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After 1,300 pages, I've finished the Max Saunders biography of Ford Madox Ford

That was a long book.  There are big books that feel big, and books that don't.  This felt big, and the problem was that Saunders not only went into excruciating detail about his subject's movements, incidental friendships and even meals, he also broke up his narrative with extensive discussions of Ford's literary works.

I tallied 83 pages on on the Parade's End series, which is fine in terms of criticism, but if you want to find out more about the author, it's a heck of a digression.

I'm also going to call Saunders out for being a truly impressive fanboy.  I like Ford's work, admire his turn of phrase, but I'm sorry, Last Post was a clunker of a book, and there's a reason why Graham Greene did not want it included in his reprint.  As he points out, the book was not part of the original scheme of the work and was added on later to explore what happened to Tietjens and Miss Wannop.

Having read the biography, it's pretty clear that Ford is creating an idealized version of his postwar life, one starkly at odds with what eventually happened.  Ford should have updated it ten years later, including Wannop's bastard child and the fact that Tietjens has abandoned her for another young woman and regularly keeps his eye open for new talent.

Saunders desperately tries to excuse Ford, emphasizing his art over his morally abhorrent behavior (well, this was written in the 1990s), but there is no inherent contradiction between moral uprightness and literary worth.  G.K. Chesterton was a brilliant writer as was J.R.R. Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh had a wild youth, and was by no means the model father, but he didn't abandon his wife and children and let himself constantly be led astray.  There was quite literally no woman he had a relationship with on whom he did not seriously consider cheating.  The only reason he remained true to his final mistress, Janice Biala, was that he was too ill to consummate any more adulteries.

To his credit, he never truly abandoned his Catholic faith and tried to raise his children in the Church. 

Though the work is quite long enough, I would have liked to see less literary analysis and more about his extended family, including his illegitimate daughter and his brother Oliver, who pops into and out of the narrative without much explanation.  An epilogue on his descendants would also have interested me.

Instead, Saunders - like his subject - regarded Ford's death as the end of the line, and wrote no more.



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One of my main problems with the book (excluding the Parade's End section) is the abrupt ending. Usually a biography will discuss the subject's legacy, views of the heirs and colleagues, and not just fade to black. Yeah, it was amusing that even in death Ford was transient, but I expected better and did the hunt for the family on my own. I wonder if they were too negative for Saunder's taste, as even the artistic ones omit mentioning him. I suppose most of the grandchildren never met him, heard about his treatment of Elsie, and had nothing to say to their own children. I can't blame them.

A.H. Lloyd

I can't help but wonder if Saunders was simply exhausted by the time to he to the end and lacked the energy to continue. The publisher may also have set a size limit, and Saunders decided that his take on literature was more important than the fate of his alienated family.

Having finished the whole thing, I think that the premise of Saunders' approach is false. Ford wasn't living 'dual lives,' he was a writer who was completely enslaved by various lusts. Saunders tries to soft-pedal it, always making Ford the passive victim to his romantic entanglements, but he was a very willing participant, and as his letters show, he refined his technique as he got older, using the same (effective) pick-up lines and preying on young, vulnerable women to prop up his ego, which was as enormous as his waistline. He was an Edwardian pick-up artist.

That's another thing - how does a 'starving artist' get to be so morbidly obese? The only time he approached a healthy weight was in the Army, but the photos show he quickly gained it back and then some. As a Catholic, Ford must have had at least some awareness that he was a slave to his vices, and tried to physically run from that fact rather than confront it and repent.

Still, the lack of a family treatment is a glaring weakness, particularly after going into such depth with Madox Brown and his various relations. If his grandchildren became artists, that would represent a vindication of sorts for Madox Brown, and would have brought the narrative to a more satisfying conclusion.


As you said, Saunders is a fanboy, and Ford's descendants omit him. The artists and actor/playwright types mention Madox Brown, but not Madox Ford. One grandson sold Ford's papers and Elsie's diaries found among Elsie's belongings, but did so without comment. Most of the family is located in Ireland as one of Elsie's daughters married and Irish artist.

A.H. Lloyd

That speaks to another glaring omission: Elsie's financial situation. There was mention during the divorce fiasco about solicitors demanding settlements, but after that, the subject was dropped.

