Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

Source of book: I own this. Actually, I own this book as part of a hardback set of literature published by Reader’s Digest. (Not condensed books, don’t worry!) I also own the first two of three trilogies about the Forsytes in a separate set, which has the distinct advantage of including a family tree. There are many members of this family, and it can be difficult to remember who is related to whom.

I read a few Galsworthy short stories in my teens, but this is my first foray into his longer and better known works.

Galsworthy lived from 1867 to 1933, which places him at the intersection between the Victorian and the Edwardian eras. I found his writing and themes to be related to those explored by E. M. Forster, who, although younger, wrote much of his best work during the years that Galsworthy was an active writer. Howard’s End, for example, shares with The Man of Property a focus on the upwardly mobile Nouveau Riche

John Galsworthy looks pretty much exactly as I imagine James Forsyte.

Both authors also share a more modern writing style, more economical and less stilted than that of the Victorians. Galsworthy’s writing, to me, can be described as having “ease.” It never feels forced, and the reader really doesn’t think too much about it until some jewel-like phrase appears. In looking back, I found that Galsworthy used the precise right word in each situation, never more nor less than that needed. Descriptions tend to be spare, but effective. While I appreciate the delightful language of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, for example, I must admit that Galsworthy could serve as a lesson for aspiring writers as to how to avoid purple prose and stay out of the way of the story.

I have noted before that I have a particular affinity to authors with some connection to the legal profession. (For example, Sir Walter Scott, James Weldon Johnson, and Edgar Lee Masters.) Galsworthy too started off in the legal profession, but disliked it. While traveling as part of his work in his family’s shipping business, he met Joseph Conrad, who was working in the British merchant marine. This meeting was to have profound consequences for the history of literature, as both men were encouraged by the other to pursue writing.

The Man of Property is the first of the nine Forsyte novels. Originally, the author intended for it to stand alone, but later realized that the large family he created held additional potential. The Forsyte family represents not just itself, but indeed a whole class of upwardly mobile families in late Victorian England. As the author puts it, “a society in miniature.”

    “A Forsyte,” replied young Jolyon, “is not an uncommon animal. There are hundreds among the members of this Club. Hundreds out there in the streets; you meet them wherever you go!”
    “And how do you tell them, may I ask?” said Bosinney.
    “By their sense of property. A Forsyte takes a practical - one might say a commonsense - view of things, and a practical view of things is based fundamentally on a sense of property....We are, of course, all of us the slaves of property, and I admit that it’s a question of degree, but what I call a ‘Forsyte’ is a man who is decidedly more than less a slave of property. He knows a good thing, he knows a safe thing, and his grip on property  - it doesn’t matter whether it be wives, houses, money, or reputation - is his hall-mark.”

They are the men and women that hold society together, the ones that live by and enforce certain rules. Or at least they try to create the appearance of following the rules. The specific events of this book occur because of the tension between duty and desire, between appearances and the messiness of life.

In this regard, the title is revealing. Appearances, marriages - everything indeed - is property. A true Forsyte “foresees” the return that each investment will bring him. This obsession with the acquiring and maintenance of property extends even to their eternal aspirations. “It was pleasant to think that in the after life he could get more for things than he had given.” (For the most part, it is the men who are like this - and the old women.) Galsworthy, whose own family was much like this, deftly portrays the tension between the need to keep up appearances, and the real human emotions, noble and ignoble, that also motivate the characters.

In this particular book, there are two key parallel plots. The first, and central, is the failing marriage of Soames and Irene Forsyte. Soames had relentlessly pursued Irene, not because of real love, but because his own idea of her as a beautiful, charming, and desirable woman. Irene, for her part, finally agrees to marry Soames, despite her lack of love for him, because she wishes to escape from her life with her stepmother, who is all too eager to have Soames relieve her of the burden. This marriage is obviously doomed from the start - at least from our modern point of view. For Soames, he cannot understand why Irene can’t simply go through the motions for the sake of appearances. After all, he is a decent fellow, has ample money, and still loves her after a fashion. Shouldn’t that be enough?

That she was one of those women - not too common in the Anglo-Saxon race - born too be lived and to love, who when not loving are not living, had certainly never even occurred to him. Her power of attraction he regarded as part of her value as his property.

