Alexander Chee and Maud Newton discovered a shared passion for the works of Jean Rhys this winter while anticipating Lilian Pizzichini’s new biography, The Blue Hour. They decided to read the novels Jean Rhys and Ford Madox Ford wrote after their affair with one another. This conversation is the result.
From: Alexander Chee
To: Maud Newton
I am imagining Jean Rhys finally holding the printed edition of The Left Bank and Other Stories, with its long strange preface by Ford Madox Ford. The preface begins with Ford describing his childhood in Paris, spending hard winters there, hating Paris, and then he gives a long description of Paris, and after fifteen pages, after talking about Parisians and the Rive Gauche, just when you have no idea who he is anymore, or why you would care, he finally says something about her.
Reading it, I thought, this must be what it was like to be his lover. To wait and wait for him to eventually say something to you, while he talked about everything else.
Acting as her editor, Ford’s preface goes on to complain about trying to get Rhys to include more descriptions. She was a Minimalist before Raymond Carver was born. She resisted and reduced her descriptive passages, Ford tells us, a detail I found odd since the preface was meant to praise her. Rhys’s objection to description is eventually given to us as the reason for the long tour Ford’s given us through Paris. He wants it to sustain the reader as we enter her stories. He ends by saying he wishes some small part of him would be with her when she is eventually laid to rest in the Pantheon, in Paris, as he is sure she will be.
By the time I turn the preface’s last page, and begin reading her, the experience is like the first cocktail after a long speech. Ford isn’t a bad writer, but here it feels like Ford the man was impersonating Ford the writer, and doing a bad job.
After the publication of The Left Bank, some years passed before Ford broke with Rhys, over her wanting to stay with her husband. He insisted she share him with another woman, but wouldn’t share her with another man. She left and wrote Quartet.
A decade before Ford ever met Rhys, in his novel The Good Soldier, a wife, Leonora, and her husband’s lover, Nancy, are talking. Leonora demands Nancy stay, saying, ‘He’s dying of love for you.’
Nancy refuses her.
‘I’m dying of love for you,’ Heidler says to Marya, in Rhys’ novel of their affair, Quartet. The scene was so familiar, I had to check the dates and characters. Heidler was the character Rhys created as Ford’s placeholder, with a name that was almost Ford’s original last name, a name he gave up to hide that he was German: Hueffer. Each time you read it in the novel, if you know his circumstances, it feels like a dig. Heidler.
Though she by then wore the name he had given her.
I wondered, as I read Quartet and then The Good Soldier, if Ford had the feeling of his novel coming true when he met Rhys. As a premonition of her. It seems to me the dialogue was either said by Ford, who had first written it in his novel, or Rhys put it in there herself, perhaps as a way to tell him what Nancy says at the end of that scene: ‘But we are not worth it – Edward and I.’ Ford describes Nancy as smiling at Leonora ‘with a queer, far-away smile, as if she were a thousand years old, as if Leonora were a tiny child.’ Rhys’s trademark smile appearing well before she did.
Unlike in The Good Soldier, a novel of two couples, all four members of these two couples wrote books describing the affair afterward, with Rhys even translating her former husband’s book. There’s the literary juggernaut Ford, unlike any modern author since except perhaps Joyce Carol Oates, if she had a second job as Dave Eggers. Stella Bowen is his common-law wife, impatient with the strays he takes in. Rhys, a woman Bowen derides as being unable to even afford a personality, is known to Ford’s friends as ‘Ford’s girl’. With her is her husband, Lenglet, a stateless drifter, conman and bigamist, and a prisoner for most of the affair.
Ford wrote prodigiously, as a novelist, poet, critic and historian, producing more than eighty volumes, sometimes three in one year; Rhys published just eleven. Ford also fostered a group of experimental writers in Paris, with Hemingway as his assistant at the time he met Rhys. And yet of the novels he wrote, The Good Soldier is the only one we still read. Whereas with Rhys, we hunt for every little scrap. Bowen and Lenglet are mostly known for what they wrote of Ford and Rhys.
Poverty blunted Rhys while they were alive, but posterity now blunts Ford, and Rhys beside him, emerges an unlikely giant.
In Quartet, Marya is sent away from Paris by Heidler after he breaks it off with her. She is lonely in her hotel in the South of France and sits writing a letter to him, an angry denunciation of the way she’s been treated, as well as a request for money, so that she can go back to Paris and see her criminal husband who is going to return, albeit illegally and in great danger. She’s dismissive of the letter she writes, calling it delirious, and thinks to write it again, but then finds she can’t endure writing it again. So she sends it anyway. This struck me as the more apt description of Quartet.
