Being rather fuzzy minded at the start of a new year, I can’t quite recall how the idea of reading the whole of the Forsyte Saga during 2015 came about – although I think it might have been suggested by HeavenAli, who is reading along too, as is Liz and a number of other bloggers – Ali’s introductory post is here and her first review is here and Liz’s review is here. In any case, I have started January off with the first book in John Galsworthy’s sequence, “A Man of Property”.
Galsworthy was quite an authorial presence in his time, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932 and writing novels prolifically. However, his star has somewhat waned and he’s mostly remembered for Forsyte. He was also lampooned as middlebrow author St. John Clarke in Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” series and seems very much to have fallen out of favour, despite two high-profile television adaptations of the books. I’m old enough to remember the scandal caused by the 1960s version (the rape of Irene being portrayed by Nyree Dawn Porter with a slightly ripped nightie, as I recall). So why is Galsworthy so disregarded nowadays?
Well, on the evidence of “A Man of Property”, I really don’t know! The book opens with the last gathering of the Forstye clan, at Old Jolyon’s, to celebrate the engagement of his granddaughter June to Philip Bosinney. Fortunately, we are provided with a family tree, or the introduction of a large family might be confusing! Galsworthy skilfully draws us in, using the occasion to present the Forsyte family in full flow (and he’s not beyond referring to the Forsyte characteristics as if they were a separate species, which is quite amusing!) As Young Jolyon describes them to Bosinney:
I should like.. to lecture on it: “Properties and quality of a Forsyte. This little animal, disturbed by the ridicule of his own sort, is unaffected in his motions by the laughter of strange creatures (you or I). Hereditarily disposed to myopia, he recognizes only the persons and habitats of his own species, amongst which he passes an existence of competitive tranquillity.” They are… half England and the better half too, the safe half, the three per cent half, the half that counts. It’s their wealth and security that makes everything possible; makes your art possible, makes literature, science, even religion, possible. Without Forsytes, who believe in none of these things, but turn them all to use, where should we be? My dear sir, the Forsytes are the middlemen, the commercials, the pillars of society, the corner-stones of convention; everything that is admirable.
The family has worked its way up from being farming folk to city men of property – upper middle class, with all the pretensions that go with that class. They’re incredibly status-conscious, so much so that the veering from the accepted path has caused Old Jolyon to fall out with his son Young Jolyon and the two have been estranged for many years. However, as the book beings, the cracks are starting to appear and it is clear that events are going to take the Forstyes into realms in which they are not comfortable.
Apart from Old and Young Jolyon, much of the storyline of this book focuses on the marriage of Jolyon’s nephew Soames and his wife Irene. Soames epitomises a Forsyte – buttoned up, repressed emotionally, seeing things in practical and monetary terms and hiding any artistic interests. Yet he loves his wife passionately – although in his own way, and regarding her as an item of property in many ways, which women still were seen at the time. Irene, however, obviously despises her husband and as the book progresses the marriage begins to implode. The catalyst for this is Philip Bosinney, the appearance of whom sparks a passionate affair between him and Irene. This has a disastrous effect on June, obviously, particularly as she and Irene had formerly been close friends. Soames meanwhile attempts to repair his marriage by commissioning Bosinney to build a country house for himself and Irene, thinking in his blinkered way that a move away from London will help. Instead, this just brings Bosinney and Irene closer together. While Old and Young Jolyon effect a reconciliation, and one of the old aunts dies, Soames takes possession of his property in a way he believes he has a right to, which brings events to crisis point…
I’ll say no more about the plot – this is an involved and involving novel – but what a fabulous read this was! Middlebrow? Well, I don’t go in for labels, but this was writing that I enjoyed. Galsworthy’s narrative voice is affectionate and yet ironic at the same time. He’s readable and I loved his wonderfully descriptive writing style so no criticism from me on that front.
Across the road, through the railings, Soames could see the branches of trees shining, faintly stirring in the breeze, by the gleam of the street lamps; beyond, again, the upper lights of the houses on the other side, so many eyes looking down on the quiet blackness of the garden; and over all, the sky, that wonderful London sky, dusted with the innumerable reflection of countless lamps; a dome woven over between its starts with the refraction of human needs and human fancies – immense mirror of pomp and misery that night after night stretches its kindly mocking over miles of houses and gardens, mansions and squalor, over Forsytes, policemen, and patient watchers in the streets.
As for his characters – for me, they were living and breathing and alive on the page. Well – with one exception. I found myself struggling to understand Irene, as it seemed to me that we only see her through other people’s eyes and never got below the surface. She obviously found her husband repulsive (early in their courtship she shuddered at the touch of his lips on her skin) and I found myself asking *why* she chose to marry him (it took him 18 months of his trying!) Given that in Edwardian times she would have had no way of making a living for herself and needed a husband to survive, why on earth didn’t she marry someone who was at least a little agreeable? Since she’s described all the way through as a stunning beauty who turns everyone’s head, finding a husband who was acceptable would surely have been possible. And there is a hint of the flirt in her behaviour; she’s well aware of the effect she has on men and seems not to hold back from using this. It may be that Galsworthy intended that we should never really know Irene, so that we should understand the point he’s making here about women being regarded as property, but I found myself a little niggled by the fact that I never felt I fathomed Irene. As for the marital rape scene, this is handled with incredible discretion by Galsworthy; but it’s obvious that his sympathies lie with Irene and from her horror and outrage we can see that he regards Soames’ forcing himself upon her as totally unacceptable. This is a forward-thinking view for the time, and I’m not surprised to find that the author was a supporter of the campaign for women’s rights.
Galsworthy’s also brilliant at capturing the generational differences in a large family – how the younger members are attempting to break out from the restrictions of the old, the middle-aged ones are actually caught in the middle, and the older members are struggling to understand the passing of time, the behaviour of the younger people and the changes in society around them (as well as in themselves). As Galsworthy comments on Soames’ father:
James had passed through the fire, but he had passed also through the river of years that washes out the fire; he had experienced the saddest experience of all – forgetfulness of what it was like to be in love.
While reading “A Man of Property”, my mind kept being drawn back to another unhappy married couple, the Karenins, and I found that Soames in many ways reminded me of Alexis Karenin: both married to women they love but who despise them; both unable to express their emotions properly; both struggling to cope with public infidelity. Although Soames is often painted as the villain of The Forsyte Saga, I think that’s too narrow a viewpoint. Yes, his behaviour is reprehensible; yes, he is wrong to treat his wife as a possession; but Irene should never have married him if she loathed him so much and he goes through a kind of torture during their relationship (or lack of it). I hope that both Irene and Soames will find some kind of happiness in future relationships because it’s obvious that theirs won’t last.
The term ‘saga’ has been used in the past in a derogatory way, almost implying that a work is a kind of soap opera. Yet nowadays sagas like the Twilight books, The Hunger Games et al sell by the bucketful without comment. I do feel that Galsworthy has been unjustifiably criticised and condemned to the dustbin of literature. I found his writing excellent for the most part; a little melodramatic in places, perhaps, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I loved his characters, learned to know them, became involved in their fate and watched their lives play out in a wonderfully painted world. My first experience of The Forsyte Saga has been a very positive one and I’m really looking forward to reading on in this series!