John Galsworthy

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John Galsworthy Long Fiction Analysis

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John Galsworthy is one of those authors whose works are valued most highly by their contemporaries. Once placed in the first rank by such discriminating readers as Joseph Conrad, Edward Garnett, Gilbert Murray, and E. V. Lucas (though Virginia Woolf despised him as a mere “materialist”), Galsworthy is now remembered as the workmanlike chronicler of the Forsyte family. Most of his other works are ignored. Changing fashions in literature do not suffice to explain this shift in critical esteem. Rather, the way Galsworthy chose to employ his talents—or the way his upbringing and personal situation obliged him to use them—guaranteed him the esteem of his peers but in large measure lost him the attention of posterity.

Galsworthy’s literary strengths are impressive. His works are acutely observant and intensely sympathetic. In his novels, one finds carefully detailed presentations of the manners, codes, pastimes, and material surroundings of England’s ruling classes as well as enlightened consideration of the diverse injustices these classes deliberately and inadvertently inflicted on those below them. Temperamentally inclined to support the “underdog”—whether an unhappily married woman, a poor workingman less honest than those in happier circumstances would like him to be, an ostracized German-born Londoner in wartime, or a badly treated horse—Galsworthy does not treat his characters as stereotypes of good or evil. Even when he is a partisan in one of the ethical dilemmas he presents (such as Soames Forsyte’s sincerely enamored but brutally proprietary attitude toward Irene, the woman who passively marries him but actively repents of that decision), he strives to show the mixture of good and bad, commendable and culpable, in all parties.

Galsworthy writes best when he deals with characters or situations from his own experience (for example, the various loves in The Dark Flower), comments on his own background or family history (as in the satiric group portrait of the Forsytes), or attempts to externalize the intricate course of motivations and ambivalences in his own mind (as does his study of Hilary Dallison, a prosperous writer suffering under the curse of “over-refinement,” in Fraternity). Nevertheless, Galsworthy’s reserve and stoicism, innate qualities further cultivated by his gentlemanly upbringing, made him increasingly unwilling to look within himself and write. His peripatetic existence and desire to grind out work for good causes must have made concentration on truly ambitious projects difficult. His wife’s wishes and values, closer than he ever acknowledged to the more blighting aspects of Forsyteism, cut him off from many of the experiences and relationships that writers tend to find enriching. As a result, most of his carefully crafted literary works remain topical productions: He fails to confer suggestions of universality or living particularity on the social types and situations he describes, and thus, as novels of manners tend to do, his works seemed more profound and interesting to the age and society whose likenesses they reflect than they have to succeeding generations.

The first of the Forsyte novels, The Man of Property, is generally agreed to be Galsworthy’s finest work, and the excellence of this book in great measure guaranteed that its less skillfully realized sequels and the peripheral Forsyte collections such as Two Forsyte Interludes and On Forsyte ’Change would attract and interest readers. If these social novels typify Galsworthy’s achievement, two other works deserve mention, not for their continued popularity or complete artistic success but because they indicate the other avenues Galsworthy might have explored had he not directed his talent as he chose to do. The Dark Flower, one of Galsworthy’s favorites among his works, displays his ability to handle emotional relationships; Fraternity ,...

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which he termed “more intimate than anything I’ve donelessmachinery of story, less history, more life,” is his most complex psychological study, a flawed but ambitious attempt at writing a “modern” novel.

Fraternity

In the spring of 1909, ensconced in the Devonshire countryside he loved, Galsworthy worked on the study of London life that would be Fraternity. The book’s first title, however, was Shadows, a word that gives perhaps a clearer indication of the novel’s ruling concern. In Fraternity, Galsworthy presents two adjacent but contrasting neighborhoods, elegant Campden Hill (where he and Ada then had their town residence) and disreputable Notting Hill Gate, and two sets of characters, the genteel, prosperous, enlightened Dallisons and their “shadows,” the impoverished Hughs family.

