Academic journal article International Ford Madox Ford Studies

Beyond Vengeance: Ford's When the Wicked Man as a Writerly Response to Jean Rhys

Academic journal article International Ford Madox Ford Studies

Beyond Vengeance: Ford's When the Wicked Man as a Writerly Response to Jean Rhys

Article excerpt

In Ford Madox Ford's 1932 prefatory note to the English edition of When the Wicked Man, he dismisses his new work as a 'silly novel5 and states that it is Only with reluctance and under the action of a force majeure as to whose incidence I cannot here be explicit' that the text even appears at all.1 He continues: 4I must, therefore, in conscience insist upon the fact that this book is in no sense a picture of American, and still less of New York, manners. It is nothing more than a lucubration on an individual problem' WW M 9). However, Ford goes on to discuss that his choice of setting was not completely accidental, as 'Gotham is the only city with which the writer has today any intimate acquaintance - in which, that is to say, he feels completely at home' (WWM 9). Indeed, he wrote in a 1934 letter that The greater part of my life since the war [...] has been spent in literary America or in the society of American writers; I pass in that country for an American writer myself. Although Ford's elliptical explanation raises more questions than it answers, many modern critics have agreed with his assessment of the book's silliness, and, as a result, When the Wicked Man has been out of print for decades. Early twentieth-century readers, however, were more receptive - at least initially. Despite mixed reviews, the novel was a best seller. Burton Rascoe wrote in The New York Herald Tribune that it seemed 'like the collaboration of a genius and a pulp-paper hack' (Mizener 392). John Chamberlain concluded in The New York Times that while '[difficult to read, with mental hurdles to take at every third paragraph on an average, it still justifies its method [....] For by design Mr. Ford wanted to give one an overpowering sense of the nervous fits and starts by which a good segment of New York lives.'4 Complex and at times uneven, When the Wicked Man is, as Max Saunders notes, 'a characteristically provocative Fordian blend of psychological impressionism, hallucination, fantasy, hysteria, and sardonic farce'.5

Possibly as a result of this complex richness, the novel has yet to be fully plumbed, especially in relationship to its fascinating, albeit schematic, depiction of New York City.6 The novel has been primarily seen as Ford's response to his one-time lover Jean Rhys 's negative portrayal of him in her 1928 novel, Quartet While biographical elements relating to this tumultuous affair pepper the narrative and cannot be ignored, this essay will attempt to move beyond what some may characterize as the emotional recriminations of a disgruntled exlover to investigate the various ways Ford engages with Rhys' s novel as a literary work. These include Ford's positioning of his protagonist, Joseph Notterdam, as a moral and social 'other' besieged on all sides by forces beyond his control, his decision to set the novel in New York, and his minimal description of the streets and public spaces of the city that I argue is a direct response to his published comments on Rhys' s first short story collection.

To place the work in context and begin to understand Ford's deliberately obscure description of its genesis, we should first look at both his other recent treatment of the city in New York is Not America (1927), and his tortured relationship with Jean Rhys, which undergirds the novel. The more seamy details of this affair are well-known; but in order fully to appreciate the way Ford's obvious anger and disgust at a woman he felt had betrayed his trust are mingled with sympathy for another 'underdog' and admiration for her gifts as a writer, we need to recount its main events. My focus here is not primarily on Ford's emotional response to Rhys but on the way he writes back to and subtly comments on her fiction in When the Wicked Man.

Throughout his travelogue, Ford takes pains to stress that 'next to Provence' he loves New York 'better than any other place' and that he 'is singularly afraid of all America and all Americans' outside of the city. …

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