From: Maud Newton
To: Alexander Chee
Isn’t Ford’s interminable preface to The Left Bank and Other Stories hilarious? To me it encapsulates his attitude toward Rhys, not only as a writer but as a lover. He wanted to nurture his protégé, and he did in many ways, but these over-the-top efforts to manage and groom and modulate threatened to steamroll the individuality right out of her. Or at least they would have if she’d actually been as weak as she pretended to be. What praise he finally offers for her fiction – ‘a terrifying instinct and a terrific – almost lurid! – passion for stating the case of the underdog’ – seems to vibrate equally with excitement and dread. He may be the editor who discovered the scandalous D.H. Lawrence, but he’s clearly a little bit afraid of this talented, mysterious, and sexy young woman who knows and can render the experiences of abandoned chorus girls with such stark intimacy.
I agree with you: Ford probably saw Rhys as a (tainted) embodiment of the love interest of The Good Soldier. And honestly, I believe he was hot for Rhys very specifically even before they met. He’d read a lightly fictionalized version of her journals, been struck by her acute renderings of loneliness and poverty, fantasized about her exotic Dominican background, and decided (assuming she was pretty, of course) that he, finally, would be the man to save her.
Even the most depressive writers spin out happily-ever-after tales when they’re plotting their own life stories, and Ford was no exception. That’s what I think.
What actually happened in the lead-up to their romance is difficult to prove. As Rhys’s best biographer, Carole Angiers, observes, Rhys deliberately obfuscated the timeline of those years in Paris to protect her husband, Jean Lenglet, who was tried and jailed for theft, and to prevent their daughter from learning that she’d been left in state-run clinics even before Lenglet went to jail. (Jean Rhys: Life and Work, 123) Yet it’s undisputed that, in 1924, Rhys asked journalist Pearl Adam for help placing some stories written by Lenglet. Adam’s reaction was unenthusiastic; however, she asked to see Rhys’s own work. (130)
The notebooks Rhys handed over tell the story of an aspiring actress, homesick for the Caribbean, who travels from one cold English town to another performing chorus parts in stage shows until she takes up with a wealthy man, who eventually rejects her. Out of work, out of money, and utterly heartbroken, the actress turns to prostitution, has an abortion, goes on an extended bender and then starts, obsessively, to write, only to abandon her talents soon afterward to model for artists and fall into bed with still more neglectful men.
While Adam judged Rhys’s writing ‘naïve’ and formless, she saw that Rhys had talent. So she edited the entries, divided them into chapters – giving each a man’s name – named the manuscript Suzy Tells, and sent it to Ford. His floundering the transatlantic review had published James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and a host of avant garde unknowns, and Rhys’s edgy work seemed a likely fit. (130-31.) It was.
By the time he read Rhys’ sad story, Ford was bored of Stella Bowen, the Australian artist who’d been his devoted partner for six years. His magazine was in serious financial trouble. He had just published Some Do Not, the first of his Parade’s End tetralogy, and needed, in Bowen’s words, ‘to exercise his sentimental talents … upon a new object. It keeps him young. It restores his belief in his powers’.
Ford and Rhys met in October. She was as pretty as he would have hoped, and shy and desperately needy. In early December he published one of her stories, and by the end of the month her husband was in jail, leaving Rhys penniless.
As my friend Emma Garman, a critic and fellow fan, has observed, for someone who wrote so much about being abandoned, Rhys actually spent very little of her life alone. Soon Ford and (a reluctant) Bowen had taken her on as a project, and she had moved into their spare room so that she could focus on writing short stories under Ford’s guidance. Not long after that, Rhys and Ford wound up in bed. Thus began the affair that spawned four competing narratives.
To the extent they were intended to chart the authors’ actual experiences – and that is debatable – both Quartet and When the Wicked Man are remarkably self-serving books. Angiers pinpoints the main problem with Rhys’ Quartet – that Rhys villainizes Heidler, the Ford-inspired character, precisely by leaving out the thing that attracted the actual man in the first place: her writing. Drawn to Marya, the protagonist, solely because she is pitiful and alone and nearly destitute, Heidler comes off as a pretentious, opportunistic, and lecherous bourgeois who enjoys taking in young women, like so many feral strays, to stoke his own ego when he’s not writing. (By contrast, Heidler’s wife, Lois, is a ‘well-trained domestic animal’ who enables his affairs.)