Aware of the existence of their less fortunate brothers (Mrs. Hughs does household chores for Cecelia, wife of Stephen Dallison, and the Hughses’ tenant models for Bianca, the artist wife of Hilary Dallison) and rationally convinced of the unity of humankind and the falseness of the divisions fostered by the class system, the Dallisons would like to take positive actions to help their “shadows” but find themselves unable to succeed at putting their theories into practice. Hilary in particular—like his creator Galsworthy a fortyish writer with a comfortable income and an uncomfortably sensitive conscience—is willing but unable to do some good. Discovering in one of many episodes of self-scrutiny that his benevolent intentions toward his wife’s “little model” are far from disinterested and, worse yet, learning that the poor girl loves him, Hilary suffers a fit of repulsion. He is, as Catherine Dupre observes in John Galsworthy: A Biography (1976), “horrified by the prospect of any sort of union with someone whose difference of class and outlook would doom from the start their relationship.” For Hilary and all the Dallisons, the common bond of shared humanity is ultimately less significant than the web of social life that separates the privileged from their “shadows,” that permits observation without true empathy.

Galsworthy’s friend, Joseph Conrad, was not alone in appraising Fraternity as “the book of a moralist.” The great danger and difficulty of such a novel, Conrad argued to Galsworthy, is that its “negative method” of stressing a moral problem without prescribing a remedy leaves the reader dissatisfied: “It is impossible to read a book like that without asking oneself—what then?” In that sentence, Conrad characterizes a recurrent quality of Galsworthy’s writing. Except in specific cases (and there were many of these—among them women’s suffrage, slaughterhouse reform, docking of horses’ tails, vivisection, slum clearance, the condition of prisons, the state of zoos), Galsworthy tended to be a moralist without a gospel. His scrutiny of human behavior and social conditions detracted from the artistic success of his novels without providing anything but a sense of unease. Still, as Galsworthy explained to another critic of Fraternity, cultivating this awareness of moral problems is a step, albeit an oblique one, toward “sympathy between man and man.”

The Dark Flower

The Dark Flower was one of Galsworthy’s particular favorites among his novels. His professed intention in writing the book was to offer “a study [I hoped a true and a deep one] of Passion—that blind force which sweeps upon us out of the dark and turns us pretty well as it will.” The book was taken by various readers, the most articulate among them being Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who reviewed it in The Daily Mail, as a case for free love, an assertion that commitment to a marriage should end when love ends. Interestingly, as Dupre suggests, the gist of The Dark Flower is something less general than either the authorial statement of purpose or the critical view would have it be: It is an emotionally faithful representation of Galsworthy’s own loves—most immediately, of his 1912 infatuation with a young actor and dancer named Margaret Morris.

The Dark Flower is divided into three parts, “Spring,” “Summer,” and “Autumn,” each depicting a romantic experience in the life of theprotagonist, Mark Lennan. Attracted to his tutor’s wife in “Spring,” the youthful Lennan is rejected and advised to find a woman of his own age. In “Summer,” he meets and comes to love a beautiful, charming married woman, Olive Cramier, whose unyielding antipathy for the man to whom she has unwisely yoked herself obviously parallels Ada’s revulsion for Major Galsworthy. Olive, the great love of Lennan’s life, drowns; in “Autumn” he is happily but not passionately married to a woman, Sylvia, for fifteen years, and is infatuated with a lovely young girl, Nell. The middle-aged lover fondly hopes that he can retain Sylvia without giving up Nell. Like Ada in real life, Sylvia says she can be broad-minded but clearly demonstrates that she cannot. Lennan, like Galsworthy, accordingly sacrifices the more intense love for the long-standing one—in fact, his speeches and Nell’s are, as Morris recalls in My Galsworthy Story (1967), accurate quotations of real-life dialogue. It is not surprising that having laid out his emotional autobiography, discreetly veiled though it may have been, and having been charged with promoting the sentimental and irresponsible sort of spiritual polygamy advocated by the very young Percy Bysshe Shelley, the reserved and dutiful Galsworthy was afterward reluctant to commit his deepest feelings to print.

