Ford Madox Ford

A spiritual re-reading of Lord of the Rings

I have lost track of how many times I have read Lord of the Rings.  For a while, it was an annual event, but as I began to wander farther afield into literature, the practice faded.  I think part of the re-reading was simply for comfort in my troubled adolescence.  It was a place of mental refuge.

Now I'm reading it in a different way.  To be sure, I enjoy its familiar paths, but as I've become more aware of the richness of Catholic theology (and J.R.R. Tolkien's encyclopedic knowledge thereof), I'm intrigued to see it revealed to me more clearly.

I have done similar focused readings before, paying attention to characters, choice of language, prose style, and even religion, but now I want to see how Tolkien's descriptions of the various spirits and references to then align with what I've learned over the last few years.  The Lord of Spirits podcast was a big part of this education, and there are times when I miss being able to listen to it on lengthy road trips. 

Alas, as I noted months ago, the hosts began to run low on content and turned the show into Why Catholic Do Everything Wrong.  Not only is there a glut on the market for that kind of thing, the show lost its sense of humor, which was one of its strengths.  But I digress.

There is a movement to canonize Tolkien, and I think it is appropriate.  His personal life was nothing short of exemplary, and he was clearly a faithful and conscientious father and husband.  His work is infused with his faith and it is increasingly clear that his approach to sharing it is uniquely suited for our troubled times. 

The open embrace of what were once derided as "fantasy" books filled with pagan symbols is nothing short of remarkable, but also entirely appropriate.  His work is more subtle than that of his friend C.S. Lewis, but I think that gives it a qualitative edge.

After slogging through the sinful ways of Ford Madox Ford, I'm very much welcoming the change.

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.


Time to power-read this Ford Madox Ford biography

I want to be clear that I admire the amazing effort that went into Max Saunders' exhaustive two-volume biography of Ford Madox Ford.

The problem is that I want to read other stuff, and I've got to finish this first.  Not only that, this book is crushing my other hobbies.  Long-time visitors to the blog may notice that I'm not doing movie reviews and of course, other books go generally unmentioned.

I'm not hate-reading this book.  I enjoy it quite a bit, but it is very dense.  I take issue with some of the author's views on Ford, but it's well-written and informative.

But it is very, very long.  I tried to split my time with other books, but all that did is drag out the process.  The only way out of this is to go forward.  I've set an ambitious schedule of reading a chapter a day, which should see me finish in 10 days.  After that, I can finally turn to the growing backlog of reading material.

This is something of a return to form.  I always read one book straight through, but as I got older, some of my choices were super-dense and I needed to be awake and alert (not that they didn't put me to sleep!).

Hopefully in a couple of weeks I'll be moving on to other things, and at that point I will also be able to offer my thoughts on this truly massive literary undertaking.

But the old ways are often the best ways.  I just need to move the book as I used to do, from couch to bedside.

Ford Madox Ford vol. II, or why am I reading this?

The second volume of Max Saunders' mammoth biography of Ford Madox Ford has arrived and it continues to (mostly) impress.  Saunders does tend to get hung up on literary meaning, symbolism and his interpretation of why Ford's work is so great, but I have to cut the guy some slack.  After all, he wrote more than 1,000 pages on the topic.

He's clearly a fan.

This book picks up where the other ended, with Ford now serving as an officer in the British Army during World War I.  I will have more to say on this later, but one element that stands out is that after an awkward beginning and a severe episode of shell-shock, Ford actually took well to Army life, so much so that he considered remaining in the service after hostilities ended.  Apparently, he proved very gifted in providing lectures and mentoring young officers.  He would certainly have found a home in the training establishment, but he put his writing career first, and so was demobilized.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This is yet another point of comparison between Ford and Evelyn Waugh, who military service did not end on such an optimistic note.  To be fair, Waugh's service was of greater duration and he never seemed to find the ideal billet that Ford did.