As Angiers says, ‘we can’t really understand what Marya can love or want in him except the illusion of safety – and the reality of danger; nor can we understand what he really wants from her. He is simply a monster.’ Rhys’s stylistic mastery, well-paced scenes, and other, more fully drawn characters can’t fill the void at the centre of Quartet. Still this, her first novel, at least has some merit as art; Ford’s, which appeared far later in his career, is a furious, vengeful and unfocused mess.
Lola Porter – the outsized cartoon generally agreed by critics to be When the Wicked Man’s Rhys stand-in – is not the protagonist Notterdam’s lover, but he’s obsessed by her beauty, and her foreignness. When Lola clings to him ‘as if she had been a slave’ after her husband’s suicide, kissing his hand and begging in a ‘soft, stealthy voice’ for Notterdam’s help, he fantasizes about making love to her, so that (cliché of all cliches) he can find out what’s behind that smile.
Much of the book, before and after Notterdam invites her to move in with him and his wife, reads like an extended exercise in name-calling. Lola is a ‘devil’, a ‘malignity’, a ‘blackamoor’, and a likely practitioner of voodoo and probable ‘gipsy’ who runs around with men. While no one denies her talent, Lola, ‘quite a star journalist’, whose vivid writing offers ‘astonishing flashes’ into her late husband, is usually too soused to work. ‘Creoles are as noted for their indolence as for their passion. On that basis,’ the omniscient voice observes, in a characteristically vicious aside, ‘she became entirely comprehensible’.
What would motivate a writer of Ford’s abilities to stoop to such grotesque caricature? The Good Soldier is a wonderful novel; even having read others along the continuum, it’s hard to believe When the Wicked Man was written by the same hand. And Rhys was just one damsel in Ford’s long line of botched rescue attempts. So why this towering rage?
Well, you know my theory: the plaintive originality of Rhys’ work captured Ford’s imagination even before he laid eyes on her. She needed saving, he decided, and he was the man for the job. Then their affair went to hell, and she published a book depicting him as, not the hero he’d intended to be, but yet another spectacularly cold and selfish abandoning man. If she’d been a lesser writer, he wouldn’t have been so pissed off about his wrecked fairy tale.
From: Alexander Chee
To: Maud Newton
Ford’s mysteriously terrible novel, When the Wicked Man, made no sense to me at all until I realized it resembled, very closely, a kind of story I read from male students who are closeted. They write about women with little if any insight, their central character is always a man trying to be romantically successful, and he has a best friend, competing with him for the attentions of the same woman. Of course, if the friend is to have success with the woman this means the central character will fail to do so, and this cannot happen. And, all of the heat in the language is around the men. The women are portrayed as fairly flat characters, unbelievable, or as stock characters. Is this familiar yet? This novel is like an advanced case of that story; when, years later, the successful married man looks back and realizes he has won something he doesn’t want, he divorces his wife.
I had been thinking about this when I tracked down Max Saunders’s excellent two-volume biography of Ford, subtitled ‘A Dual Life’. I thought, I wonder if Saunders’s is saying that Ford was in love with Conrad, hiding his sexuality. I soon saw this was not the book Saunders had written. I dismissed my idea, as a kind of knee-jerk reaction, until I could make no sense of When The Wicked Man. As I read the part again about Kratch, the friend who is Notterdam’s financial backer for his publishing house, and who goes train-hopping with him, who he imagines being naked and dead with him after an attack by hoboes, I thought, oh. Of course. When they are dead they can be naked together.
This part of the novel also contains a description of Kratch as being responsible for putting up giant stone phalluses all over the city – Ford even used the word ‘erection’ twice in that passage. Dead erect penises, but permanently male.
Notterdam, the central character, is a publisher who can make or break careers, is victorious over rivals, deals equitably with his ex-wife, who he has never touched much, and by the end is a celebrity everyone loves, despite various depravities and even murder. The novel is a not-so-thinly disguised appeal to Ford’s own fantasies, written when he was at his most powerless – without Bowen, during the Great Depression.
This passage is like the one I found in A Good Soldier, but of the character he based on Rhys:
She talked with animation and occasionally a slow, queer smile went over her clear features. Occasionally it was a quick much more queer one. He wondered with increasing curiosity what could be behind that smile. People smiled and the thoughts went running backwards and forwards behind their faces. How could you find out? If it was a woman, no doubt by making love to her.
