«This is the saddest story I have ever heard». The first words of The Good Soldier, the most famous novel by Ford Madox Ford and the one that he considered the best, also perfectly summarize the unfortunate biographical parable of the English writer, author of over sixty books.
Born in 1873, Ford – whose real name was Ford Hermann Hueffer, changed after the First World War because it inappropriately sounded too German – had grown up in a Victorian environment enamoured of Pre-Raphaelite culture. In fact, his grandfather was the painter Ford Madox Brown, while his father was a well-known writer and music critic. From his youth he was therefore encouraged to cultivate his passion for literature and published his first book at the enviable age of eighteen. Later, Ford married into the Rossetti family, thus aligning himself with one of the most important names of the nineteenth-century British artistic scene.
At the beginning of his career, given the common passion for new narrative techniques, Ford collaborated with Joseph Conrad on the drafting of several novels. The two had such a strong working relationship that in 1924, when Conrad died, Ford wanted to pay homage to his friend with a biography, which remains one of the best of the many accounts of the life of the author of Heart of Darkness. Among other things, the poetic motto that Ford attributed to Conrad – “Every work of art has (must have) a moral purpose” – can also be applied to him; and he concluded the biography as follows: «His conquests had that stability which is granted to us mortals. This is what we “papists” call the cross of a happy death».
The fact that Ford confused “Grace” with “the cross” makes it clear that the writer did not feel completely at ease with that Faith to which he had converted as soon as he came of age, while he was in Paris. He remained a Catholic all his life, but he approached the sacraments only rarely and was not very happy when Christina, one of his two daughters, announced her intention to become a nun. Although he was devoted to Our Lady and admired the episcopal hierarchy, Ford never managed to escape the temptation to reduce religion to a simple philosophical system. However, he had at least the merit of publishing three indirectly apologetic novels between 1906 and 1908 – known under the collective title of The Fifth Queen – whose subject matter is Henry VIII and the dark years of the Anglican Reformation.
Ford’s private life was also far from exemplary: after leaving his wife, Elsie Martindale, he bonded without remorse with Stella Bowen – by whom he had a third daughter – and then spent the last years of his life with the Jewish Janice Biala.
On the literary front, the best example of Fordian experimentalism, a point of contact between late nineteenth-century taste and contemporary culture, is undoubtedly The Good Soldier, published in 1915, one of Graham Greene’s favourite novels. The story, narrated ex post by the protagonist, John Dowell, tells of his unfortunate encounter with Captain Edward Ashburnham, the “good soldier” of the title, in reality a despicable being, double agent and libertine. Poor Dowell will end up being betrayed by both his friend and his wife. The events of the plot are not told in chronological order, but proceed fragmentarily, to reconstruct the mechanisms of a mind committed to making sense of the many memories that emerge unexpectedly. The various clues of the characters’ misconduct accumulate page after page, gradually revealing to the reader the initial disconcerting naivety of the protagonist (it is no coincidence that the phrase used for the epigraph of the book, taken from the Beatitudes, is Beati Immaculati, that is “Blessed are the pure in heart”).
Ford died in 1939, but not before publishing a tetralogy on the Great War, Parade’s End (1924-1928), and a memoir, Portraits from Life (1937), which reveals the impressive spectrum of his experiences and, above all, of his friendships: James, Hardy, Wells, Joyce, Hemingway and Pound are merely the most famous names. After all, Ford was an affable type, in love with life at least as much as he was with England (as evidenced by his voluntary enlistment, though already forty, during the First World War). Greene, with the usual irony, compared the elderly Ford to a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, able to tell his friends an exorbitant number of old stories with an almost mythical flavour.
Unfortunately, however, on his deathbed Ford was unable to experience the serenity he had attributed to Conrad. He did not call any priest and, consequently, died without the comfort of the last rites: not even he, planning the epilogue of one of his books, could have brought forth one so bitter.