“For he was in an extraordinary state. It was because the idea had suddenly occurred to him that his parting from his wife had set him free for his girl….”
“HIS GIRL.” How Christopher Tietjens thinks of Valentine Wannop in No More Parades, the second volume in Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy, Parade’s End. And how Ford thought of Jean Rhys while he was writing it. Ford’s Girl.
The new HBO production of Ford’s greatest work hasn’t just confounded the long-held notion that Parade’s End is unfilmable; its popularity is making people turn to the book at last, finally challenging its “unread” tag. Unlike other modernist works like Ulysses, its message of “love/sex withheld” was hardly palatable to post-1960s generations, and few were prepared to wade through four volumes of it. But might they have warmed to it more if they’d known the truth behind the fiction? That it was hardly “love/sex withheld” in Ford’s own life? Physically, the tall, handsome Benedict Cumberbatch might be a far cry from the bulky, awkward Tietjens in the novel, but morally, Tietjens was a far cry from Ford: he was what Ford wanted to be, not what he was.
Ford’s Girl. Because in 1920s expat Paris where he, Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other members of the “Lost Generation” started literary magazines, sipped absinthe, and had affairs, that’s who she was — a girl he named Jean Rhys. Never mind that, at 34-years-old, she was hardly a girl at all. Or that, as a married woman and a mother, she scarcely “belonged” to him. But that’s what everybody called her. Even Stella Bowen — Ford’s partner, who welcomed Rhys into their home only to forever regret it — wrote of her as “Ford’s girl.” A “girl [who] was really a tragic person.”
Rhys wasn’t just “tragic,” she was powerless. Pretty, wide eyed, and fair, even she saw herself as a girl, “a doll,” a “babe in the wood,” a “darling child.” In Parade’s End, Christopher’s unfaithful wife, Sylvia, is a womanly “thoroughbred,” but Valentine is girlish, with her “little, fair, rather pug-nosed face.” The mapping of real-life women onto literary models came easily to Ford, a writer who saw little distance between life and art — in 1915, his most successful novel, The Good Soldier, drafted one mistress, Violet Hunt, and one “obsession,” Brigit Patmore, into its plot. When Ford met Rhys, the process started again, but this time with more complex results.
Jean Rhys (or Ella Lenglet as she was known during her first marriage) had arrived in Paris in 1922 with her Belgian journalist husband, Jean Lenglet (who, unbeknownst to her, was actually married to someone else at the time). Wanted by police for other matters, he quickly fled to Amsterdam, leaving Rhys penniless and almost destitute in Montparnasse with their baby daughter, Maryvonne. Others might paint or write about a Parisian demimonde of prostitutes and beggars, but Rhys actually lived there. She was rescued first by a Mrs. Adam, the wife of The Times’ Paris correspondent, whom she’d met at a party once in London. Mrs. Adam read some of Jean Lengle...read more