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Return to Yesterday
By Ford Madox Ford
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2012 Michael Schmidt
All rights reserved.
Thinking of Henry James the other day I was led to wonder when I first went to the Antient Town of Rye. Rye is not a Cinque Port but one of the two antiquiora membra of that honourable Corporation, the other being Winchelsea. Thirty years ago or so Henry James lived at Rye. I had a house at Winchelsea.
Still thinking and walking up and down in the tall room of a friend in Greenwich Village I looked at a bookshelf, then took out a dullish-backed book at random. At the bottom of a page were the words: 'So you see, darling, there is really no fear, because as long as I know you care for me and I care for you nothing can touch me.'
I had a singular emotion. I was eighteen when I first read those words. My train was running into Rye station and I had knocked out the ashes of my first pipe of shag tobacco. Shag was the very cheapest, blackest and strongest of tobaccos in England of those days. I was therefore economising. My first book had just been published. I was going courting. My book had earned ten pounds. I desired to be a subaltern in H.B.M.'s Army. The story was Mr Kipling's Only a Subaltern. The next station would be Winchelsea where I was to descend. I had given nine of the ten pounds to my mother. If I was to marry and become a subaltern I must needs smoke shag. And in a short clay pipe to give the fullest effect to retrenchment! Briars were then eighteenpence, short clays two for a penny.
That is my oldest literary recollection.
It is one of my most vivid. More plainly than the long curtains of the room in which I am writing I see now the browning bowl of my pipe, the singularly fine grey ashes, the bright placards as the train runs into the old-fashioned station and the roughnesses of the paper on which there appeared the words ...
So you see, darling, there is really no fear ...
I suppose they are words that we all write one day or another. Perhaps they are the best we ever write.
The fascicle of Kipling stories had a blue-grey paper cover that shewed in black a fierce, whiskered and turbaned syce of the Indian Army. I suppose he was a syce, for he so comes back to me. At any rate that cover and that Mohammedan were the most familiar of objects in English homes of that day. You have no idea how exciting it was then to be eighteen and to be meditating writing for the first time 'there is really no fear' ... And to know that those blue-grey booklets were pouring from the press and all England buzzing about them. Alas ...
The whole of England has never since buzzed over a book or a writer. I daresay it never will. Those were proud times for England!
Years after – fifteen, I daresay – I was going up the narrow cobbled street that led to the Master's house at the top of the pyramidal town when I met Mr and Mrs Kipling hurrying down. They appeared to be perturbed.
Conrad and I had gone in from Winchelsea to Rye to hire a motor-car. We must have sold something. In those days the automobile was a rapturous novelty and when we had any buckshee money at all it went in hiring cars. It would cost about £6 to go eighteen miles with seventeen breakdowns and ourselves pushing the car up most inclines.
Conrad had a passion for engineering details that I did not share and he had gone in search of a car as to which he had heard that it had some mechanical innovation which he desired to inspect. I knocked therefore on the door of Lamb House, alone.
Lamb House was a majestic Georgian building of the type that Henry James had gone to England more especially to seek. Its best front gave on to the garden. The garden had an immense smooth lawn and was shut in by grey stone walls against which grew perennial flowers. It contained also a massively built white-panelled pavilion. In that, during the summer at least, the Master usually sat and worked.
In Rye church you could see the remains of a criminal hung in chains. It was that of a murderer, a butcher, who set out to kill a Mr Lamb and killed a Mr Greville. Or it may have been the other way round. Rye Town was prouder of its murderer than of its two literary lights, Fletcher and Henry James, but he always seemed to me to have been a clumsy fellow. Lamb House had belonged to the family of the gentleman who was – or wasn't – killed. But Henry James most gloated over the other legend according to which the house had been occupied by a mistress of George IV. The king, sailing down channel on a battleship, was said to have been rowed ashore to visit the lady in the garden pavilion. I always used to wonder at the prodigious number of caps, gloves, canes and hats that were arranged on a table – or it may have been a great chest – in the hall. How, I used to say to myself, can he need so prodigious a number of head-coverings? And I would wonder what thoughts revolved in his head whilst he selected the cap or the stick of the day. I never myself possessed more than one cloth cap at a time.
