was a brilliant editor and a tireless nurturer of new genius. Ezra Pound said that there was only one man in London who was genuinely pleased if somebody else wrote a truly great book, and that man was Ford.

He was hopelessly touchy, and quarrelled with just about everybody - although here again Saunders is keen to correct the usual reading that Ford's habitual falling-out with publishers was high-handedness. Ford complained that they were not sufficiently assiduous in making his books successful, and Saunders is on his side in this.

The book ends in 1916 with Ford in France. He had joined the Army at the age of 40, partly out of patriotism, and partly to escape from Violet Hunt. He lived until 1939, and wrote, in Parade's End, perhaps the best book in English about the First World War.

Max Saunders has produced a thoughtful and authoritative biography, but at pounds 35 for this volume, and presumably pounds 35 for the next, it is an expensive proposition. I wish it were cheaper, and I wish that more of Ford's novels were in print.