But as Saunders notes, Ford was unusual among mobilized writers insofar as he welcomed the structure and rules of Army life, probably because they curbed his tendencies towards chaos.  Waugh, like most writers, found Army routine tedious, particularly after five years (World War II for the British lasted nearly six years; World War I lasted little more than four).

At any rate, this is probably the most painfully obscure topic I've ever explored, so I will endeavor to keep my writing about it as brief as possible.

What better to read on Fathers Day than Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons

When I first discovered Evelyn Waugh a few years ago, I could not get enough of his work.  Doing a followup search, I discovered his grandson, Alexander Waugh, had written Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family.

I really enjoyed this book, which goes through the Waugh family history and traces the development of its authors, who span multiple generations.  Naturally, the book also contains a discussion of the women, but the women of the Waugh family never took much interest in writing.  Laura Herbert (his grandmother) liked raising cows and was indifferent to Evelyn's writing.  There were no literary partnerships in the Waugh line.

It is an interesting contrast with Ford Madox Ford (there I go again), who all but destroyed his literary legacy by abandoning his wife and daughters.  Evelyn was never particularly affectionate, but his many descendants respect his work and defend his legacy.

The Waughs also provide a unique insight into how writers are shaped both by genetics and family tradition.  Most of Evelyn's (many) descendants never took up writing, but the strain of those who did continued the tradition of biting satire and sharp wit. 

The lost (and found) TV adaptation of Parade's End

One of our commenters made a mention of a 1964 BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End book series (which has three or four books, depending on how one feels about it).

A careful internet search revealed that such a thing did exist and that a DVD was produced not long ago.  I picked one up on ebay for less than $7 (including shipping), which tells you it was not much of a commercial success.

I've touched on the books before (including a lengthy comparison with Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy), and so this review is more of a discussion of the content and quality of the adaptation than a discussion of what's in it.

In terms of the packaging, it's a slapdash production, made in Mexico and featuring generic "wartime" graphics that are actually from World War II and completely inappropriate.

The quality of the transfer is better than I expected, but still flawed.  The audio is particularly challenging, no doubt a function of its minimal production quality.  There seems to be a single microphone on the set, close to the camera, and as characters move farther back, it becomes difficult to hear them.  There is also some distortion rising to static, which gives the sense of actually watching a broadcast with some mild atmospheric interference.  I kept wanting to adjust the rabbit ears.

As to the cast, it's excellent.  This was apparently a breakthrough role for Judi Densch, who is very good as Valentine Wannop.  I didn't recognize anyone else in the cast, but they were all solid in the various roles.

Unlike the HBO production, this gives much more prominence to Christopher Tietjens' time in the trenches, which I liked.  Alas, the BBC also did some bizarre graphics, both for the title credits and also to segue into battle which are dated and cringe-worthy.

While I enjoyed it, I can't say as I would recommend it.  If it were cleaned up and properly restored (especially the audio), that would make a big difference.  As it is, Ford fans will enjoy it, but I can see why they're practically giving these away.




Ford Madox Ford vs Evelyn Waugh part 2: Comparing The Good Soldier and Brideshead Revisited

