BOOK REVIEW / A passion for lying

Ford Madox Ford was a flabby giant and an unlikely womaniser with 'a profound contempt for facts'. So what's his biographer to do? By Peter Parker; Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life Vol I: The World Before the War by Max Saunders, Oxford, pounds 35
Click to follow
Ford Madox Ford wrote over 70 books, but few of them are much read or even remembered today. Posterity has agreed with him in judging his masterly little tragedy, The Good Soldier, and his quartet of novels about the First World War, Parade's End, his best work. The volumes of poetry, biography, criticism and topography have long since been cast into one of literary history's many oubliettes.

In this Ford has suffered the fate of many prolific Edwardian figures but the decline in his own literary fortunes was exacerbated by the character he presented in his memoirs. His reputation for boastfulness and mendacity is matched in this century only by that of Roy Campbell, and the standard biography (by Arthur Mizener, 1972) is as much a work of censure as of celebration. Max Saunders's vast critical biography - almost 500 closely printed pages, followed by a further 100 pages of notes - is in part a work of restitution.

Despite its length, the present volume deals only with Ford's life up until 1916, which leaves a great deal to come, not least Parade's End, his editorship of the Transatlantic Review, and his relationships with Stella Bowen, Janice Biala and Jean Rhys, whose novel Quartet - a distinctly Fordian tragedy of amatory entanglements and moral corruption - is based upon her involvement with him.

What we have here, therefore, is the story of Ford's dual inheritance (German intellectual on his father's side, English Pre-Raphaelite on his mother's), his literary apprenticeship, his contentious collaborations with Joseph Conrad, his editorship of the English Review, his unhappy marriage and the subsequent relationship with Violet Hunt, his war service and the writing and publication of The Good Soldier.

Saunders's excellent Introduction is a thought-provoking meditation upon literary biography in general and its particular application to Ford, whose mysterious love life (no one actually knows whether he married Violet Hunt), unreliability as an autobiographer, and complex "literary personality" make him as slippery as a trout. "My aims," Saunders writes, "are to wonder at the kind of man Ford is as a writer; to ask how he became that writer; to investigate what happened while he was writing, as well as while he wasn't; to consider the implications for biography of Janice Biala's comment that 'His true private life and the one far more difficult to write ... is his inner life, the one that produced the books, not the gossip'; and to attempt something like a composite portrait of Ford as revealed in his books."

This ambition is largely realised, but those who know nothing of Ford's eventful "outer" life may have problems following its erratic course which, like that of a will-o'-the-wisp, flickers intermittently among the dense thickets of critical discourse.

According to Wyndham Lewis, Ford "was a flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the Zoo inviting buns", but he seems to have had no difficulty attracting women, and married his first (and only legal) wife after spiriting her away from her obstructive parents.

There followed numerous affairs (probably including one with his sister- in-law); a succession of more or less scandalous partnerships; protracted, bitter and very public divorce proceedings; a brief spell in prison; persistent money problems; and frequent wrangles and fallings- out with friends and colleagues. Saunders demonstrates that Ford's work not only reflects this life but occasionally prefigures it: he would dream up the plot of a story or novel and then follow a similar course in his life.

Wilde's assertion that "life imitates art" could equally be applied to Ford, who was impatient of the distinctions between real and poetic truth. "I don't really deal in facts" he wrote in his first volume of memoirs, "I have for facts a most profound contempt." Saunders might have taken as his epigraph a passage from Wilde's essay "The Decay of Lying": "Lying and poetry are arts - arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion."

It is the suspicion that Ford's devotion to lying was anything but disinterested that has caused his detractors to vilify him, but Saunders investigates the most contentious of Ford's anecdotes and concludes that ambiguity (one aspect of his "duality") explains much, while his favoured literary mode of "impressionism" leads naturally and fruitfully to a different sort of truth.

This is fine when one is dealing with literary memoirs, but not very helpful when one is trying to establish important facts. After rehearsing all the possible versions of the as yet undivorced Ford's "marriage" to Hunt, Saunders is obliged to admit that "it is all an impressionist haze". Following his subject's lead, however, he observes (quite rightly) that: "The evidence can't tell us conclusively what happened but it does say much about what Ford, Hunt, and their friends and acquaintances thought about it."

Biographies that champion their subjects are always heartening, but Saunders's detailed rebuttal of former theories is such that the reader frequently feels forgotten. Reading the book is rather like watching a particularly complicated trial from the public gallery, as Saunders painstakingly sifts the evidence and picks apart his predecessors' case for the prosecution. Furthermore, his laudable advocacy occasionally leads him to discard subtleties when a more obvious explanation is staring him in the face. For instance, of The Soul of London (1905) he writes: "the very term 'soul' - psyche - conveys a disconcertingly psychological approach to its subject". It is unlikely to have disconcerted anyone who had lived through the 1890s, a period that was almost literally soulful, and the titles of the other books in this trilogy, The Heart of the Country and The Spirit Of the People, make The Soul of London sound almost like a cliche.

That said, where others have found fault, Saunders has discovered riches. The main achievement of his biography is to show the fascinating and productive interplay between fact and fiction, life and art, autobiography and impressionism.