Ford & James

June 26: Ford Madox Ford died on this day in 1939. As founder and editor of both the English Review and the transatlantic review, and as “everybody’s blessed Uncle and Headmaster” (D. H. Lawrence), Ford was a central figure in early twentieth-century British literature. Among his seventy-seven books are eight volumes of memoirs containing many “impressions” of the famous writers of the day. Here is how he recalls Henry James, a friend and neighbor who, though a generation older, liked to cast Ford in the uncle-headmaster role: 

How they come back to me after a quarter of a century … the savoured, half-humorous, half-deprecatory words, the ironically exaggerated gestures, the workings of the closely shaved lips, the halting to emphasize a point, the sudden scurryings forward, for all the world like the White Rabbit hurrying to the Queen’s tea-party….

One prolonged consultation between the two men had to do with a crisis in James’s “fantastic domestic arrangements.” An irreconcilable quarrel among his seven servants and housekeepers had left James’s downstairs in a shambles; desperate to find reliable replacements for his lost help, James determined to visit Ford unannounced, where he was greeted by Ford’s housemaid. Disturbed by the muffled conversation—more a monologue—taking place on his doorstep, Ford got up from his writing desk in time to hear James rounding to his point:

Would you then advise me … for I know that such an ornament decorates your master’s establishment and you will therefore from your particular level be able to illuminate me as to the … ah … smooth functioning of such, if I may use the expression, a wheel in the domestic time-piece—always supposing that you will permit me the image, meaning that, as I am sure in this household is the case, the daily revolution of a really harmonious chez soi is as smooth as the passing of shadows over a dial … would you then advise me to have … in short to introduce into my household and employ … a … that is to say … a Lady Help?

Ford gave what advice he could, James went off to conduct his inquiries and interviews, and in due course returned with his good news: “As the German Emperor is said to say about his mostachio, ‘it is accomplished.’… Rejoice—as I am confident you will—with me, my young friend. All from now onwards shall, I am assured, be with me gas and gingerbread…. Halcyon, halcyon days. In short….”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.