Barbara Burns talks to Professor Max Saunders (University of Birmingham), Co-Editor of The Collected Letters of Ford Madox Ford (OUP), and Dr Lucinda Borkett-Jones, the project’s MHRA Research Associate this year.

BB. Ford Madox Ford was a significant figure in British modernism, not only as a novelist, but also as the founder of two influential magazines and a mentor to other aspiring writers. Some of our readers may be familiar with his works The Good Soldier and the Parade’s End tetralogy. Can you tell us a bit about these texts, Max, and give us an insight into his importance?

MS. Ford was something of a magnet for innovative writers. When he was living on the South-East coast of England at the turn of the century he got to know Henry James, Stephen Crane and H. G. Wells. He collaborated with Joseph Conrad on three books over a decade. Then when he was in London before the First World War, he launched an important literary magazine, the English Review, and published some of the figures who would become leading modernists – Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis. What he learned from these pioneers went into The Good Soldier, which was his pre-war masterpiece. Though it came out in 1915, it doesn’t describe the First World War, but the decade or so leading up to it. It’s about the tangled relationships between two couples, the American Dowells and the English Ashburnhams. The narrator, John Dowell, idolises Edward Ashburnham; but as his story unfolds, we learn (as he did) that this close friend has been having an affair with Dowell’s wife, leaving a trail of devastation. It’s all told like an improvised reminiscence, as if Dowell is narrating events in the order in which they happen to occur to him. But Ford’s control of it – his shaping of the form of Dowell’s meandering so as to draw us into the world and the human situation – is breathtaking.

Max Saunders

BB. How did Ford’s war service impact his writing?

MS. Soon after he’d finished the book Ford enlisted in the army, and after training was sent over to France, arriving at the Front during the Battle of the Somme – just a couple of weeks after the horrendous casualties of the first day, with the worst losses in British military history. A shell exploded near him, knocking him flat and concussing him, so that he couldn’t even remember his own name for days. He was returned to active service when he was well enough, but his health deteriorated and he was sent back to the UK in 1917, where he lectured troops who were being trained. He was in his forties – much older than the average volunteer. Many soldiers wrote poetry at the time or later, or wrote memoirs years later. Fewer British writers produced fiction about war.

Parade’s End stands out not only as Ford’s best work after the war, but as the best British fiction about it. It is actually a sequence of four novels, dealing with a quirky central figure: a mathematician, Christopher Tietjens, who is both of the establishment – son of a county family, Cambridge educated, working for the Imperial civil service – but also deeply critical of it. The novels chart his tortured marriage before the war, and his encounter with the young Suffragette, Valentine Wannop, who captivates him. In the second and third novels we see him in France, suffering as his wife Sylvia manages to smuggle herself across the Channel and into the Army camp Tietjens is stationed in near Rouen, to make trouble for him there; then we see him preparing his troops for the expected German attack of the Spring of 1918, and getting buried by a high explosive shell. Finally he is reunited with Valentine – on Armistice Day! – and the fourth novel shows the life she has made with him in the Sussex countryside as they try to recover from the ordeals of wartime.

BB. What are the particular aspects of Parade’s End that make it stand out in comparison to other novels of the period?

MS. Tietjens witnesses many of the kinds of horrors the other war-writers represent – deaths, injuries, corpses, the squalor. But it’s the focus on the intolerable mental strains that really characterises Parade’s End. When Ford wrote an essay while stationed in the Ypres Salient he headed it ‘War and the Mind’; and that is the main subject of these novels. In Tietjens he creates a character whose mind is truly extraordinary – unlike anything else in English fiction – and doesn’t just respond to the shocks around him, but ranges over the whole war, its significance to Britain and in history. The women too are unusually intelligent: Sylvia, Tietjens’ wife, with a cruel, rapier-like wit; Valentine, his lover, proves his intellectual equal. There are highly intelligent novels in English by writers like George Eliot or Henry James, which present their characters thinking intelligently. But it is rare for novelists to create convincing intellectuals as Ford does, with minds on a par with their creator. Ford does for the war what younger writers like D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley were to do for the inter-war generation. Parade’s End is also a beautiful love story – again an unconventional one, with little talk of love in it, but a powerful sense of attraction, both physical and mental, between Christopher and Valentine.

Ford Madox Ford as painted in 1927 by Stella Bowen, the much younger woman he left his wife Elsie for in 1918. It was in 1927 that they parted again, so the game of solitaire now seems a rather pointed choice. Bowen, an Australian painter, later became a notable war artist: the epic modernity of the world wars impressed itself on both their creative lives.

BB. Why is your edition of Ford’s letters so important for scholarship, and what insights do these letters give us?

MS. Ford was a great networker. He was energised by discussion with other innovative writers, and set up two major literary magazines – not just the English Review before the war, but the transatlantic review in Paris afterwards, which published figures like Joyce and Gertrude Stein, and launched Hemingway and Jean Rhys. His letters are thus a vital part of modernism’s development and its history. We’ve collected over 3,000 of them. He was also a wonderful letter-writer: funny, expressive, and a generous critic of others’ work. He’s often surprising too, as when he signs off one letter teasingly to his agent saying, ‘May the Lord avert his eyes when you desire to sin’. I doubt many writers would have risked such a joke with the man they depended on for a living.