A few months ago I wrote about the striking similarities and also the profound differences between two of the greatest English writers of the Twentieth Century: Ford Madox Ford and Evelyn Waugh.
I chose to conduct my comparison between them based on their war novels because in both subject matter and scope they had a great deal in common.  Unfortunately, for most people these works remain obscure.  Evelyn Waugh has by far the greater following today, but only die-hard fans have read (let alone heard of) his Sword of Honour trilogy.
Ford Madox Ford has (unjustly) fallen into obscurity, and while HBO produced a miniseries on his Parade's End series, I doubt that it drove many people to pick up the books, which remain difficult to obtain.
Upon reflection, a better basis would be the most popularly known works of the two authors: Ford's The Good Soldier and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
If one does a search for Ford's work, this is by far the most popular option and there are many editions available for purchase.  Ford himself considered it his masterpiece (admittedly this was before he wrote Parade's End), and critics (which have the benefit of reading the latter work) still prefer The Good Soldier.
Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand, is quite widely known, not only as a book but also as a peerless television adaptation. (There is a movie, but no one should watch it.)
With those preliminaries out of the way, let's dig in.
Points of Similarity
Right from the start we can note some significant similarities.  Both books are narrated in the first person by a participant who is looking back at the events described.  Ford's narrator is John Dowell, an American of an old Philadelphia family married to Florence Hurlbird, who is from a prominent Connecticut family.
Dowell clearly is proud of his lineage, and considers himself part of the gentry class, but socially he is still outside the British world of the landed aristocracy.   He is comfortable among them, but not one of them.
Waugh chooses Charles Ryder to narrate his work, and while is comes from money and is able to gain entrance to Oxford, he is socially inferior to the sons of the aristocracy with whom he interacts.
Both men marry poorly, and both will feel the sting of adultery by their wives.
The tales cover a considerable amount of time, with Ford's running more than a decade while Waugh's spans about twenty years.  Both stories take place amidst the background of material comfort, and eulogize a social scene whose day has already passed.  Ford is documenting the sunset of the Edwardian Age when the idle rich could spend their days visiting spas and taking "cures" for whatever hypochondriac condition they've decided they have.
Thus, the scene constantly shifts as they cycle to various resorts and only at the end to we get to see the home of the primary subject of the novel, the estate of Captain and Lady Ashburnham.
As the name suggests, Waugh's tale centers around the hereditary seat of the Marquess of Marchmain, Brideshead. Charles first encounters the place on holiday from Oxford and is slowly drawn into the dysfunctional world of the Flyte family through his friend Sebastian.  The scene shifts several times, including the family's London residence, Oxford, and also Venice, where Lord Marchmain lives in comfortable self-imposed exile.
Both tales therefore take place within the comfortable circuits of the upper classes.
The Wimp vs The Aesthete
One of the most significant differences is the portrayal of the narrator.  John Dowell is about as unreliable as one can get, constantly shifting his story as new information is revealed.  He comes across not only as a cuckold, but a rather meek and gullible one at that.  Clearly Ford is taking aim at the social rules of the time, which required a great deal of hypocrisy to maintain the veneer of respectability.  The Ashburnhams and the Dowells are quite contemptible in their own ways, and there's plenty of commentary already out there on the deeper meanings of the roles.
Suffice it to say that no one really comes out as either decent or even sympathetic.  No doubt Ford - who was already casting aside moral restraint in his own life - was making a pointed statement about everyone else who would presume to judge him.  He does the same Parade's End, having his main character (Christopher Tietjets) announce that just about every aristocrat is the product of an adulterous relationship.
One weakness of Ford's book is that Dowell is so much of a wimp.  It's hard to conceive that such a meek creature can even exist, let alone avoid almost immediate bankruptcy.  Even the most robust fortune can be squandered, and Dowell shows no evidence of prudence.
Charles Ryder, by contrast, is far more realistic and therefore sympathetic.  Like John, he teases out information slowly, often forcing a reappraisal of what's going on after key facts are revealed, but he is far more reliable as a narrator.
His character is also much more complex.  Chilled by the death of his mother, he is something of an introvert and the exuberant and eccentric behavior of Sebastian Flyte comes as a revelation to him.  Some readers have insisted that the relationship is homosexual, but this obviously false.  Ryder wants to be Sebastian, not have sex with him.  Moreover, Waugh himself has never pulled punches regarding homosexuality in his writing and the presence of the flamboyantly gay Anthony Blanche in the book is proof of that.  Waugh skillfully leads the reader to the suggestion of a relationship, however, because he wants to make it clear that Ryder is utterly obsessed with the Flyte family.
It is worth noting that Charles' idolization of Sebastian is paralleled by John's admiration for Captain Ashburnham, but the situation is profoundly different.  Captain Ashburnham is of course sleeping with Mrs. Dowell (and other women as well), and John has a perverse admiration for his way with women and exploitative assertiveness.  It is a creepy obsession, filled with self-loathing masked as compassion. 
By contrast, Charles' friendship with Sebastian slowly fades as young Lord Flyte descends into uncontrolled alcoholism.  As the story proceeds, Charles' friendship with Julia Flyte cements the notion that he wasn't so much in love with Sebastian as with the lifestyle and status of the Flyte family as a whole.
Another contrast can be found in the way Charles decides to leave Oxford and strike out on his own as a painter.  While John Dowell is a man of refinement, Charles Ryder is a true aethete, fascinated by art and composition.
Of course, Charles will eventually become a captain in the British Army, and Waugh's description of his disillusionment of military service (likening it to a failed marriage) remains one of the great passages of English literature.  This also puts him in stark contrast to John Dowell who ends the story as he starts it: a hopeless caregiver.
A Question of Faith
Both novels can be read as tragic stories, chronicling dysfunctional relationships that mark the highest levels of society.  However, Brideshead Revisited has a secondary purpose: it is a conversion story.
Several characters in the course of the book have chances to choose Ford's ideal outcome of throwing aside convention and proceeding with their heart's desire.  Indeed, given the eroded morality of the 1930s, such a move carried much lower social costs than in Edwardian England.
However, Waugh flips the script, and in the process demonstrates that there are other considerations more important than one's temporary satisfaction.  Life isn't about just us, it's about faith as well, and how our actions help or harm others. 
Contrast this with Ford's story which ends miserably for almost everyone.  The one exception is Captain Ashburnham's wife Leonora, an Irish Catholic who Ford's narrator distrusts and later vilifies - but always in a backhanded, apologetic way.  He even remarks near the end of the tale how Catholics have "queer, shifty ways" but always end up right.
It is important to recall that Ford himself converted to Catholicism, married and had children before launching into a series of open affairs, one of which resulted in a lawsuit.  He never reconciled and for the rest of his life seemed determined to find a perfect romantic happiness beyond the constraints of society and faith.  He didn't.

