A Blagger's Guide To: Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Britain's 'greatest modern war novel' gets a makeover

The BBC2 adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's First World War classic Parade's End began on Friday, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, starring poor old typecast Benedict Cumberbatch as "the last Tory" Christopher Tietjens, and Rebecca Hall as his wife Sylvia, with parts for actors including Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson and Anne-Marie Duff. Ford's four-part series, published from 1924 to 1928, has become a five-parter on the BBC, broadcast every Friday evening until 21 September.

Fans who are inspired to read Ford's original novels are spoilt for choice. BBC Books has published a film tie-in edition, with Cumberbatch's lovely face on the cover; Vintage Classics brings out a handsome version on 6 September; Penguin reissued its Modern Classics edition, with an introduction by Julian Barnes, earlier this month; Carcanet publishes all of Ford's work, including a definitive critical edition of Parade's End in four volumes: Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, as well as a one-volume version; and the Everyman's Library Classics collection includes Parade's End printed on cream wove, acid-free paper with full cloth sewn bindings, and an introduction from Sir Malcolm Bradbury.

Ford joined the Welch Regiment in 1915 (aged 41), partly in an attempt to evade his then-girlfriend Violet Hunt – one of several "Mrs Fords" with whom he had relationships after the first Mrs Ford refused to divorce him. He was sent to France in 1916, where he was wounded while working behind the lines as a transport officer and was invalided home. He returned to live in France in 1922, where he started work on the Parade's End tetralogy.

Ford was born Ford Hermann Hueffer in 1873, the grandson of the English painter Ford Madox Brown and the son of the German music critic Dr Francis Hueffer. He published his first story, "The Brown Owl", aged 18, and by his twenties he was collaborating with Joseph Conrad on novels including Heart of Darkness and Nostromo.

In his introduction to the Everyman's Library edition, Sir Malcom Bradbury calls Parade's End "quite surely the greatest modern war novel from a British writer". He's not the first writer to think so. Graham Greene said of him: "There is no novelist of this century more likely to live than Ford Madox Ford."

Not everybody thought as well of him, however. Through his editorship of The English Review, Ford supported many writers, including Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, DH Lawrence and Rebecca West – but not all were obviously grateful. Lewis described him as "a flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at the Zoo inviting buns – especially when ladies were present". West recalled that he was "stout, gangling, albinoish", and that being embraced by him was like being "the toast under a poached egg". Ernest Hemingway, in his memoir A Moveable Feast, called him a "heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence". And Jean Rhys portrayed him as an elderly lover in her novel Quartet, but then she was one of the many women he escaped so she may have had her reasons.

Ford died in June 1939 in Deauville, France, and ended up buried in the wrong grave. A sympathetic account of his life, and an argument for his worth as a literary giant, can be found in Alan Judd's 1990 biography, Ford Madox Ford, publisher by Faber & Faber (£18).

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