It said to me that Notterdam doesn’t know anything about women, like Heidler in Quartet, who Rhys describes as not knowing how to please a woman. And the smile! The premonition of Rhys from The Good Soldier now appears as the memory of her, as if she were the Cheshire Cat.
Afterward, it seemed to me neither of them had, in the end, really written about their relationship, not in any detail. Ford is omitted almost entirely from Smile Please, her unfinished memoir, for example, and is referenced only in a sidelong way, as a sort of minor character; at the same time he has no explanation or description, as if he is as self-evident as rain or sun. Rhys is likewise, in the main, missing here — as Quartet suffers in its internal emotional logic from the way the literary relationship Rhys had with Ford is obscured, leaving an inexplicably powerful if dull connection between Marya and Heidler, When The Wicked Man suffers for the way Lola Porter, the Rhys figure here, is the wife of a writer, a writer who Notterdam describes as ‘insufferable’, and with whom he has a disadvantageous relationship, via a contract created when he was drunk, that he hopes to end by canceling it.
It could be hard to see a womanizer like Ford as a closet case, but it occurs to me if no woman is the man he is looking for then he would never stay with her.
Much is made of the way Rhys relied on Ford financially, and of the betrayal that must have been the publication of Quartet, but as Weisenfarth points out, Ford funded his career as a writer and also his magazines on the wealth of the women in his life, beginning with Violet Hunt, his lover prior to Bowen, an established author ten years his senior who funded The English Review, and continuing with Stella Bowen, the backer for the transatlantic review.
Throughout Quartet, much mention is made of how Marya must respect Lois. We’re given to mean it is because she is his wife, though he himself as a husband isn’t doing a very good job of respecting her. But it seems to me also that he was aware Lois was paying for those hotels as well as he was.
Rhys is often portrayed as a shapeshifter, made exotic by her Creole blood, but the real illusionist, I think, was Ford, who went by at least fifteen different names in print, all catalogued carefully by Joseph Weisenfarth in his book Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women.
This underlying act of projection exemplifies to me Rhys’s life experience – most of what people have said about her was more true of the speaker than of her. Bowen’s criticism of her, for example, that she was too poor to afford a personality, shows Bowen is certain personality can be bought; also that Bowen believed she, Bowen, had the right personality. Rhys’s work in fact is undeniably the work of someone who was always herself, and felt betrayed by that. Perhaps the bitter wound to Bowen, after Ford’s affair with Rhys, was that while Bowen felt drained by Ford, Rhys left her relationship with Ford even more of herself than before, whatever she may have felt about that. Even after being given an alias of her own, by Ford.
Rhys really was an ‘amateur’, in the sense of the word as it was applied then: a kind of courtesan manqué, not quite up to the job of providing love for money or favours, but not quite able to take care of herself on her own, either. So, for that matter, was Ford. I think he admired her open passions because his passions, whatever they were, could never be let out. And in the end, I feel they were together because they were alike, in a way they only knew between themselves. The anger you spoke of, I think, may come from how left alone Ford felt with those trapped emotions, and very nearly exposed. When The Wicked Man is Ford’s fantasy of defeating the trouble Quartet caused him.
To: Alexander Chee
From: Maud Newton
Ford would be so disappointed by your reading. ‘Sir, I am a thoroughly manly person,’ he might say. He once wrote those very words to the editor of The New Age.
As Joseph Wiesenfarth observes, Ford was deeply invested in being ‘a proper man’ – unlike the Pre-Raphaelites, not to mention that pansy Oscar Wilde, whom Ford said he ‘always disliked … faintly as a writer and intensely as a human being. No doubt, as a youth he was beautiful, frail and illuminated. But when I knew him he was heavy and dull.’ (I’m smiling as I imagine how you’d parse this bizarre critique.)
Whatever Ford’s sexual impulses, and notwithstanding his own parade of female lovers, The Good Soldier, his best novel, famously centres on a man whose relationships with the women he loves are basically platonic. ‘I will vouch for the cleanliness of my thoughts and the absolute chastity of my life,’ Dowell says. In case he wasn’t plain enough the first time, he becomes more explicit: ‘Of the question of the sex-instinct I know very little and I do not think that it counts for very much in a really great passion.’
Florence, his deceitful wife, locks her door and takes to her bed by nine o’clock each night, ostensibly because of a heart condition, but really to wait for her lover, Dowell’s best friend Edward. Dowell’s affection for Leonora, Edward’s wife, is completely asexual. And after Florence dies, Dowell tethers himself to another chaste marriage, with the beautiful, young, and deranged Nancy, Edward’s last and most beloved paramour.
