Monday, March 26, 2007

Violet Hunt and Sylvia Tietjens: Fact or Fiction?

The parallels between Ford Madox Ford’s own life and the life of Christopher Tietjens are abundant and obvious; his British Tory ideals, his transformation as a result of the war, his conflict with social expectations and criticism, and particularly his personal relationships with the many women in his life. The latter has often been a topic of much speculation and sometimes criticism. Joseph Wiesenfarth wrote an entire book on the subject, cunningly named “Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women” after both the infamous book which superficially protests the rule of women (monarchs) over men and Ford’s own ‘suffragette’ pamphlet written in 1913 which argued the opposite. Wiesenfarth illuminates how Ford, in his memoirs, presents his life’s work as those of a ‘proper man’ and reviews the many issues he believed in, rebelled against, promoted or revived’ (22). What is interesting is the area Ford neglects: his work is devoid of all mention of his many relationships and sexual exploits. With this and other examples, Wiesenfarth reveals many of Ford’s contradictions; he was both a ‘proper man’ and yet was an adulterer, an ‘enraged suffragrette’ who refused to ‘submit to the regiment of any woman’, a self-professed ‘man’s man’ who was quite obviously a woman’s man as well.

While Ford Madox Ford may have rejected the effects of the woman in his life on his ideals or aspirations, their effects on his work can be revealed in the way they are reflected in the characters he created; specifically that of Ford’s character Sylvia Tietjens in Parade’s End and her real life counterpart Violet Hunt. Ford eloped at an early age and had been married for fifteen years when he became Violet Hunt's lover in 1909. The relationship lasted until he returned from serving in WWI in 1919, and went to Sussex to live with Stella Bowen. Already, the actions of Ford’s life mirror his protagonist in Parade’s End: Tietjens’ relationship with Sylvia ends when he returns from the war and leaves her to live with Valentine. Also, later Violet made ‘forays into the countryside’ to spy on Ford and Stella, like Sylvia does in The Last Post.

However, the similarities go far beyond simple plot structure; the likeness in the personalities of Violet and Sylvia are unmistakable. Violet Hunt was a ‘New Woman who lived her life as such’, refusing marriage offers to pursue a series of affairs, usually with older married men (Wiesenfarth,4). Like Sylvia, Violet was a beautiful, forceful, self-determining woman who took control of her life and often dominated the lives of those around her; she was known as “Violent” Hunt even by some of her friends (Wiesenfarth,31). Like Sylvia, Violet was also vengeful, after Ford’s desertion she used her position as a novelist to portray Ford as a faithless lover, most notable in her book The Flurried Years (1926) a memoir which openly tried to destroy his reputation. Wiesenfarth describes their relationship as “eventually so stormy a time together that Ford thought service in the Welch Regiment and life in the trenches fighting the Huns preferable to battling Hunt on the home front”.

Conversely, while Violet made her own efforts to ‘villainize’ Ford, she did in fact defend him from other attacks. Even though the reflection of her own traits in Sylvia Tietjens was obvious in Some Do Not and No More Parade, as were the traits of Stella Bowen in the character of Valentine Wannop, she actually defends the novelist’s art of amalgamation:
“…she and Sylvia were the only two human beings (Tietjens) had met for years whom he could respect: the one for sheer efficiency in killing; the other for having the constructive desire and knowing how to set about it. Kill or cure! The two functions of man. If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it…The two types of mind: remorseless enemy, sure screen, dagger…sheath!” (Wiesenfarth,49)

Sadly, while it is evident that Violet Hunt spent much of her life after the breakup in a relentless effort to destroy Ford’s reputation, his response to her attacks was consequently often the same as his protagonist, Tietjens: he said nothing.

Wiesenfarth, Joseph Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women The University of Wisconsin Press, U.S. 2005.

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