(Here I continue with my messing about with the Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy — you can read my thoughts on the first novel, The Man of Property, such as they are, here.)
Toward the end of The Man of Property, I was saying out loud about every ten minutes, “Oh, dear. Oh, that’s not going to end well. Oh, no.” And I was right: it ended about as badly as it could have in one sense, but with an opening toward great possibilities in another.
In Indian Summer of a Forsyte, the “interlude,” or novella, that comes between the first two novels, there is a time of healing from the violent and distressing events that occurred in The Man of Property. Old Jolyon, one of the patriarchs of the family, has found himself with distressingly un-Forsytely thoughts of late, and has decided to reconcile with his son, Young Jolyon, the renegade and painter. Over one long, lovely summer, when Young Jolyon is absent in Europe, Old Jolyon gets to know Irene, the separated wife of Soames Forsyte. He drinks in her beauty, and in return tries to give her small pleasures: the opera, fine dinners, wine she will appreciate, and whatever protection he can afford her. Irene responds with gratitude at first, and then warmth, and Old Jolyon wants to do still more for her. But it is a Forsyte “more.” Their relationship is still, essentially, one of possession: as kind as he is (and he is genuinely kind, far more so than Soames), he wants to purchase her beauty and protect her with money. Still, it is a beginning (and an ending as well.)
In Chancery takes place several years further down the line. Soames finds himself in the odd position of a man who never took steps to divorce his wife, but now wants to be free. He wants to marry again, and even more than marriage, he wants a son: someone to whom he can leave his name and his fortune, someone to make his life worth while. His sister, Winifred, is in a similarly uncomfortable position: her unreliable rascal of a husband, Montague Dartie, has taken her pearls and gone off to Buenos Aires with a dancer. Should she divorce him? Can she ever have a life if she does not, and will her life be worth living if she does? These two float in limbo, unwilling (as Forsytes always are) to give up something they once lawfully possessed, but still wanting to move on with their lives.
All of this drama, and particularly Soames’s agonized passion to retake possession of Irene, takes place against the backdrop of an England entangled in the Boer War. Galsworthy’s delicate portrayal of colonialism as another form of possession — is it protection or is it self-preservation? Is it simply hanging on to something that belongs to England, for the sake of keeping it? — moves in the background of these characters’ private lives, and eventually affects them all. In fact, its greatest effect is on those who are just beginning to escape the grasp of Forsyteism, such as Young Jolyon, the painter, and his family — making it an open question whether the Forsytes’ grasp can ever really be evaded. This was a wonderful book. The two characters, one man and one woman, with their necks “in chancery,” struggling both to be free and to keep everything they’d ever owned, reminded me of a monkey in a trap; and of course an entire nation can be caught the same way.
One thing I began to notice more forcefully in this novel than I had earlier is that we rarely see events from the point of view of the women in Galsworthy. Occasionally we’ll hear Winifred’s thoughts, or Holly’s (Young Jolyon’s daughter) but the men predominate. I would very much like to hear Irene’s thoughts from time to time. So would Soames, I suppose.
Another thing I noticed, because of Jeanne’s recent post on the topic, is that this is a multi-generational book in which the generations play significant parts for a good long time. The Forsytes are a long-lived bunch — James, Soames’s father, lives to be over ninety, and Timothy to be a hundred — and so their thoughts and actions (and money) are important not just in the first novel but well into the third. The second generation, Soames and Irene and Young Jolyon, of course, is also vital even as the third generation is beginning to take center stage. Galsworthy doesn’t allow for much fading away. There is some inevitable death, of course, but as a matter of fact the second and third generation have had quite as much death as the first, one thing taken with another, including two wars. It’s an interestingly and oddly structured book.
I should point out, too, as Tom pointed out to me, that this is not, after all, the first time I’ve seen these people or this sort of book. I was groping for it when I wrote my review of The Man of Property, and Tom gave it to me: these are the people you find in Balzac, and sometimes in Flaubert, and occasionally in Zola. These are the people of Naturalism. I knew I’d seen them somewhere before. It was just in France, not in England.
I received several comments suggesting that these books should be required reading, and I will agree that they get better and better as they go along. I’ll be back with the last one soon.