"The Good" & "The Virtuous" as Differentiated by Ford Madox Ford and Henry James in Portraits from Life

"There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference."

~ Henry James, from The Ambassadors

That's a quote that resonates deep in me at the moment, and one which Ford Madox Ford must've had in mind as he remembered Henry James in his essay collection of the biographies of so many of his famous-author-friends, Portraits from Life: Reminiscences on Henry James, Stephen Crane, W.H. Hudson, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, D.H. Lawrence, Ivan Turgenev, Theodore Dreiser, and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

In Ford's fascinating anthology, he observed Henry James engaging with "the good people" and saw something most people, good or not, miss:

"...he had an extraordinary gift of exacting confidences and even confessions so that his collection of human instances must have been one of the vastest that any man ever had.  It made him perhaps feel safe -- or at least as safe as it was in his nature to feel.  He could feel, that is to say, that he knew his own milieu -- the coterie of titled, distinguished, and 'good' people in which he and his books moved and had their beings.  And in the special English sense the words 'good people' does not mean the virtuous, but all the sufficiently well-born, sufficiently inconspicuous, sufficiently but not too conspicuously opulent, sufficiently but very certainly not too conspicuously intelligent and educated, that supply recruits to the ruling classes of the British Isles ... He saw the 'common people' lying like a dark sea round the rafts of the privileged."

You mean 'good', Mr. Ford, is not necessarily synonymous with 'virtuous'?  May seem an obvious observation at first blush, but Ford deftly demonstrated how it's not.

I admire the understated sarcasm and wit Ford implemented also in riffing off the words "sufficient" and "conspicuous" in the above excerpt, each additional use of the words, one right after the other, building momentum and adding some oomph and zing to the class commentary in his biographical sketch.  And I love especially the shrewd distinction he made between "good people" and "the virtuous".  Most of us are "well-born" if we compare ourselves to the plights of the majority of earth's population next to our, relatively speaking, lavish lifestyles, but very few of us are virtuous enough to consider (let alone reach toward in some kind of meaningful assistance) that "dark sea" of humanity from our "self-sufficient rafts".

I don't yet know enough about Henry James or Ford Madox Ford to judge with confidence whether they were merely "good" or also "virtuous" (as Ford loosely defined and distinguished the terms), but considering that he and Henry James saw the subtle differences in the terms, and in fact wrote voluminously about these nuanced distinctions in non-didactic ways that nevertheless inspire readers still today to live more virtuously, makes me lean toward seeing them both as belonging to the latter term -- virtuous.

All in all, a very good remembrance Ford Madox Ford penned on Henry James, but one of eleven masters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured in this insightful volume of literary reminiscences.


  1. Very interesting quote and a deeper analyses. thanks for sharing it. Ford Madox Ford is on the list of authors I've planned reading.

  2. Thanks, Nana!

    I lucked into a slew of obscure Ford Madox Ford books recently, and Portraits from Life was one of them. I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts on him.


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