By the end of his life, his reputation and literary influence - two things he treasured - were in decline and the writers he once nurtured are alleged to have backed away from him.  One reason he fell into obscurity is that he had no champion to promote his work.

Waugh's final years were not particularly easy as money and ill-health continually afflicted him, but because he maintained an intact family, it was possible for them to sustain his reputation after his death.  Of his many children, Auberon Waugh became an accomplished writer in his own right, and his son (Alexander Waugh) has continued to sustain the family's literary name.
It's interesting to note how many writers are indebted to a literary heir to keep their reputation alive.  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis come to mind, and there are other examples of how "literary societies" only come to fruition if there's someone dedicated enough to get them going.  Ford Madox Ford spent several years teaching at Olivet College in Michigan, but you'd never know it from their web site.  But I digress.
A key point is that Waugh doesn't show faith as way to obtain a traditional happy ending.  Many of the characters who find it (or reclaim it) are often worse off than before.
But what they get in return is a sense of purpose, and renewed strength to sustain them.  The line of the Marchmain family will come to an end in the present generation, but in the process, faith will be restored in its members and spread to others whom it otherwise would not have reached.  That's a good and worthwhile thing, more important than who owns a lavish estate.
Faith was a major part of Waugh's war novel, and it also permeates Brideshead Revisited.  Ford's books carry no such message and while The Good Soldier has a far more complex and innovative structure and style than Waugh's work, it's ultimately empty.  It can in fact be dismissed a story of miserable people doing miserable things to each other and lying to themselves about it.
Waugh's portrait of the Marchmains is one of a family is slow collapse, but there's so much more going on that people continue to turn to it for enjoyment and inspiration.
As an admirer of both, I unquestionably enjoy Brideshead Revisited more.  Repeated readings bring renewed appreciation for Waugh's talent.  The Good Soldier doesn't have the same effect, and while one can go back and admire Ford's craftsmanship, the story itself is just unpleasant to read.
Still, as I said in my other piece, Ford's writing was known and available to Waugh.  If his tale of the idle rich is inferior to that of Waugh, it is still an important milestone in literary development.  Both books are well worth your time.