Only 20% or so of these letters have been published before. Those are mostly the ones to other writers and publishers. I think the surprise in these six volumes of collected letters is going to be the way they take us into his private life. He tended to focus on one correspondent especially in any one period, and it was often the person he was in love with. They vary with the relationships, but are always tender, and modulating from passion to irony – like his novels! The account of his courtship to his first partner and only legal wife Elsie Martindale even reads like a Victorian novel, as they have to arrange secret ways to get letters to each other under the surveillance of her parents, who disapproved of the match. After Elsie is kept under lock and key to keep her away from Ford she manages to escape and they elope. His later important relationships were with writers and artists, and there the expressions of love are interspersed with discussions of art and literature.

BB. Is Ford’s handwriting easy to read, or are specialist palaeography skills required?

MS. His handwriting varies wildly (as does his typing!). Often it’s fairly legible, if uneven. But when he had a nervous breakdown in 1904 and was sent off to Germany for a ‘nerve cure’ it vibrates like a seismograph’s spidery line. The wartime letters are similar. He also suffered badly from writers’ cramp when writing by hand, and that shows too. One of the advantages of working in a team of eight editors is being able to share the really puzzling passages with other practised decrypters of Ford’s hand. We’ve managed to get all but a couple of the real cruces so far – or at least, we think we have…

BB. Your authoritative two-volume study of Ford carries the fascinating title: Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life (OUP, 1996). What does this title allude to, and what challenges does working on Ford present to researchers?

MS. Ford wrote several novels about doubles, and his other books often have paired characters or alter-egos, as with Dowell and Ashburnham in The Good Soldier. In other words, that sense of duality mattered to Ford. I think one reason it mattered was that it seemed to express something about his experience of being a writer. His characters are often in one place, or with one person, but preoccupied by somewhere or someone else. For a novelist, it’s always like that. You’re in your home, at your desk, or at a café table; but in your mind, and on the page, you’re living out another life in another place. Ford loved turning experiences into stories; and that process of fictionalising sometimes got him into trouble. It seems to me that that sense of doubleness isn’t so much his problem as his subject.

He takes it to an extreme, though; as a licence to alter facts not just when he’s writing novels, but when he’s writing about his own experiences of the lives of his friends. Nowadays we would call it ‘autofiction’ and think it unexceptional. But it felt like a transgression to some of his contemporaries – the ones who couldn’t see the twinkle in his eye – and Ford got a reputation as a liar. Usually there’s a kernel of truth even in his wildest stories. But the challenge for editors or biographers is to try to work out what can be relied on.

Lucinda Borkett-Jones

BB. Lucinda, you have just recently begun your work as an MHRA Research Associate. How did you get involved in this project?

LBJ. I first read Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End while commuting and became so intrigued by Ford’s idiosyncratic style that I applied to King’s College London for my MA in the hope that Max would supervise my thesis on Ford! My PhD, which was supervised by Professors Sara Haslam and Annika Mombauer at the Open University, focused on Ford’s wartime journalism and propaganda. I used Ford’s unpublished letters quite a bit in my research, so I knew that they were a rich source and that it would be a fantastic project to work on. Soon after completing my PhD, I was invited to co-edit a volume of the letters with Max.

BB. What does your work on the project involve, and have there been any highlights so far?

LBJ. I continue to work on co-editing volume 2 (1904-1914), and with more time to devote to it, we are making good progress. I’m also supporting the editors working on the other five volumes, by transcribing letters, contacting archives, and sequencing letters that have already been transcribed. It has been great to see the project coming together as a whole and be able to make links beyond the single volume that I have been working on to date. I’ve become surprisingly interested in the postcards Ford sent to his children while travelling, and I’ve been reflecting on how best to communicate the multimodality of postcards in the edited volumes.

BB. What opportunities has your position as a MHRA Research Associate opened up for you?

LBJ. I’m making connections with the wider academic community, both in Birmingham and elsewhere, through liaising with other Ford scholars, and attending and participating in seminars and conferences. In my second week on the job, I was involved in presenting our work at a graduate research workshop. It was also wonderful to present alongside Max and Sara Haslam at a recent research seminar in Loughborough, and I’ll be supporting Max to organise the Modernism in 1924 Conference at the Centre for Modernist Cultures at Birmingham in July.

BB. How would each of you sum up the importance of producing this edition of Ford’s letters?

MS. For me there are three main reasons to be working on this. Ford is a major writer, involved with several of the most exciting literary movements from the turn of the century to the 1920s. His letters are his most substantial unpublished work. Why wouldn’t we want to make them accessible to others?

The edition will also make a great difference to Ford’s biography. We’re getting a more granular sense of his day-to-day activities and whereabouts. Seeing how an individual letter sits in the context of the others can change how we interpret it. It is touching to see how, at the same time he was writing depressed letters to Elsie about his nerve treatments in Germany, he would stop to send charming postcards to his daughters. Or how, in the midst of a funding crisis for the transatlantic review, he would write a fond letter to Conrad about the earlier exhilarations of collaborating with him.

Third, we see these letters as essential groundwork for the projected Complete Works of Ford from OUP. They give us, in most cases, the best evidence we have for his thoughts about the books, and for the process of composition and revision.

LBJ. As Max has said, Ford’s letters provide us with insight into Ford the man, as well as Ford the modernist. Within the letters, there is humour and suffering, insecurity and arrogance. Letters are by nature relational, and so Ford’s letters provide a piece of the puzzle in the various networks of which he was a part. I’m aware that I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Cornell and Princeton to access many of Ford’s letters during my doctoral studies, but by producing the edited volumes we’re widening access to this fantastic resource.

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