After the Ford-Rhys affair: a correspondence

Today Granta posts my exchange with Alexander Chee about Jean Rhys’ and Ford Maddox Ford’s affair and the vengeful novels they wrote afterward.

The level of acrimony packed into Quartet and When the Wicked Man is comparable to that of the Philip Roth-Claire Bloom book-off, if the Bloom character in I Married a Communist had not only been cast as a hopeless drunk but been called a “devil,” a “malignity,” a “blackamoor,” and a tramp.

The beginning of each of our four letters:

  • Alex’s to me: “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.”
  • My response: “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.
  • Alex’s response: “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.”
  • My second response: “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.”
  • The affair actually spawned four competing accounts — not just Rhys’ and Ford’s novels, but another by Rhys’ husband, John Lenglet, and a section in the memoir of the painter Stella Bowen, Ford’s long-time partner and the mother of his daughter. Read the rest here.

    See also: my review of Lilian Pizzichini’s new Rhys biography; Alex on discovering Rhys “when I was tired of what I was”; Rhys and the melding of fact and invention in fiction; Rhys on changing a novel’s “morbid” ending; the writing, burning, and rewriting of Wide Sargasso Sea; and Marlon James on Rhys. Addendum: Victoria Mixon compares Rhys’ and Ford’s affair with the relationship between H.G. Wells and Rebecca West.


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