Was a percentage of Ford's royalties required to go to her? Was his poverty the result of alimony and child support? Was Violet Hunt paying for it? Saunders' shyness about confronting his complicated marital/family situation is regrettable, because it certainly casts Hunt's actions in a very different light (and makes Ford look absolutely like the heel she claimed him to be) if she was paying his alimony while he was cheating on her.

Similarly, did he have legal obligations regarding Julie's support?

Taken together, these omissions undermine the integrity of the work, and also dispel the seeming mystery as to why so many of his old friends avoided him: he was reprehensible, and unlike Saunders, they could not look past his despicable behavior and focus only on his writing (which even Saunders admits was uneven).

Ezra Pound refusing to loan him money or even visit with him makes a lot more sense, as does so many of his "jeunes" drifting away. Who wants to spend time with a bloated lecher who sponges off various women while neglecting his wife and kids. During the Violet Hunt affair they tolerated it because they thought (as she did), that he's found a soul mate, and that once the legalities were worked out, things would become more normal. Stella Bowen wrecked that illusion, but many stayed with him because he seemed determined to do right by her, and when they had a kid, that probably signaled that he had "grown up" at last due to the war. But after he threw her aside, he looks terrible even by our lower modern standards.

A celebrity author who collects ex-wives is something of joke, but one who throws them aside without providing financial support is beneath contempt.

But I guess "Ford was broke because he had to support the wife and kids he abandoned" isn't as poetic as talking about him throwing together various households on the cheap.


Recalling that Ford briefly went to prison due to failure to maintain Elsie, I suspect that either he had to be more consistent, or live abroad. I have no idea if Violet contributed, or if Dr Martindale or his legacy from Madox Brown was used.

Possibly other authors collected ex-wives, but Ford did not as Elsie never went along with the divorce. I think of Ford more like Picasso who never married Dora, Marie-Therese, or Francoise. He, like Picasso, collected mistresses, and both men were contemptible when it came to the treatment of their women. I truly don't see the attraction to either men, but Ford seems singularly unattractive and I don't think I've ever seen a portrait with his mouth shut.

Pound had a daughter (still alive) with and a long term relationship with an heiress who probably did some financing. Neither Pound had much to do with their legitimate son, Omar, and rarely saw him. He was a Princeton professor so when he died a lot of info landed in the papers. Not sure I'd have much to do with Pound, couldn't be fun having a father who was in prison for treason, having been a famous antisemite and Nazi fan, a male Tokyo Rose. Omar lived quite well, so I suppose his mother left him whatever they had.
I liked some of his early poetry, but couldn't read the Cantos. When I was a kid, Pound was completely ignored, though he lived until 1972.

A.H. Lloyd

It's entirely possible that Ford's income in the UK was subject to a support requirement, but that in France (or the U.S.) was not. As an officer during WW I, he would have gotten enough pay to support a family, and coupled with rations and clothing, he would have been spared any financial burden, which the biography bears out. Afterwards, he was in a hard way because Elsie and the kids needed money whilst Violet Hunt wasn't going to subsidize a man who was cheating on her.

This, I think, is the core problem with Parade's End as a fictionalization of Ford's life. He's not Tietjens, who refuses to consummate the affair with Wannop. He did consummate it, early and often, and with lots of women. Saunders won't admit it, but Ford is Sylvia - having flagrant, embarrassing affairs, humiliating her while SHE stays loyal to HIM. It's a typically Fordian move, and it's sad Saunders didn't pick up on it. He tried to tie Sylvia to Violet Hunt - vindictive yet devoted - but Ford cheated on her as well. He cheated on them both, repeatedly. The notion that Tietjens was within his rights to divorce his wife but nobly (stupidly) did not, makes great prose, but that was not Ford at all. For the story to be valid, Tietjens would have had multiple mistresses, and also borrowed money from them. Every calumny that his brother reported to his father was in fact true.

Obviously, there is the parallel between paternal suicides, but no one could blame the stripling Ford for his father's actions.

Basically, Ford had a martyr complex and I'm not surprised that Hemingway and other saw clear through it.

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