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Ford Madox Ford

The seventeenth of December marks the birthday of author Ford Madox Ford.  Born Ford Madox Huefer in Surrey, England, in 1873, he is best known as the author of The Good Soldier (1915), although he published over eighty books in his lifetime and was a friend and mentor to many of literature's greatest writers.

Ford's father was an author and a music editor for The Times.  His grandfather was Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown; and his uncle, William Michel Rossetti.  Ford was educated at the Praetorius School at Folkstone.  When his father died, the family moved to London where Ford continued his education at University College School, although he never went on to attend college.  He spoke fluent German and French, along with some Greek, Latin, Italian, and Flemish.  At the age of nineteen, he converted to Catholicism.

That same year, Ford published his first book, The Brown Owl (1891).  It was a fairy tale that had been illustrated by his grandfather. 

In 1894, Ford joined Elsie Martindale in wedded bliss, although the union was anything but and ended unhappily in separation in 1908.  The couple never divorced.  That didn't stop Ford from having dozens of affairs with various women during the course of his lifetime, even though he was not particularly good looking or handsome.  In fact, he was overweight with a mustache and blonde hair, and he smoked Gauloises cigarettes, which gave him bad teeth and bad breath.

But he had an extraordinary memory.  He could quote long, rambling passages from the classics and once began a French translation of one of his own works without the work before him. 

As he moved through life, scandals followed him.  He had a dozen mistresses, some before breaking off with the others.  He had an affair with his wife's sister.  He refused to support his two children by his wife and spent eight days in prison.  Eventually, he was socially ostracized, and the ill health from his anxiety over that and his poor financial condition led him to a nervous breakdown.

Ford met author Joseph Conrad in the late 1890s and collaborated with him on The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903).  Conrad's use of mediating narrators impressed Ford greatly.  "Only two classes of books are of universal appeal:" he wrote to Conrad, "the very best and the very worst."

In 1906-08, Ford published his first major work, the Fifth Queen trilogy.  It was based on the life of Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII.  In 1908, he founded the English Review, drawing as its contributors such noted authors as Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Anatole France. Ford lost control of the publication in 1910.

Ford published The Good Soldier at the age of 42, just before entering World War I, where he served as a lieutenant until he was sent home following shell shock at the battle of the Somme.  The book is generally considered his masterpiece.  It's the story of adultery and deceit between two couples, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham and their two American friends, John and Florence Dowell.  The story unfolds through the presence of Dowell, who recounts the events of their lives,  Florence's affair with Edward, the "good soldier," and her eventual suicide.

"You may well ask why I write.  And yet my reasons are quite many.  For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed for the the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generation infinitely remote; or, if you please, jut to get the sight out of their heads." - The Good Soldier

Ford's poem, Antwerp, was similarly inspired by his experiences during the war and was considered by T.S. Eliot to be the only good poem he'd read on the subject of war. 

Eventually, Ford grew weary of English life and moved to France, where he founded The Transatlantic Review.  He made Ernest Hemingway assistant editor, and they published authors such as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, e.e. cummings, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys.  Between the years 1924 and 1928, Ford published his four-volume novel, Parade's End.  W.H. Auden said about the book, "There are not many English novels which deserve to be called great: Parade's End is one of them."

During the latter years of his life, Ford lived mostly in the U.S. and in southern France with his much younger consort, American artist Janice Biala.  He taught at Michigan's Olivet College and completed work on his last book of nonfiction, The March of Literature

Ford Madox Ford, who during the course of his lifetime befriended Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and many other of the world's greatest writers, died at Deauville, France, on June 26, 1939.

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