When I was admitted into his presence by the astonishingly ornate man-servant he said:
'A writer who unites – if I may use the phrase – in his own person an enviable popularity to – as I am told – considerable literary gifts and whom I may say I like because he treats me' – and here Mr James laid his hand over his heart, made the slightest of bows and, rather cruelly rolling his dark and liquid eyes and moving his lower jaw as if he were rolling in his mouth a piquant titbit, Mr James continued, 'because he treats me – if again I may say any such thing – with proper respect' – and there would be an immense humorous gasp before the word 'respect' – ... 'I refer of course to Mr Kipling ... has just been to see me. And – such are the rewards of an enviable popularity! – a popularity such as I – or indeed you my young friend if you have any ambitions which I sometimes doubt – could dream of far less imagine to ourselves – such are the rewards of an enviable popularity that Mr Kipling is in the possession of a magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car. And, in the course of conversation as to characteristics of motor cars in general and those of the particular one thousand two hundred guinea motor car in the possession of our friend ... But what do I say? ... Of our cynosure! Mr Kipling uttered words which have for himself no doubt a particular significance but which to me at least convey almost literally nothing beyond their immediate sound ... Mr Kipling said that the motor car was calculated to make the Englishman ...' – and again came the humorous gasp and the roll of the eyes – 'was calculated to make the Englishman ... think.' And Mr James abandoned himself for part of a second to low chuckling. 'And,' he continued, 'the conversation dissolved itself, after digressions on the advantages attendant on the possession of such a vehicle, into what I believe are styled golden dreams – such as how the magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car after having this evening conveyed its master and mistress to Batemans Burwash of which the proper pronunciation is Burridge would tomorrow devotedly return here and reaching here at twelve would convey me and my nephew William to Burridge in time to lunch and having partaken of that repast to return here in time to give tea to my friend Lady Maud Warrender who is honouring that humble meal with her presence tomorrow under my roof ... And we were all indulging in – what is it? – delightful anticipations and dilating on the agreeableness of rapid – but not for fear of the police and consideration for one's personal safety too rapid – speed over country roads and all, if I may use the expression, was gas and gingerbread when ... There is a loud knocking on the door and – avec des yeux éffarés ...' and here Mr James really did make his prominent and noticeable eyes almost stick out of his head ... 'in rushes the chauffeur ... And in short the chauffeur has omitted to lubricate the wheels of the magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car with the result that its axles have become one piece of molten metal ... The consequence is that its master and mistress will return to Burwash which should be pronounced Burridge by train, and the magnificent one thousand two hundred guinea motor car will not devotedly return here at noon and will not in time for lunch convey me and my nephew William to Burwash and will not return here in time for me to give tea to my friend Lady Maud Warrender who is honouring that humble meal with her presence tomorrow beneath my roof or if the weather is fine in the garden ...'
'Which,' concluded the Master after subdued 'ho, ho, ho's' of merriment, 'is calculated to make Mr Kipling think.'
'Rye,' say the women of Kent, 'is the sink-hole of Sussex and Sussex is the sink-hole of England.' That is because Rye was once a great mercantile and naval port and Sussex a great maritime county. The men from adjacent Kent, as is the case with men from the hinterlands of Hongkong or San Francisco or Aden or Cardiff, would go into Rye and get among the bad gels, Saturday nights. They also say when counselling their daughters: 'Ye see yon man, 'a cooms from Soossex, 'a sucked in silliness with his mother's milk an 's been silly ever since. But never you trust a man from the Sheeres!' The Sheeres are the Shires – all the rest of England – Hampshire, Wiltshire, Devonshire, Buckinghamshire, Shropshire. So it is Kent and Sussex against the Rest, as cricketers say.
It is great attraction to strangers and foreign settlers when places have these prominent rivalries. You feel really settled when you can despise a neighbouring city, and James living at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex, was infinitely a Sussex man when he met that true Man of Kent, Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, who lived at Pent Farm, Postling, Kent. In just the same way he was inordinately a Rye man two miles away in Winchelsea. I can still see his sturdy form as arrayed in a pea-jacket which nobly enhanced his bulk, wearing one of his innumerable cricket-caps, emphasising his steps and the cadences of his conversation by digging his cane into the road he stumped under the arch of the sea-gate up the hill into Winchelsea, lugging behind him on a ten yard leather lead his highly varnished dachshund, Maximilian. The dog would gyrate round his master. Mr James would roll his eyes: he would be slightly out of breath. There would be a gentle snifter of rain: he only, for reasons I will later explain, came to Winchelsea in the late autumn and winter. In the great square, round the great half fallen church the rain would run in light drifts. He would dig his cane point into the grass between the cobbles and exclaim: 'A Winchelsea day, my dear lady. A true Winchelsea day ... This is Winchelsea ... Poor but proud.' Waspishly patriotic we would point to the red-roofed pyramid across the Marsh and exclaim:
'That's your Rye. It's pouring there ... Rye ... Not rich but dirty.'
These were the only occasions on which we stood up to the Master. And he never heard. He would scuttle off towards tea, dragged forward by Maximilian who scented the little hot buttered tea-cakes called fat rascals.
We would have tea in a frame house. It might have been Canaan, New Hampshire. The house had been built in 1782 by General Prescott, the first Governor-General of Canada ... In exact imitation of a Canadian frame house, just as the fat rascals were exactly like the little hot biscuits you get in farmhouses, now, in Tennessee. The General had been homesick for Canada.
Winchelsea had that North American feature. It had others. The streets were all rectangular, like those of New York, and the houses in blocks. That was because it had been built all of a piece by Edward III in 1333. He had planned it, ruling squares on a sheet of vellum, after the sea had drowned Old Winchelsea on the flats below. It is exhilarating to stand in the heart of a town and gaze out into the country. I have felt the same exhilaration in both Winchelsea and New York. It is fascinating to be able, on Fifth Avenue, to see on the one side the Palisades and on the other the cross-street giving a view of the sky above the East River. In Winchelsea, standing in the heart of the town you could see on the one hand the green heights of Udimore, on the other the Marsh and the sea, and before your face, where the broad street ended in nothing, the red pyramid of Rye with its flashing weathercock a-top.
