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Memorial Digging: Ford Madox Ford, Post-War Sussex, and the Potato

Hattie Walters, University of Birmingham 

And I have always believed that, given a digging-fork and a few seeds and tubers, with a quarter’s start, I could at any time wrest from the earth enough to keep body and soul together.[1]

In the first days of April 1919, literary modernist and impressionist Ford Madox Ford was digging in a potato patch at Red Ford cottage in Hurston near Pulborough, awaiting the arrival of his lover, Australian painter Stella Bowen. An empty, seventeenth-century labourer’s cottage, Red Ford felt remote and steeped in history, was full of red-brick and red-tiles, was papered in green moss and costed five shillings a week. It was also damp, leaky-roofed and rat-ridden with rotten lathes and sunken ceilings, but flanked by a great oak, nestled under a sandstone cliff, and facing a meadow, ‘scarlet and orange runlet’ and opposing woodland.[2] The ‘moribund’ plot seemed at first unwelcoming, as Ford described the building creaking with superstition as the ancient rafters worked ‘their sockets in the walls’.[3] However, Red Ford was to be the setting for his attempted post-war restoration: both of self, and of the assumptions that governed daily pre-war life through his biographical garden exploits.

As Ford notes of the period in his 1934 Impressionist reminiscence It was the Nightingale, the horrors of war had led any prior expectation of the solidity of society to be diminished. Buildings now seemed thin shells ‘that could be crushed as walnuts were crushed’, all life could suddenly disappear into ‘scarlet viscosity’, and it would be a long time before even an omnibus could be regarded simply ‘as something which should carry you smoothly along the streets of everyday life’, now tainted by its association with journeys over the ‘tortured earth’.[4] From this description of post-war experience, Ford moves to his cure: seeds, tubers, and a plot of land from which to ‘wrest from the earth enough to keep body and soul together’.[5] It is his faith in this cure which sustains his restorations of self and of land, appearing repeatedly in textual returns to the garden like Nightingale.

From 1919-1922 Ford possessed various agricultural goals including (but not limited to) the evolution of the disease-free potato. He had some limited success with this ambition, noting how ‘of say fifty different plants by the end of 1922 I had succeeded in selecting nine that seemed to be reasonably new varieties’, two apparently disease resistant.[6] Unfortunately, any success went unrecognised, with Ford lamenting his failure to place at the local agricultural fair. These seemed to be ‘halcyon days’—an ‘era of reconstruction’— and ‘each human being had his own plan for the salvation of humanity’, and so Ford set upon his potatoes; leaning on his spade handle to ‘dream long dreams’ of bucolic bliss.[7] He assumed faith in the land he might cultivate.

Beyond Ford’s 1934 mythologizing, his gardens appear in his 1919 correspondence with Bowen, who remained in London whilst Ford began work at Red Ford. Through daily letters, the pair planned renovations; proposing cokernut matting and distempering the walls. Despite his enthusiasm for vegetable cultivation, flowers were not forgotten, and Ford wrote to Bowen requesting suitable materials. Day by day brought notice of new supplies—the 6th and 7th of April delivering much sought-after nasturtiums, seed potatoes, and a tiled border (‘wh. was no end of a job’), and new letters fresh requests for seeds such as ‘flageolets, salsifies, & good sorts of early main-crop peas’ (April 5th).[8] Beyond consumption, the garden also offered imaginative possibility. In an early letter to Bowen, Ford surveys the plot:

you never mentioned the box hedge under the windows!! It must have taken centuries to grow. If we stayed here we could cut it into wonderful things. Peacocks & sundials![9]

Ford’s excitement derives from the garden’s historicity and its imaginative potential: the aged hedge can be cut into ‘wonderful’ new narratives. We could link his box vision to the Tudor world of The Fifth Queen saga (1906-1908), but it overwhelmingly acts as a whimsical teaser of Fordian fictive histories yet to be told.

            In Nightingale, the gardened Fordian history is brought to fruition. Ford revisits his potatoes:

I attached names of friends to each of my potato plants. In consequence, Joseph, when he woke me in the mornings, would dash in with startling pieces of literary information. “Mr ’Enry James have picked up proper in the night, but Mr. Conrad do peck and pine and is yalowin’, Mr. Galsworthy’s beetles ‘ave spread all over Miss Austen”.[10]

The 1919 Ford, it seems, is accompanied by friends literally emerging from the earth. His remembrance appears on one hand a fanciful, comedic tale of vegetable companions, as juxtaposing ‘startling literary information’ with the Sussex working-class vernacular of Joseph, Ford’s stable-hand, integrates these eminent writers (all, bar Austen, being Ford’s close personal friends and neighbours from the ten years he spent in Sussex and Surrey before the War) into Ford’s daily pursuit for the disease-free potato. Ford’s comical story asks us to consider the validity of his statements—why, we wonder, is it so incongruous to consider Mr. Galsworthy as naturalist, novelist, vegetable? There is perhaps nothing incredibly odd about a yellowing Conrad if we take his tale as mere, faithful biographical rendering of a group of potato plants. After all, once named, the plants become Jameses and Austens of their own right, despite having histories that contextually confuse the tangential histories of their literary namesakes.

The triviality of Ford’s tale is underwritten by the tragedy of his remembrance. At Nightingale’s completion, each companion had died, except Galsworthy. Ford’s potatoes are caught between two periods: that of their original, 1919 naming, and that of their later commemoration. They speak in turn to Ford’s 1919 disconnect with pre-war rural Sussex; a 1934 commemoration of digging at Red Ford; and of lost lives and friends. Depending on the time period we consider, the reader drifts between a light-hearted Fordian alienation to an active mourning of friends departed. If we consider Ford’s pursuit of the disease-free potato alongside these starchy memorials, we should consider his hunt for potato productivity to perhaps also signify a biographical quest to let his friends live on, in stories, and in garden.


[1]  Ford Madox Ford, It was the Nightingale (London: William Heinemann, 1934) p. 49.

[2]  Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Ibid., p. 96.

[4] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[5] Ibid., p. 49

[6] Ibid., p. 127

[7] Ibid., p. 127.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The Correspondence of Ford Madox Ford and Stella Bowen, ed. By Sondra J. Stang and Karen Cochran (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993) pp. 67-70.

[9] Ibid., p. 64.

[10] Ford, Nightingale, p. 111.


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