These last two installments in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga follow and bring to completion the tendencies that have been developing all along, both in the family itself and in the nation that has nurtured such a family. The urge for possession in one branch of the family flowers and thrives even in love, whereas the desire to escape from that all-consuming need for property in order to turn to other things has come to its fruition in a very different branch.
Awakening, the “interlude” that comes between In Chancery and To Let, is a small idyll. Jon, the youngest-generation Jolyon Forsyte, is only eight. The entire purpose of the novella seems to be to establish that Jon is “loved and lovable”: he spends his days immersed in beauty, in books, and in adoring his father and mother. Anything less like a traditional Forsyte could hardly be imagined: he is open-handed and fearless, with nothing to lose by loving.
In To Let, however, this open nature brings Jon to the edge of a precipice. His cousin Fleur Forsyte, the daughter of Soames, has been brought up to be pretty, sharply intelligent, and to have her way in everything. Neither has ever been told anything about the old, rancorous relationship between Jon’s mother and Fleur’s father. When the two meet accidentally (at an art gallery where Soames is considering buying pictures — art vs money again), of course they fall deeply and immediately in love.
What follows is a careful discovery of whether or not Forsytes — those people of property, those careful investors in Consols — are capable of treading new ground. Old events, old relationships, past generations always help to define the present and the future, whether we wish them to or not; this was surely more obvious to people living in the 1920s even than it is to us now. When Soames sought to possess Irene, down to her soul, to own her as if she were his personal property, the brutality of that relationship was never to be outlived or forgiven. But Fleur and Jon are at first incapable of seeing why it should affect them, a generation farther on. They are a new thing. Why should the old get in their way?
Fleur is wonderfully drawn. She is extremely attractive: funny, flippant, clever, spoiled. The reader is left with a portrait of a girl who might become any of several sorts of woman, depending on influence: a grasping, possessive, “having” woman like her father, or a superficial, clever, distant one like her mother Annette, or a warm, beauty-loving, passionate one like the other branch of the family. Most of the events of the novel tell of her determination and strength of will. What could she become, with love and beauty added? The reverse is true of Jon. The novel proves him a lover of truth, honor, and beauty, but lacking in force (until the novel’s final pages.) What could a Forsyte be, who adored those things but had real power instead of the passive tolerance of Jon’s father Young Jolyon?
The final scenes of the novel give two very different examples of what happens when a Forsyte is finally able to release his or her grasp and give something up that he or she has previously possessed. Galsworthy shows us two very different motivations — both more or less related to love, but one selfish and one utterly selfless — and the consequences of each. It’s dramatic stuff, and since we’ve been working up to this for five books (or, I guess, three and two-thirds), it packs quite a wallop. The waterfall at the end of the roman fleuve, I guess.
This saga, moving as it does from late Victorian England through the Boer War and the first World War into the 1920s, reflects some of the enormous changes to the Forsyte class. I will let Soames Forsyte reflect on it for you:
“To Let”—the Forsyte age and way of life, when a man owned his soul, his investments, and his woman, without check or question. And now the State had, or would have, his investments, his woman had herself, and God knew who had his soul. “To Let”—that sane and simple creed!
But who will take it now, if some of the new Forsytes may be willing to give up possession? Galsworthy leaves that question unanswered and uneasy.
Such enjoyable books. If you’ve been considering these, do take them down from your shelf and join me in reading them!