In the church were pews built of wood brought back from Plymouth by the Mayflower. That is the story. The wood was said to be tulip wood. Certainly it was no local wood and I found on seeing the tulip-wood panels of the offices of the S. S. McClure Co. in East Twenty Third Street, New York, that those panels much resembled the wood. That would be in 1906. Someone told me the other day that tulip wood is too soft for interior decorations, but in Sam McClure's office it was very pretty. The softer body of the wood had, I believe, been burnt out, leaving hard, as it were, lace-patterns, like the fibres of skeleton leaves. The wood of the pews had the same lacey ridges. It is said that the mariners of the Mayflower had brought the timber back from the New England woods as souvenirs. When I lived in Winchelsea the wood was rapidly going back – to New England, Missouri, Wisconsin, Seattle, Spokane and Winchelsea, Mass. In addition a dim-sighted Early Victorian Rector – the same who had the fourteenth century stained glass broken out of the windows because it prevented his reading the words of 'Lead Kindly Light' – had had most of the pews removed from the chancel to make way for deal missionary-chairs. So between the purblind ecclesiastic and the sharp penknives of the souvenir hunters, remembrances of Plymouth were waning in the Antient Town.
There were, however, a number of Plymouth Brothers there. They used to pray for my conversion – from literary pursuits. It was queer, of a Sunday afternoon, to hear oneself prayed for by name.
I cannot now remember whether I met Henry James before Conrad but I think I did. I remember at any rate that I felt much younger when I at last went to see him than I did when Conrad first came to see me. I was in those days of an extreme shyness and the aspect of the Master, bearded as he was then and wearing, as he habitually did in those days, a great ulster and a square felt hat, was not one to dissipate that youthful attribute. I must have been seeing him in the streets of Rye on and off for eighteen months after Mrs W. K. Clifford had asked me to go and see him. The final pressure put on to do so had by then become considerable.
The adoration for Henry James amongst his relatively few admirers of those days was wonderful – and deserved. And I imagine that his most fervent adorers were the Garnett family of whom the best known member is today Mr Edward Garnett, the publisher's reader who first advised a publisher to publish Conrad. In those days it was Dr Richard Garnett whose reputation as Principal Librarian of the British Museum was world wide. He had a number of sons and daughters and, for a long time, I was in and out of the Garnetts' house in the Museum courtyard every day and all day long. Their hospitality was as boundless as it was beneficent.
The public opinion, as it were, of the younger Garnetts must have had a great effect in shaping my young mind. In one form or other it made for virtue always – in some members for virtue of an advanced and unconventional type, in others for the virtues that are inseparable from, let us say, the Anglican communion. The elder Garnetts at any rate had a strong aversion from Catholicism.
Mrs W. K. Clifford, a by no means unskilful novelist of those days, had put pressure upon me to go and see James. She was, I think, his most intimate friend. He corrected the manuscripts of almost all the books of Mrs Humphry Ward, an act of great generosity. Of Mrs Ward he always spoke as: 'poor dear Mary' with a slightly sardonic intonation. But I remember his saying several times that he had a respectful, if he might so call it, affection for Mrs Clifford. Therefore, when the Master, for reasons of a rather painful disillusionment, decided to leave London almost for good, Mrs Clifford was greatly concerned for his health and peace of mind. She urged me very frequently to go and see him so that she might be posted as to his well or ill-being. I remained too shy.
Then, hearing that James was almost permanently fixed at Rye, the young Garnetts who knew that I paid frequent visits to the next door town began to press me in their turn to call on their cynosure. Their admiration for him was so great that merely to know someone who knew the Master would, it appeared, ease their yearnings. They admired him above all for his virtue. None of his books so much as adumbrated an unworthy sentiment in their composer; every line breathed of comprehension and love for virtue.
Excerpted from Return to Yesterday by Ford Madox Ford. Copyright © 2012 Michael Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Introduction by Bill Hutchings,
To DR MICHAEL AND MRS EILEEN HALL LAKE,
PART I LETTERS AND LANDSCAPES,
I Compostella Americana,
II Personae ...,
III The Outer World,
PART II THE LEFT,
I In Darkest London,
II Farthest Left,
III The Outside,
PART III THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY,
I Cabbages and Queens,
II Pure Letters,
III Working with Conrad,
IV Rye Road,
PART IV THE BL — DY WORLD,
I Companies and Kings,
II 'Let us take a walk down Fleet Street!',
III Some Cures,
IV Into the Depths,
V 'Little Old New York',
PART V THE LAST OF LONDON,
II Alarums and Discoveries,
Index of Names,
About the Author,
ALSO BY FORD MADOX FORD FROM CARCANET,