Classic Creatives: Ford Madox Ford

The man who felt he lived in the shadow of Conrad and Hemingway

Who?

Writer and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

What did he do?

Considered to be one of the key figures in the progression of English literature, Ford’s novels, poems and essays secured him a place as one of the 20th century’s most exciting and influential characters.

Born Ford Hermann Hueffer, Ford grew up in Surrey. His father, Oliver Madox Hueffer, was the music critic for The Times; Ford’s younger brother, Oliver, was also literary-minded and became a plywright and author. Following the First World War, Ford, opted to change his last name, believing ‘Hermann Hueffer’ to sound German. He renamed himself Ford Madox Ford after his grandfather, the famous Pre-Raphaelite artist, Ford Madox Brown. 

In 1908, he founded literary journal The English Review; this was followed by The Transatlantic Review in 1924. He was great friends with a number of the best-known authors of his era, including the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy, many of whom he published in the journals.

During WW1, Ford worked for the War Propaganda Bureau, alongside a host of other British writers. He enlisted to fight at the age of 41 in 1915, and was sent to France. His experiences in the trenches inspired his three-part series, Parade’s End (1924-28).

He collaborated with Joseph Conrad on three novels but often felt overshadowed and over-looked by critics; investigative

Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall in Parade’s End

journalist George Seldes remembered Ford as saying: “I helped Joseph Conrad, I helped Hemingway. I helped a dozen, a score of writers, and many of them have beaten me. I’m now an old man and I’ll die without making a name like Hemingway”.

Ford spent the latter part of his life teaching and travelling in America, and died in France aged 65 years.

What inspired his work?

The war had an obvious influence on his work: Parade’s End aside, he also wrote The Good Soldier (1915), which was set just before the war, as well as two novels for the War Propaganda Bureau. History also played a heavy part in his writing: he wrote The Fifth Queen trilogy, based on the life of Katharine Howard.

His love of literature inspired his literary journals, and his criticisms were highly respected: authors actively sought his opinions on their works.

What is his best known piece of work?

Arguably the Parade’s End trilogy, which follows the life of Christopher Tietjens, a wealthy and influential man fighting in the First World War. Ford also explores the actions of Tietjens wife, Sylvia, and alleged-mistress, Valentine. Philosopher and author John N. Gray described it as ‘possibly the greatest 20th-century novel in English’. Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of the books is currently appearing on the BBC, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

Ford, second from right, with (l-r) James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn

The Good Soldier is also a hugely respected work, and was ranked 30th on the Modern Library’s list of the Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century.

Why should I care about him?

Contrarily to the self-deprecation he expressed to Seldes, Ford was one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century. Outside of his own works, his insightful overview and criticism of major early-20th century authors is still quoted and referred to today.

He said…

On being a literary critic: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

Classic Creatives: Taking a step back in time to revisit the works of some truly inspirational people. See our previous Classic Creatives feature – on fashion designer Coco Chanel – here.

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