- Ford Madox Ford & Women
Ford Madox Ford has been the subject of a number of biographies that explore his life and literary career and group biographies that explore his personal and literary relationships with others, most notably Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Now he is the subject of a serial biography, a study of the four women with whom, after the breakdown [End Page 217] of his marriage to Elsie Martindale, he had more than fleeting sexual relationships: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen and Janice Biala.
What attracts Wiesenfarth to the topic is that these were all creative women. Hunt and Rhys were writers, Bowen and Biala were painters and they left, in memoirs, portraits, sketches, novels and short stories, very different records of their relationships with Ford. But they were also, he suggests, very different personalities. Violet Hunt (for some of whose writing Wiesenfarth makes a persuasive case) was already an established literary figure when she and Ford met. A New Woman and prolific novelist, she was eleven years Ford's senior. Before Ford, Hunt had had three long-lasting affairs with men, all of whom abandoned her. "I love you but am a little afraid of you," wrote Oswald Crawfurd (he was a director of Chapman and Hall which published three of her novels). Wiesenfarth reminds us of Hunt's claims that she rescued Ford from suicidal depression when they met—he was then editor of the English Review—and was the midwife of The Good Soldier: "She claimed not only to have rescued it from a trash bin where a discouraged Ford had tossed it but also to have rearranged its pieces coherently." But he also presents us with the portrait of an overpowering, vindictive and often scary figure, known to many of her contemporaries as "Violent Hunt." If Hunt's raging temper is the model for Sylvia Tietjens's raging temper in Ford's Parade's End, Wiesenfarth succeeds in solving one of the great enigmas of Ford's fiction, the representation in Sylvia of a malevolence of spirit whose intensity is always in excess of any fictional motivation.
Bowen, who seems to have provided Ford with a lucky escape, was an Australian painter, whom he met in London and who accompanied him to Paris and the second and more illustrious half of his literary career as editor of the transatlantic review. To judge from the thirty excellent colour illustrations contained in the volume, Bowen was a highly accomplished painter, very much in the European school, and Wiesenfarth provides us with a rich and comprehensive account of her achievements as a painter. What stands out, however, is Bowen's extraordinary, even inexplicable devotion to Ford. She not only supported him financially but bore him the child he desired. What also stands out is that Ford did not repay this devotion (even if he repaid his debts), given his incidental infidelities, including the calamitous and much documented affair with Jean Rhys: calamitous because in Quartet (first published in England in 1928 as Postures), Rhys took her [End Page 218] revenge on Ford, recounting their affair in a brilliant roman à clef and presenting Ford unsparingly as predator and Stella ungenerously as concubine; much documented because Rhys's journalist husband Jean Lenglet also wrote a fictional account of the affair, as did Ford in When the Wicked Man (1931), in the belated and unsuccessful hope of countering the damage Rhys's account had done. Wiesenfarth's detailed discussion of these various and competing accounts is exhaustive and fascinating, even if his lack of sympathy for Rhys both as a person and more seriously as a writer seems the one blind spot in his study. "Convinced that she was born to be unhappy," he writes at the outset in a disparaging tone that is repeated throughout the study, "Rhys, promiscuous and alcoholic, did not disappoint herself." He maintains that she is a limited, repetitive writer: "Jean Rhys presents in Quartet—as she does in all her novels and stories, which dwell compulsively on the same things...