Sunday 5 May 2013

Ford on Lawrence

Ford Madox Ford, editor of the English Review, recalls the time he discovered D. H. Lawrence

I received a letter from a young schoolteacher in Nottingham. I can still see the handwriting—as if drawn with sepia rather than written in ink, on grey-blue notepaper. It said that the writer knew a young man who wrote, as she thought, admirably but was too shy to send his work to editors. Would I care to see some of his writing?

In that way I came to read the first words of a new author:

   The small locomotive engine, Number 4, came clanking, stumbling down from Selston with 
   seven full waggons. It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed but the colt that it   
   startled from among the gorse which still flickered indistinctly in the raw afternoon, 
  outdistanced it in a canter. A woman walking up the railway line to Underwood, held her 
  basket aside and watched the footplate of the engine advancing.

I was reading in the twilight in the long eighteenth-century room that was at once the office of the English Review and my drawing-room. My eyes were tired; I had been reading all day so I did not go any further with the story. It was called 'Odour of Chrysanthemums,. I laid it in the basket for accepted manuscripts. My secretary looked up and said: 'You've got another genius?' I answered: 'It's a big one this time,' and went upstairs to dress. (Ford Madox Ford, Portraits from Life (Boston, 1937), 70-71. 

Ford then goes on, line by line and word by word, to explain why that short paragraph, those three sentences, were enough to convince him that the writer was a genius. It's the best piece of literary criticism you'll ever read, and changes the way we (or at least I) approach any new writer. More on Lawrence tomorrow . . . but do look up Ford's many volumes of (mostly unreliable) memoirs.

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