Many of Ford’s protagonists fall prey to a scheming woman. The Inheritors (1901), a weird, slyly satirical, and generally delightful work of speculative fiction that Ford co-authored with Joseph Conrad, depicts a man naively courting a pretty girl who turns up on the road one day and claims to be from the Fourth Dimension. And Parade’s End (1924-1928), his most ambitious project, is, in Graham Greene’s words, ‘the terrible story of a good man tortured, pursued, driven into revolt, and ruined as far as the world is concerned by the clever devices of a jealous and lying wife.’
In his own life, Ford was the double-dealer. He vacillated between women who mothered him, nurturing him back to emotional and financial health, and women who temporarily energized him but ultimately aggravated his depressive tendencies. He took what he could from them all, and, as you point out, often he took money. At his death he owed the once financially secure Bowen several thousand dollars. What he wanted from the liaison with Rhys is less clear.
I still believe he had grandiose visions of swooping in to deliver her from prostitution, encourage her writing, and transform her into ‘a proper lady’ (presumably the only suitable companion for ‘a proper man’). But I also agree with you that Ford and Rhys were broken in some of the same ways – both dependent on lovers not just for money and inspiration, but ultimately a sense of self – and that this affinity drew them to each other.
This passage from The Good Soldier seems to echo the line we both noticed in When the Wicked Man, about getting behind Lola Porter’s chilly smile by making love to her; it also perhaps points to what Ford’s protagonists – if not Ford himself – want from women:
[T]he real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported…. [T]hat will be the mainspring of his desire for her.
Rhys sought to be desired passionately and unconditionally, and indulged totally. She would have welcomed this kind of study of herself. For her, though, money was a crucial ingredient of attraction. In Smile Please, she writes, ‘the whole business of money and sex is mixed up with something very primitive and deep. When you take money directly from someone you love it becomes not money but a symbol…. [T]he woman’s deep-down feeling is “I belong to this man, I want to belong to him completely.” It is at once humiliating and exciting.’
Ford reminded her of an earlier lover, the first man who’d made her a kept woman and the first on record to break her heart. That man kept sending money indefinitely after rejecting her, while Ford sent an allowance for only a short while after their break-up, if he sent one at all.
But Ford gave her something far more important: confidence in her writing, and entry into publishing. Perhaps her work would have found its way to bookshelves had it not debuted in Ford’s journal, but it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe in which Mrs Adam sends Triple Sec to another editor, who rejects it. Rhys had little patience for creative endeavors that did not bring quick success. She’d already given up the piano and the stage; probably she would have reverted to writing in secret.
Not that Rhys didn’t always prioritize language before all else. Even as a girl she held strong opinions about words: ‘mountain’ was ugly, ‘wisteria’ beautiful, and ‘pain’, ‘sea’, and ‘silence’ sad. Yet Ford offered the kind of practical guidance that young writers need from their elders. He encouraged her to translate her work into French when she was unsure of it. If a sentence didn’t parse in another language, it didn’t work in English either. As long as Rhys wrote, she wrote that way, and she credited him for it. ‘Ford helped me more than anybody else,’ she said. ‘I learnt a great deal from him.’
He was a natural mentor for her, in part because she was already such an independent thinker. As Carole Angiers writes: ‘Ford loved economy, clarity and strong emotion in writing, and so did she; he hated moral and political preaching, and so did she. But all these were things that found echoes in her, that were in her already. When he suggested something that wasn’t, she rejected it…. [T]he one thing that Jean was sure about was writing. She followed her instinct; and no one, not even Ford, could teach her very much.’
In Ford’s view, the writer’s temperament is the ‘sensitized instrument’ through which she sees life. The artist is ‘the eternal mental prostitute who stands in the marketplace crying: “Come into contact with my thought, with my visions… with my personality.”’
He drew these kinds of analogies throughout his life, over and over again in those eighty books of his, and Rhys would have seen his affirmation of her fiction as approval of her ultimate self. The end of their affair called that self into question even more fundamentally than did the spurning, years older, by her first love, the rich English gentleman. Rhys told Francis Wyndham that ‘she didn’t think [Ford] was ever in love with her, but only her writing, and he was, finally, false to that, because she couldn’t believe he could behave as he had and still be sincere about her work.’
Fortunately she was too committed to stop by then. She kept writing, in essence spending the rest of her life proving to herself that, however weak she felt and however tragically her looks faded, her story – her personality, as Ford would have it – could captivate not just one man, but an unlimited number of readers.