Ford and gender

Haslam, Sara (2015). Ford and gender. In: Chantler, Ashley and Hawkes, Rob eds. An Introduction to Ford Madox Ford. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 163–176.



What is our subject when discussing Ford and gender? It certainly includes the ways in which Ford deploys those basic, but shape-shifting, aspects of character and behaviour that can be critically tied to ideas about masculinity and femininity: from the weeping, golden-haired Princess Ismara of The Brown Owl (1891) through the intimate "four-square coterie" of protagonists in The Good Soldier (1915) to the partnered masculine "doubles", androgynous rich girls, New York lesbians and capitalist powerhouses of his 1930s fiction. As I have approached the subject in this chapter, it also includes exploration of some of the influences on Ford's evolving thinking about gender.

From the outset it is important to be clear that the categories with which we shall be dealing are not, in the main, biological ones (regarding which "male" and "female" would be appropriate terminology). "Gender" describes a series of associated behaviours or attitudes that are constructed within a particular society and culture, often displaying, cumulatively, an implicit or explicit drive towards "coherence". The "effect of gender", writes Judith Butler, "is produced through the stylization of the body", including bodily gestures, movements, clothes and so on. Thus it is the masculine/feminine binary which will be of more concern here than any notion of (relatively) essentialist, biological principles. This binary can sometimes itself be perceived as fixed. Critic Alan Sinfield describes the "masculine/feminine binary structure" as the "villain of the piece" in his preface to The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment, arguing that masculinity and femininity are not "normative properties of men and women respectively" Ford might well have agreed. In his book Women & Men, published in Paris in 1923, Ford claimed that, in preparation for writing, he tried to eradicate his own preconceptions as to the differences between the sexes, pointing out that he had personally experienced most tenderness and tactfulness (those supposedly feminine attributes) from "one or two men" in his life, and highlighting his belief in the role of social forces in shaping gendered behaviour. It is certainly the case that what Ford put into his characters' performance of masculinity and femininity changed over time, as has been suggested above, and as we shall see in fore detail over the course of this chapter.

While sexual behaviour must undoubtedly be considered an important part of any gender debate, for reasons of space it will feature in a limited fashion in this discussion. But it is worth briefly noting that, while sexual intrigues fuel many of his plots, desire and marriage rarely go together in Ford. And marriages rarely produce children. There is, in fact, a conspicuous lack of progeny in Ford's writing. It cannot all be down to biological ignorance - of the kind displayed by Edward Ashburnham in The Good Solder, say,, who apparently does not know how children are conceived even after his marriage (p.99); or of Alice and Henry Martin in The Rash Act, who do know enough to try and avoid conception, but give this up out of fatalistic "listlessness", accepting their later infertility, not really knowing whether they want to have children or not. Sexuality undoubtedly fascinated Ford, as any reader of The Good Soldier will know. His characters are very limited as to its positive expression inside any marriage they undertake. In his representation of gendered behaviour, Ford is also more obviously interested in exploring the experience of being parented, than that of being a parent.

Finally, a related word of introduction about genre and its relation to gender. As will have become clear in this volume so far, Ford wrote prolifically, and in several genres. My focus in this chapter will be on his fiction, but gender politics were much on his mind in 1913, for example, when he wrote a pamphlet supporting women's suffrage - women's "political equality" - for the Women's Freedom League. And autobiography and memoir are acutely significant in any approach to Ford and gender. Trev Lynn Broughton's Men of Letters, Writing Lives points out that the late nineteenth century saw "significant upheavals in what was understood by the "main story" of a life: upheavals in which issues of gender, sexuality and literary authority were implicated". I say more about this process with specific reference to Ford in the section "Gender and Creativity" below.

The chapter that follows is divided into sections which provide both an overview and some text-specific analysis of Ford and gender. It is also intended to provide suggestions for more sustained investigation of what is undoubtedly a rich and as yet under-explored subject in Ford's writing.

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