- Ford Madox Ford and the Misfit Moderns: Edwardian Fiction and the First World War by Rob Hawkes
Rob Hawkes’s engaging study of “misfit moderns” positions Ford Madox Ford alongside writers like Arnold Bennett, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Richard Aldington, and Rebecca West, all of whom in some way have an uneasy relation to modernism, either as non-modernists against whom the modernists defined themselves or as not-quite-modernists who never achieved the centrality of Joyce or Woolf. While these writers all have a place in Hawkes’s study, Ford is the primary focus, “the misfit par excellence” (22), because while he was an Edwardian like Bennett and Wells, he also wrote two modernist masterpieces, making him both a central figure within modernism and not fully of the period. Ford’s writing “occupies aesthetic territory between the conventional realist novel and high modernism” (2), a position of “in-betweenness” that, far from making Ford a “peripheral figure on the margins” of both Edwardians and moderns, “constitutes an acute and exemplary responsiveness to the conditions of modernity” (3). The “destabilizing” effects of Ford’s writing, for Hawkes, respond to the uncertainties and anxieties inherent in modernity in the way it “acts upon the reader, activating and disrupting, in equal measure, the desire and need for the stability and coherence that narratives usually provide” (6).
Hawkes’s argument relies on the notion of a desire for narrative coherence in the midst of uncertainty, a notion developed from Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. Ford’s novels and the novels of other misfit moderns “destabilize” such coherence through a variety of narrative strategies, frustrating readers’ expectations. Hawkes marshals the history of Ford criticism to demonstrate the often fraught judgments and interpretations of Ford’s work, but rather than locating the source of these critical conflicts in Ford’s aesthetic failure, Hawkes argues that Ford’s narratives respond to specific anxieties inherent in modernity about the discursive construction of identity, the ability to know others, and the difficulty of giving form to traumatic experience.
The first chapter focuses on Ford’s approach to characterization in his novels A Call (1910) and The Good Soldier (1915). For Hawkes, Ford’s characterization raises epistemological questions about the discursive construction of identity, represented by Ford’s emphasis on the social function of gossip in The Call and the multiple, contradictory discourses at play in The Good Soldier. These questions, Hawkes argues, emerge from Ford’s rejection of realist conventions of the nineteenth-century novel as theorized by Alex Woloch in The One vs. the Many (2009). Hawkes shows how Ford’s novels undermine realist conventions in two ways. First, rather than portraying a “round” central protagonist surrounded by many “flat” minor characters, Ford’s novels give significant narrative space to multiple characters, unbalancing the notion of a “central” character. Second, Ford situates these multiple characters in competing discourses that emphasize the constructed nature of identity. Ford was not the only one to experiment in such ways with character, which Hawkes demonstrates through careful readings of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (1909).
The second chapter develops this examination of competing discourses by switching its focus from character to plot. Drawing on Peter Brooks’s Reading for the Plot, Hawkes argues that Ford’s The Fifth Queen trilogy (1906–08), Ladies Whose Bright Eyes (1911), and The Good Soldier destabilize readers’ expectations of narrative coherence by making the events of the plots revolve around the multiple meanings and implications of “plotting,” both in the events of the novels and in their presentation. Hawkes explores Ford’s relationship with Conrad as they developed their ideas of literary impressionism, which they explicitly opposed to narrative understood as a [End Page 614] clear reporting of events in temporal sequence. At the level of the récit (or sjužet, the order of events presented), impressionism disturbs temporal sequence and makes difficult a coherent reconstruction of...