The Man of Property

The trilogy for which Galsworthy is principally known was launched with the publication of The Man of Property in 1906. Although Galsworthy thought at the time of continuing his satiric work and mentioned various possibilities in his letters to Conrad, not until 1917, when he returned to England from his stint of hospital service in France and began writing “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” did Galsworthy resume the work that would be his magnum opus.

The Man of Property, the finest and fiercest of the Forsyte novels, combines portraiture of a whole gallery of Galsworthy’s Victorian relations with a particular focus on one example of the tenacious Forsyte instinct for possession: Soames Forsyte’s refusal to free his beautiful and intensely unhappy wife Irene from a marriage she sees as dead; Irene’s affair with a “bohemian” (June Forsyte’s fiancé, Bosinney); and the grim but temporary victory of Soames over Irene, of Victorian convention over love. The triangular romance can be seen as symbolic or schematic—the two men, representing the possessive spirit and the creative temperament, both aspire in their different ways for Beauty—but it is also Galsworthy’s thinly disguised account of Ada’s tragic marriage with his cousin. The personal involvement results in what is least satisfactory about a fine book: Galsworthy’s inability, despite an attempt to be philosophical, to moderate his extreme sympathy for Irene and his emotional if not rational assignment of total guilt to Soames, a man both sinned against and sinning.

The Man of Property begins with an “At Home” at the house of Old Jolyon, eldest of the Forsyte brothers and head of the family. At this gathering on June 15, 1886, a party honoring the engagement of old Jolyon’s granddaughter, June, to the architect Philip Bosinney, the reader is privileged to observe “the highest efflorescence of the Forsytes.” In the senior generation, the sons and daughters of “Superior Dosset” Forsyte, who had come from the country and founded the family’s fortunes, are a variety of Victorian types, among them Aunt Ann, an ancient Sibyl tenaciously holding onto the life that remains to her; Jolyon, imperious and philosophical; Soames’s father, James, milder than Jolyon but even more single-minded in his devotion to the Forsyte principles of property and family; James’s twin, Swithin, an old pouter-pigeon of a bachelor whose hereditary prudence is tinged with antiquated dandyism; and Timothy, the youngest of the ten brothers and sisters and perhaps the Forsyte’s Forsyte. He is a man whose caution and whose saving nature are so highly developed that he has retired early and placed all his resources in gilt-edged “Consols,” retreating so successfully from the world’s demands that even at his own house, the “Exchange,” where Forsytes meet and gossip, his presence is felt more often than seen or heard.

The common bond that unites these superficially variegated characters and makes them representative of their whole class is described by young Jolyon, Galsworthy’s mouthpiece in the novel: “A Forsyte takes a practical—one might say a common-sense—view of things, and a practical view of things is based fundamentally on a sense of property.” The Forsytes, who know good things when they see them, who never give themselves or their possessions away, are the “better half” of England—the “cornerstones of convention.”

The novel’s principal demonstration of the Forsyte “sense of property” centers on the marriage of Soames, a prospering young solicitor, and the mysterious and lovely Irene. Troubled by his wife’s chilly indifference to his strong and genuine love for her and the fine possessions that are his way of showing that feeling, Soames engages June’s fiancé Bosinney to design and erect an impressive country house for him and Irene at Robin Hill, in the Surrey countryside outside London. While building this house, a process that posits Bosinney’s aesthetic scorn for base monetary matters against Soames’s financial precision and passion for a bargain, the architect falls in love with Irene. She, seeing him as an emblem of all that her detested husband is not, reciprocates. The two of them betray their respective Forsytes and enter into a clandestine relationship.

These complicated circumstances pit Soames, determined to retain his property, against Irene, equally determined in her stubbornly passive way to be free of her enslaver. The outcome is tragedy. Bosinney, bankrupt because Soames has justly but vengefully sued him for overspending on the house, and crazed with jealousy and sorrow because Soames has forcibly exercised his conjugal rights, falls under a cab’s wheels in a fog and is killed. As the novel ends, the errant Irene has returned to her prison-home, not out of inclination but because like a “bird that is shot and dying” she has nowhere else to fall. Young Jolyon, arriving with a message from his father, has one glimpse into the well-furnished hell that is Soames and Irene’s abode before Soames slams the door shut in his face.

