"Tis filthy art, sir, filthy art," British World War I prime minister David Lloyd George exclaims to Ford Madox Ford in Robert Lowell's wonderful eponymous poem portraying Ford as an aging, wounded and under-appreciated literary icon. I reread Lowell's "Ford Madox Ford" after watching the HBO-BBC production of Ford's novel "Parade's End."
In Lowell's poem, the filthy art is Ford while playing golf with Lloyd George using a niblick on the green to score a birdie. But the phrase stands as an epitaph for Ford's place in British culture. While his novels continued the narrative orthodoxy of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, with whom Ford collaborated on several books, Ford as a literary editor was a major force in modernism's advent. Ford considered himself a Tory dinosaur, yet his open sexual relationships make him a conspicuous figure of a new morality. Ford, haunted by World War I's shattering of European culture, lived until 1939, long enough to see the gathering clouds of a second world war and aid rising stars of a new generation such as Lowell.
HBO's sumptuous, challenging mini-series compelled me to return to Lowell's memorable portrait of Ford, who as a wheezing obese old literary lion befriended the very young Lowell. After first reading Lowell's poem, found in "Life Studies," and hearing salacious details about Ford from fans of Jean Rhys, whom Ford promoted and seduced, the English novelist and editor entered my literary gallery when I was in college 40 years ago. Alas, I found Ford's "Parade's End" and "The Good Soldier" - damned/praised as the best French novel in the English language, as Lowell notes - too daunting to finish.
The HBO miniseries, criticized as inert and requiring too much concentration by our attention-span-challenged TV writers, aptly displays the riches of Ford's "Parade's End," originally a tetralogy whose first volume appeared in 1924. The novel is one of the main contributions to a now cliched truism - World War I's destruction of traditional aristocratic values and the verities of European culture.
Played with endearing stiffness by Benedict Cumberbatch, Parade's End's main character, Christopher Tietjens, is a portrait of Ford recognizable in Lowell's poem. Like Tietjens, Ford left a comfortable wartime berth to suffer wounds in the trenches and considered himself a dinosaur seeking to uphold ancient values of honor and chivalry under siege in the modern world. Ford, like Tietjens, succumbed to eroding standards of sexual morality, with comic results.
The HBO work has drawn comparisons to "Downton Abbey," which explores the same themes of the English upper classes beset by social change after World War I. "Parade's End" is aesthetically richer and much more demanding, although "Downton Abbey's" first season can hold its own. "Downton" during its next seasons more and more plays to soap opera effects, but the demands of churning out so many episodes saps creative energy as American TV reflects. "Parade's End" is wrapped up in five shows, so the quality rarely flags.
For illuminating English society before and after World War I, "Parade's End" is more like literature than television, while "Downton" holds to TV's mass-audience appeal. Of course, Rebecca Hall, vividly playing Tietjens' iconoclastic, sexually fervid and Catholic haunted wife Sylvia, gratuitously bares her breasts in a scene or two. On PBS, Lady Mary never has to.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.