Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford: The Inheritors

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford: The Inheritors

Conrad and Ford: this has to be one of the strangest collaborations in literary history. Henry James, who knew both, is supposed to have said that the collaboration was like "a bad dream . . . their traditions and their gifts are so dissimilar." At one point, Conrad even rented a farm house owned by Ford. I remember reading somewhere (unfortunately my memory can't come up with specifics) that Conrad had asked someone, perhaps Edward Garnett (who was a close friend of both) to recommend one whom he might work with to improve his English. Conrad's native tongue was Polish, and he later learned French while in the French merchant marine. Ford was recommended; so occurred a strange collaboration that eventually produced two novels and one novella and considerable influence in the writings of both from that point on.

The Inheritors is the first of their collaborations that was published, although Ford had begun work on Romance, which became their second published work. However, Conrad at that time was too busy with Heart of Darkness, so Ford put it aside and began work on "a topical political fantasy" which was eventually called The Inheritors.

The tale is a first person narrative told by Arthur Granger, a struggling young writer who is determined to write literature. However, he struggles to get published and when he is offered a chance to do a number of short political propaganda portraits, he accepts the work, even though he feels it is beneath him. But, in the real world, one needs money. In addition, he, and most importantly, others will see him in print, perhaps making it easier for him to get his serious work in print. One can see his high principles beginning to slip a bit for he now sees himself as part of the real world, that of high stakes politics and business.

He is on his way to do his first "portrait" when he meets a strange young woman who insists she comes from the Fourth Dimension. She and others from the Fourth Dimension have appeared in England with the express purpose of taking control of England and eventually of the world. He goes along with her tale, primarily because he finds her very attractive and eventually falls in love with her.

As Granger travels about, interviewing various important people for his series, he encounters her more often as she begins to insinuate herself in the upper levels of the British ruling class. In fact, she eventually identifies herself as Granger's sister, and besotted as he is, he doesn't deny it. He professes his love for her, but she remains distant, only occasionally meeting him, in order to maintain her control over him. He will be, as she frequently reminds him, useful to her in furthering her plans for domination.

And she is right; she hasn't misjudged her control over him as, at the end, he betrays his friends when he goes along with her plans to bring down the present government. Circumstances had placed him temporarily in control of a politically powerful newspaper, and he does not print an article which would bring all her planning to naught.

[As was pointed out by Anonymous in a comment, I have suffered a mental spasm and reversed the sequence of events. While temporarily in control of the newspaper, Granger allowed an article to be printed which furthered her plans and brought down the government, and incidentally removed his friends from power. ]

Two themes are present in the novel: one is clearly Ford's, for it appears in several of his novels, while the other reminds me of a theme that Conrad brought into a number of his works, but most especially in Heart of Darkness.

In several of Ford's novels, one can easily distinguish the theme of replacement or perhaps displacement of the English ruling class by outsiders. In Ford's tetralogy, Parade's End, set during WWI, Christopher Tietjens, at one point, notes that the ruling classes are doomed and will be replace eventually be technocrats. In The Good Soldier, John Dowell, the American, replaces Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier, at the end, when he takes over Ashburnham's country estate and the care of Ashburnham's ward. This theme of replacement is spelled out very clearly in The Rash Act when an impoverished American takes the place of a wealthy Englishman who has been killed in an auto accident.

In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Kurz is the head of a trading post. He is supposed to make a profit for the Company by bringing in ivory. But, Kurz also is expected, by many, to civilize the natives. This is the White Man's Burden--to bring the joys of civilization to the benighted and savage members of the human race. In various works, Conrad sarcastically brings up this issue and shows that it's really just an excuse to exploit them, that the whites are far more savage than those they are supposedly enlightening.

In The Inheritors, we learn of the Greenland Project, a project which will enlighten and civilize the Esquimaux. While some have called it exploitation, its founder, Duc de Mersch defends it by pointing out its obvious financial importance to the English, not to speak of "the moral aspect of the work--it was unnecessary. Progress, improvement, civilisation, a little less evil in the world--more light! It was our duty not to count the cost of humanising a lower race."

And later, we learn more about the progress of the Greenland Project: "They had taught the natives to use and to value sewing-machines and European costumes. So many hundred of English younger sons had gone to make their fortunes and, incidentally, to enlighten the Esquimaux--so many hundreds of French, of Germans, Greeks, Russians. All these lived and moved in harmony, employed, happy, free labourers, protected by the most rigid laws."

It is ironic that the failure of the supporters to gain backing by the English government that ultimately brings down the government and brings in those backed by Dimensionist faction, aided, of course, by Arthur Granger's betrayal. At the end, Granger is alone. He has betrayed his friends and she tells him that they must go their separate ways now: "you, yours, and I, mine." She no longer has any use for him.

I wouldn't call The Inheritors one of their best novels. It lacks the depth that I've become accustomed to from each of them. The issues are there, but they haven't been explored to any great degree. I suspect that the collaboration process is at fault here. However, I would recommend it for those interested in something different, something not quite Conrad and not quite Ford, but a little bit of both and a little bit of neither.


  1. What an interesting post, Fred. I read and enjoyed it even though I'm not familiar with either the work of Conrad (Well, I've read a few pages of Conrad) or Maddox Ford. I have a few copies of Conrad's books here, but for whatever reason, they stay unread. I did try THE SECRET AGENT but just couldn't get deeply into it. I mean to try again though. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

    Collaborations are such 'iffy' things. I can count on one hand the ones I've read which worked well - at least in my view.

  2. Yvette,

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Conrad and Ford are two of my favorite writers.

    I remember having problems reading Jane Austen, and it wasn't until the third or fourth try that I finally was able to read _Sense and Sensibility_. After that--no problem, I immediately went out and read the rest of everything she's written.

    I would suggest, if you want to try something by Ford Madox Ford, that you get a copy of his _The Good Soldier_. It's his best work, and it's a regular on every list I create of my top ten favorites. Other novels come and go, but _The Good Soldier_ is always on it..

  3. Thanks Fred, I've made a note. I'll give it a try at some point. I've got several books here just waiting for me to be in the mood. Henry James and Dickens and a few others. I'll add Ford. :)

  4. Great review - just one emendation; I am pretty sure that the failure on Arthur's part is actually printing the article, thus exposibg the Greenland scam that his friends depend on. That is actually the aspect that interested me the most: The narrator's betrayal hinges on an exposure of colonial excess.

  5. Anonymous,

    Sorry for the delay.

    You are correct. His betrayal consisted of printing the article which revealed the truth of the Greenland project. The irony is there: the revelation of the truth actually hurt several of his friends who were innocent, naive perhaps, but still innocent.

    Thanks for your comment.