Galsworthy’s friends and literary advisers Edward and Constance Garnett felt that this ending was unsuitable and wished for the telling defeat of Forsyteism that would be afforded by Irene and Bosinney succeeding in an elopement. Galsworthy, with better instincts, stuck to his “negative method” as a stronger means of arousing public feeling against the possessive passion he attacked. Still, if the crushing forces of property were allowed a victory, albeit a comfortless one, at the novel’s end, Soames’s triumph was to prove short-lived, though contemporary readers would have to wait eleven years to make the discovery. In “Indian Summer of a Forsyte,” Old Jolyon, who has bought Robin Hill from Soames and lives there with his son and grandchildren, encounters Irene, now living on her own, and makes her a bequest that enables her to enjoy a comfortable independence.

In Chancery

In Chancery continues the conflict between the two hostile branches of the Forsyte clan. Soames, who feels the need for a child and heir to his property, is still in love with Irene and hopeful of regaining her. Young Jolyon, made Irene’s trustee by his father’s will, opposes Soames in his efforts and finds himself attracted by more than sympathy for the lovely, lonely woman. At length, Soames’s persistent importunities drive Irene to elope with Jolyon. The infidelity gives Soames grounds for a divorce. Freed at last from any connection with the man she loathes, Irene marries Jolyon. Soames in his turn makes a convenient match with a pretty young Frenchwoman, Annette. The novel ends with the birth of children to both couples.

To Let

To Let, the final volume of the trilogy, brings the family feud to a new generation. Fleur, daughter of Annette and Soames, and Jon, son of Irene and Jolyon, meet first by chance, then, mutually infatuated, by strategy. The cousins intend to marry but are dramatically separated by the dead hand of the past enmity. Jon goes off to America, where after some years he marries a southern girl. Fleur, as passionately proprietary in her feeling for Jon as her father was toward Irene, believes that she has lost her bid for love and settles for a milder sort of happiness. She accepts the proposal of Michael Mont, the amiable, humorous, eminently civilized heir to a baronetcy.

A Modern Comedy

The second Forsyte series, A Modern Comedy (consisting of The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon, Two Forsyte Interludes, and Swan Song) centers on the adventures of the fashionable young Monts—Michael’s stints in publishing and politics, Fleur’s career as society host, femme fatale to a promising poet, canteen-keeper during the General Strike, mother, and most of all spoiled daughter to a fond yet wise father. In his love for his child, old Soames proves as selfless and giving as young Soames was possessive in his passion for Irene. Some twenty years after introducing Soames to the world, Galsworthy had come to admire, and at moments even to like, aspects of this gruff, practical, scrupulous incarnation of the possessive instinct, a character who as the years passed had usurped the place of Irene in the artist’s imagination. Soames’s death at the end of Swan Song—he succumbs to a blow on the head inflicted by a falling painting from which he saves Fleur—is at once an ironically appropriate end to the career of a man of property and a noble gesture of self-sacrifice.

When Galsworthy chose to terminate the life of Soames Forsyte, he symbolically presented the close of an age but also implicitly acknowledged the end of what was finest in his own literary career. However wide-ranging his talent might have been if possessed by another person, his personal temperament, training, and circumstances constrained it to a certain limited excellence. Galsworthy the artist was at his best depicting conflicts typical of the Victorian period, that consummate age of property, and relevant to his own life: the contradictory urges of artistic integrity and worldly wisdom, the foolish desire to possess beauty at war with the wise inclination to contemplate and appreciate it, the altruistic motto “do good” contending with the sanely middle-class imperative “be comfortable.” Because he knew the overfurnished Victorian and post-Victorian world of the Forsytes and their kind from the inside, Galsworthy’s best moral fables are credibly human as well, but when the old order he comprehended if never endorsed gave way to a new and unfathomable one, the novelist of principle dwindled to a kind of literary curator.

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