The Woman Behind "Parade's End"

March 14, 2013   •   By Lesley McDowell

Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys

Parade's End

Ford Madox Ford

“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 Lenglet’s work, then asked to see something by his wife instead. Impressed by real, if chaotic, talent, she subsequently showed it to Ford, who became Rhys’s second “rescuer.” As Rhys wrote of Ford in her 1928 novel Quartet, after their affair was over, he was “always rescuing some young genius or other and installing him in the spare bedroom.” 

Ford had been the editor of The English Review back in London; in Paris, he had quickly set up a new magazine, the transatlantic review, with Ernest Hemingway as deputy editor. In April 1924, he published the first volume of his tetralogy, Some Do Not, but by the time he met Rhys both his literary and his personal life, entwined as ever, were beginning to lose their luster. The magazine was failing financially, he was struggling to find inspiration for the second volume of what would become Parade’s End, and his relationship with Stella Bowen had become routine, domestic. Ford, grandson of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, was a curious mix of the bohemian and the bourgeois, adoring the artistic life whilst striving for respectability. Embroiled in an ugly case with his wife, Elsie, when his previous mistress, Violet Hunt, began publicly calling herself “Mrs. Ford,” he even spent a term in prison, an experience that horrified him. Unable to obtain a divorce, he eventually left Hunt for the much younger Australian artist Stella Bowen, who lived with him as his mistress.

In his story of Christopher Tietjens’s struggle between Sylvia and Valentine, there are echoes of Ford’s relationships with Hunt and Bowen, even though Ford was never married to Hunt, and Hunt was the daughter of a famous novelist, just as Valentine is, not Bowen. A “good” man, or a man who wants to be good but finds himself caught between two women, formed the basis for The Good Soldier, too, which was infused by Ford’s passion for Brigit Patmore. Where could he find that kind of passionate inspiration now?

It is highly likely that, aged 50, financially weak, and aware he was no longer the bright young hope of the literary world, Ford was actively seeking, possibly even desperate for, someone to inspire him. In Quartet, Ford appears to Rhys “as if nothing could break him down.” He is a “rock of a man” with “eyes [that] were light blue and intelligent,” a quite different portrait from that famously painted by Rebecca West, who described kissing him as being like the toast under a poached egg. Rhys recalls Ford making a pass at her while Stella Bowen is present, but portrays Bowen as the one who offers her a room in their apartment.

And so the transformation of Ella Lenglet into Jean Rhys began, as Ford changed her name, told her to write short stories, edited her, and published her. He made her read her work aloud, while he, the expert in pared-back prose, cut everything back and shouted out “cliché, cliché” when she strayed from originality. He shaped her, and in the process of doing so, something happened: he found himself inspired. As his biographer Max Saunders notes, when Ford sat down to begin writing again, “the sexually charged atmosphere of No More Parades […] may have been influenced by the beginning of Ford’s relationship with Rhys. He was certainly writing again with the force and anguish that new passions elicited from him.”

This is a remarkable statement. For years, the standard interpretation of the Ford–Rhys relationship has been that Rhys was utterly dependent on Ford, and bereft when he dropped her. Few have suggested that Rhys helped Ford. Yet, as Saunders says, there is an erotic and animalistic anguish permeating this second novel, from Tietjens’s awareness of his “obsession” with Valentine whilst he is at the front (“Because what the devil did he want of Valentine Wannop? Why could he not stall off the thought of her? … Valentine Wannop came wriggling in. At all hours of the day and night. It was an obsession. A madness”), to his view of Sylvia (“He imagined Sylvia, coiled up on a convent bed … Hating … Her certainly glorious hair all round her … Hating … Slowly and coldly … Like the head of a snake when you examined it … Eyes motionless, mouth closed tight”).

Tietjens denies himself any erotic fulfillment, exonerating himself from betraying his wife through physical contact with “the girl,” even though Valentine has agreed to become his mistress. In this way Ford could grant himself the noble bearing he lacked in real life; in her 1941 memoir, Drawn From Life, Stella Bowen disputes Ford’s strength of mind, depicting him as a “luxuriant plant […] He required to be well entwined around the support of his choice, but in due course the roving tendrils began to attach themselves to other supports.” The “support of his choice” was now Rhys (just as Bowen had been “the ‘new object’ at a moment when Ford needed to be given a new lease of after-the-war life”); soon though, she would become “an incubus,” an “entanglement” from which he sought to free himself. In his novelized version of their affair, When the Wicked Man, published in 1930, Rhys is portrayed as a drunken harridan. She might have the face of a “girl,” but inside, she is something “sordid.”   

Bowen described Rhys in her memoir as “the poor, brave and desperate beggar,” the “person who has nothing to lose,” but Rhys had a great deal to lose, not least because, when she lost Ford’s love, she not only lost her protector, but also her mentor and editor (in 1958, she would say to her daughter about her writing, “There is nobody to talk to and advise me or tell me I am right to stick to what I feel for that is what I hope to do after much worry”). Ford went on to complete his tetralogy with remarkable speed — A Man Could Stand Up appeared just one year after No More Parades, and the final volume, The Last Post, two years after that. Rhys returned to England, damaged and alcoholic, scarred by her various experiences, which she poured into novel after novel (After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie; Voyage in the Dark; and Good Morning, Midnight), which were mostly condemned at the time of their publication, with their focus on unmarried women having affairs, or worse, having sex for money, in an echo of Stella Bowen’s description of her as “sordid.”

“The girl” is not supposed to be sordid; she should be a Valentine Wannop, with a “little, fair rather pug-nosed face” reflecting her purity inside, not horrible tales of destitution. It would take Rhys 30 years to get over Ford and what appears to be his disillusionment with her, and produce the work for which she is most renowned, Wide Sargasso Sea. By then, he was long dead, his books were out of fashion, and The Good Soldier alone was considered his great work, when it was considered at all, overshadowed as it was by other masterpieces of modernism like Ulysses. Nobody read Parade’s End. Nobody, that is, until now.