The Woman Who Inspired 'Parade's End'

I'm being slightly cheeky here, as Ford Madox Ford had already completed the first volume in his Edwardian trilogy/tetralogy, Parade's End* when he first met the beautiful ingenue Jean Rhys in 1924.

But he was "at a more desperate point" in his life than his apparently successful literary life might suggest, as I argue in my account of his relationship with Rhys in my book, Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers. 

He was living in Paris with his mistress, the artist Stella Bowen (his wife wouldn't give him a divorce) and his magazine, the transatlantic review, which featured the work of Hemingway (who was its deputy editor), Joyce, Pound and Stein, was flailing. He had little money and he was, he felt, 'past his best'. It was almost ten years since the publication of his greatest novel, The Good Soldier. Would anyone really be interested in the account of arch Tory Christopher Tietjens, whose wife has just left him as the country stands poised on the brink of war?

Ford suffered regularly from massive self-doubt and depressive periods - he had tried to kill himself once in the past. He felt bereft at the end of this first novel, Some Do Not...and in need of something distracting. He soon found it - in the shape of Jean Rhys.

The influence Rhys had on his writing of the second volume of the set, the more experimental and clearly more invigorated No More Parades, is clear. Even Max Saunders, Ford's highly acclaimed biographer, argues that "the sexually charged atmosphere of No More Parades...may have been influenced by the beginning of Ford's affair with Rhys. He was certainly writing again with the force and anguish that new passions elicited from him."

It's hard to over-estimate what an extraordinary statement this is to make in an account of the Ford-Rhys relationship. Most biographers stress Ford's help to Rhys - how he made her. When Jean Rhys first arrived in Paris, she was married to a rather dubious journalist, Jean Lenglet, who had quickly got himself arrested. Her newborn baby had died suddenly, she had no money, and she was truly desperate. She showed some of her husband's work to a contact she had, the wife of The Times's Paris Correspondent, in the hope that they would publish it. But this woman asked to see some of Rhys's own work instead - which she then passed on to her friend, Ford Madox Ford.

Ford was captivated by her writing. He changed the title of her manuscript, and changed her name - she was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, and became 'Jean Rhys'. Ford offered her a place to stay with himself and Bowen, and began to help her with her work. He showed her how to edit, and encouraged her to leave a story if it wasn't working and move on to something new. He would make her read her work aloud and would shout out 'cliche! cliche!', much to her mortification.

It was all very new, and probably quite disturbing, if her fictional account of the relationship, her 1928 novel, Quartet, is anything to go by. Rhys was a quiet, troubled young woman who became known in Paris as "Ford's Girl", even though she was a 34-year-old woman when she first met him (Ford was 50). Biographers regularly refer to her 'childlike' appearance and behaviour, and even Stella Bowen, whose relationship with Ford was ruined by his liaison with Rhys, refers to her in her memoir, Drawn from Life, in the same way: "The girl was a really tragic person," she wrote. "A doomed soul, violent and demoralised." That contradiction in her - the ingenue appearance with the more 'sordid' side of her life (she lived in a part of Paris inhabited by prostitutes and alcoholics, which, for all their literary love of reality, writers like Ford and Hemingway avoided)  is possibly what drew Ford to her, as well as her obvious literary talent.

But what did Rhys see in Ford? A man whom Rebecca West had described rather cruelly as "stout, gangling, albino-ish" and of whom she said that being kissed by him was 'like being the toast under poached egg'? Rhys had always written, even as a young girl in the Dominican Republic (a setting she would use to such great effect in her most famous novel, Wide Sargasso Sea) - she had just never had a literary mentor before. It was powerful stuff, the help he gave her - and the help she gave him in return was equally effective.

It all ended very badly, of course - Ford could only cope with Rhys's highly-strung nature for so long, and began to ease himself out of the relationship, as he had done so often with women in the past. Rhys was terrified of losing his support - in 1958, many years after she and Ford had split up, she wrote to her daughter, "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". She turned to alcohol to shore herself up, and never lost her dependency on it.

There are elements of Rhys in Ford's later portraits of both Tietjens' wife Slyvia, and his mistress, Valentine Wannop. But Saunders is right about the new sensuality, the tortured sexual and emotional entanglements that permeate No More Parades. The novel makes more of stream-of-consciousness techniques, too - the "force and anguish" that Saunders speaks of affected not just the content but the style too: "He imagined Sylvia, coiled up on a convent bed...Hating...Her certainly glorious hair all around her...Hating...Slowly and coldly...Like the head of a snake when you examined it....Eyes motionless, mouth closed tight.."

Rhys never quite got over Ford, and Ford never wrote anything better after Parade's End. They were both marked by their liaison for the rest of their lives, for good or ill.

*(it depends on whether you consider the last volume a part of the whole, or separate, which term you use - critics are divided)


  1. Thanks Lesley, a wonderful read. For years i had it stuck in my head that Ford Madox Ford was the Pre-Raphaelite painter.


  2. Glad you liked it! Ford Madox Brown is the painter, isn't he? There's quite an amazing family connection though, I believe - and with Violet Hunt,a previous mistress of Ford's, aho also had connections to the Pre-Raphaelites.

    1. I don't know if this is of any interest to you, have you heard of Sara Haslam, she's the founding member of the Ford Madox Ford Society. She's also the Open Universities senior lecturer on my creative writing course which starts this Sept? She's done a lot of research on FMF you might have lots to talk about.


    2. I'll check her out, thanks for that Rob.

  3. Very interesting article, I read Good Morning, Midnight in uni and was probably the only one in my group to enjoy it! I thought it was fascinating and when I heard Parade's End was being made into a programme I knew I'd heard of it before but wasn't sure where, but I think it was probably from my research into Good Morning, Midnight. Both very interesting, talented people who deserve much more recognition in my opinion!

  4. Yes, I love Rhys's early work very much, am sorry you were the only one in your group who liked it! Wide Sargasso Sea rescued Rhys from oblivion at least but few know about her early work. Glad you liked the blog!


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