- Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala
Joseph Wiesenfarth is supremely qualified to write this book. For some four decades, when he hasn't been working on the nineteenth century novel, he has been producing a series of indispensable essays on Ford Madox Ford.1 Many concern Ford's relation with other writers and artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and James Joyce. More recently, he has turned his attention to Ford's relationships with women artists, and it is these relationships that provide the subject of Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women. The title of this humane and readable book adapts Ford's ironic turning of John Knox's misogynist sixteenth-century pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, into his 1913 Suffragette pamphlet, This Monstrous Regiment of Women. "Regiment" might be stretching it somewhat in this case. The women under discussion could just about make up a platoon, perhaps. They are the two novelists Violet Hunt and Jean Rhys; and the two painters, Stella Bowen and Janice Biala. They were all vital, passionate, and expressive women. Ford provoked their rage on occasion, as well as their ferocious loyalty, but though all of them except Bowen have sometimes had a hostile press from Ford scholars, they were certainly not monstrous, as Wiesenfarth's title indicates, but were all intriguing and individual figures—all fascinating artists in their own right, and well worth investigating.
Professor Wiesenfarth's fair starting point is that other biographers (including your reviewer) "had neither time to enter into the artistic careers of the women he lived with nor the space to show how Ford's art interacted with theirs or how their work depicted him" (7). Other biographers of Ford, that is; since Rhys has had Carole Angier's serious critical (and seriously critical) biography, and Hunt has been the subject of two biographies, by Joan Hardwick and Barbara Belford, and Robert and Marie Secor have also written extensively on her. But apart from Rhys, who now of course also has a substantial secondary bibliography of her own, it is true that Wiesenfarth takes these women's art more seriously than Ford's or their biographers have tended to. In particular, he has studied what Violet Hunt called her "Flurried Years" with Ford with a fine attention to her fiction as well as his. And he has [End Page 726] become the leading expert on Stella Bowen's life and paintings, tracking down many of the pictures that made possible the 2002 retrospective Art, Love & War at the Australian War Memorial—mounted there because Bowen had become a war artist during World War 2. Indeed, the thirty pages of color reproductions of Bowen's paintings and illustrations for Ford's dust-jackets form a stunning centerpiece for the book. The groups of airmen composed along the lines of quattrocento frescos, and the Flemish-style portrait of Edith Sitwell, are particularly striking.
In some ways, Wiesenfarth's is a paradoxical and potentially risky strategy. For all the emphasis on studying the artistic careers of these women, it is ultimately for their relation to Ford that they are valued; for how they figure in his work, and he in theirs. And while Hunt and Bowen would have been unlikely to receive so much attention had they not been rediscovered by Ford scholars, Rhys is undoubtedly a major modern talent (even if a Ford biographer, Arthur Mizener, had some influence in her rediscovery); and Biala had a successful career as an artist in her own right after the Second World War, exhibiting in Paris and New York. Similarly, for all the tact with which Wiesenfarth negotiates Ford's eccentric feminism, the book places Ford at the start and at the center, positioning him as an immoveable object with irresistible force, into whose orbit women are periodically drawn...