Ford Madox Ford and ‘If Winter Comes’

If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson was the most spectacular best-seller of 1921-22. A 1922 article in The Times (which inaugurated its new books page with an enthusiastic correspondence about the book) states that in a year it had sold 100,000 copies in Britain, and 400,000 in America. It was a book of which no writer could have been unaware – which raises the question of whether or not Ford Madox Ford was consciously or unconsciously influenced by it when he wrote his Parade’s End tetralogy. A rather mischievous critic called Claude Washburn was in 1926 “struck by the similarity between the between the plot of Mr Hutchinson’s novel […] and that of Some Do Not…”:

Mark Something-or-Other was a man whom the world in general regarded with indifference as a failure, and for whose excellent work somebody else was always getting the credit, but whom a few really fine spirits reverenced. So was Christopher Tietjens. Each was unhappily married […] Each hero loved another lady, really appreciative and good, who was eager to sacrifice, in Mark’s case her husband […] in Christopher’s her virginity. Each hero refused the gift. (‘Some do not’ … do that kind of thing. In neither case did the hero’s wife – or anyone else except those few fine spirits – believe in the refusal. Each, instead of getting himself profitably embusqué, slipped off unassumingly to the war and was badly hurt. Each slipped back home again to take up modestly and wearily the old round – a good deal hampered in this by all those embusqués who had pushed ahead in the meantime. Each, for no obvious reason, became a social pariah, was slandered and fairly hounded by the world in general – but not, of course, in the sophisticated novel, to the point of general hysterics reached in If Winter Comes.

Washburn’s teasing style suggests that he was being deliberately provocative in representing Ford as merely converting the “ten-twenty-thirty melodrama” of If Winter Comes, into the style of Madame Bovary. Such close parallels between the books, however, point to the potency of the myth of the war presented by both writers. Both show pre-war England as corrupt and indifferent to real merit; the war offers an opportunity for unselfishness, but the power of the careerists and the Pharisees triumphs over the selfless man of integrity. The conclusions of both Hutchinson’s novel and Ford’s tetralogy see the respective heroes retreating into a purely private life, while the world of affairs continues in its usual way without them.

The title of Washburn’s essay is “Sophistication”, and Ford’s work is a good deal more sophisticated than Hutchinson’s. Not just in its (sometimes annoying) stream-of-consciousness style, or in its smartness (Washburn sees Ford as colluding in the cynicism that he pretends to deplore). If Winter Comes is set in provincial England, and its frame of reference goes no further than the general knowledge of an average middle-class reader. His villains are sub-Dickensian caricatures, and obvious hypocrites. Ford’s books assume a more sophisticated reader, able to pick up subtle clues about degeneracy (like the reference to “Simeon Solomon, one of the weaker and more frail aesthetes” which alerts us to Duchemin’s sexual ambiguity in a more complex way than Hutchinson’s description of his own clergyman-villain as “intensely celibate”).

Had Ford read If Winter Comes? And if so, did its spectacular sales figures inspire him to emulation? Or did he think “there’s a great story here, but told crudely. I could do it better.”?

3 Comments

  1. Posted August 9, 2008 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Nice work. Well spotted. For what it’s worth (and I hadn’t seen the Washburn article) I did try and point out the link back in 1990 (English Fiction and Drama of the Great War, pub.Macmillan).
    I don’t know if Ford read Hutchinson or whether both needed a particular character device. Interestingly, when C.E.Montague turns Disenchantment into fiction he also uses a very similar central character (Thomas Garth in Rough Justice,1926) who’s even closer in spirit to Tietjens than Hutchinson’s Mark Sabre.

  2. Andy Frayn
    Posted August 11, 2008 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    There’s no biographical evidence that Ford read If Winter Comes – neither of the recent(ish) biographies by Jupp and Saunders lists it in their index, anyway.

    From a reasonable acquaintance with Ford’s work and knowledge of his life, I find it hard to believe that Hutchinson’s book is something he would have read. His primary concern was the sphere of the aesthetic, erring towards the avant-garde – the creation myth of Parade’s End is that it was inspired by Proust’s death on the day Ford and Stella Bowen were supposed to meet him. Someone better qualified might be able to comment on whether Ford liked to kick back with a potboiler after dinner, or before bed! I just can’t see it, though.

    Perhaps the similarities are merely emblematic of common feelings and viewpoints among a certain generation and mindset in the post-war period…

  3. Posted August 11, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    John –
    Thanks for the reference to your book. I shall look it up.
    I agree about Thomas Garth’s similarity to Mark Sabre. In fact, this kind of man – the compassionate conservative who sees more than his louder contemporaries, but is powerless to act effectively – is almost a stock character of 1920s fiction. He is found, for example in Philip Gibbs’s novels.
    Andy –
    Whether or not Ford had read If Winter Comes, I don’t think he could have avoided knowing a lot about it. The book was a literary sensation, and the subject of keen discussion.
    When The Times started a new book section, they began it by inviting a correspondence about Hutchinson’s book.
    The contributions to the correspondence (by Margot Asquith, for example) show that many definitely did not think of the book as a potboiler.
    That Proustian creation myth is attractive, but is it actually possible to believe anything that Ford said about his own work? I find it rather wonderful that Tietjens, the man of integrity who jibs at publishing a false statistic, should have been invented by such a spectacular liar.


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