The second plot is related to the first. “Old” Jolyon Forsyte (not to be confused with the two generations of Jolyons before him, or his son “Jo,” or his grandson “Jolly”) has been estranged from his son, due to his son’s lack of propriety. When we first meet Jolyon, we are told that “Having his own way for innumerable years, he had earned a prescriptive right to it.” (Nice law reference there.) Jo married on the rebound after a love affair gone bad. That marriage was deeply unhappy for both of them, but it produced a daughter, June, who is now grown, having been raised by “Old” Jolyon. After June’s birth, Jo scandalized the family by running off with June’s foreign governess to France, abandoning his wife and child. June’s mother then dies, freeing Jo to marry the governess, with whom he has had a child. (They have another after the marriage.) This all occurred before the opening of the narrative. In the book, “Old” Jolyon begins to rebuild his relationship with his son, and discovers the pleasures of spending time with his grandchildren as he reconsiders how he has simply followed the mandates of society.

Society, forsooth, the chattering hags and jackanapes - had set themselves up to pass judgment on his flesh and blood! A parcel of old women!
He stumped his umbrella fiercely; yet he himself had followed Society’s behaviour for fifteen years - had only today been false to it!

Certainly, Galsworthy is at his best in his portrayal of the delights and destruction of gossip and judgmentalism. To much of the Forsyte family, gossip is their lifeblood - until the scandal hits a little too close to home.

It made some many hours go lightly at Timothy’s in the Bayswater Road; so many hours that must otherwise have been sterile and heavy to those three who lived there; and Timothy’s was but one of hundreds of such homes in this City of London - the homes of neutral persons of the secure classes, who are out of the battle themselves, and must find their reason for existing, in the battles of others.

Another timeless theme in this book is that of the disdain that the older generation has for the younger. As we hear today, youth are lazy, ungrateful, undisciplined, et cetera ad nauseum. The old folks gossip about the younger, of course, but they also completely fail to remember accurately their youth.

James, for example, had a passionate love for his eventual wife, Emily. He married her despite her relative poverty, partly on account of her stunning figure. He loves her still, actually, but he has forgotten that fact.

[T]hat one could reckon on having love, like measles, once in due season, and getting over it comfortably for all time - as with measles, on a soothing mixture of butter and honey - in the arms of wedlock.

The sadness is that James not only has forgotten the years of passion, but that he has “Forgotten so long, that he had forgotten even that he had forgotten.”

This comes into play in another scene that really felt familiar to me. Irene is spotted out at the store by her cousin-by-marriage Euphemia.

Passing through the Groceries her eye was unpleasantly attracted by the back view of a very beautiful figure. It was so charmingly proportioned, so balanced, and so well clothed, the Euphemia’s instinctive propriety was at once alarmed; such figures, she knew, by intuition rather than experience, were rarely connected with virtue - certainly never in her mind, for her own back was somewhat difficult to fit.

This is one of the peculiar paradoxes of human nature. The exceedingly ugly are generally considered evil, of course, but beauty is not exactly clearly good. Rather, a beautiful person, particularly female, must either be extremely good - or dangerously bad. And once an attractive woman wobbles a little on the pedestal of perfection, the knives come out.

Not that the present time or youth escape Galsworthy’s sharp eyes and pen. He mentions in passing the latest (imaginary - but not by much) popular novel, “Passion and Paragoric.” (That one caused me to laugh out loud...)

I find it interesting when an author uses biographical information from his own life in a work, but then examines the issue from another point of view. (One of my favorites of this sort is Tolstoy’s Family Happiness. In this case, Galsworthy was “the other man” in a marriage much like Irene and Soames’. His cousin’s wife fled the marriage, and took up with Galsworthy. The two of them semi-secretly carried on with each other until the cousin divorced her and Galsworthy’s father died. This eliminated the threat of disinheritance and freed them to marry. They remained together until Galsworthy’s death many years later.

Galsworthy writes this book from a “third-person, semi-omniscient” point of view. Unlike many books in which the narrator is able to examine the thoughts of all of the characters; in this case, the narrator is only able to know the thoughts of a limited number of characters, essentially certain Forsyte males. Thus, the author never lets the reader into the minds of Irene or her lover Bosinney. Furthermore, he draws Bosinney as a fairly unsympathetic character: he jilts his fiancee without so much as an explanation to go chasing after a married woman. His eventual downfall is expected and inevitable. On the other hand, Soames is difficult to like or even pity. He is clueless - and that is about the best one can say about him. Also, he is a product of his upbringing, which is why he has never learned to treat a woman as a person and lover, rather than an extension of himself and his desires. Also frustrating is that Irene herself is unwilling to help Soames understand her. She too seems to focus on her own desires and pain, rather than on taking any constructive action. Since we never hear her thoughts, she seems inscrutable.

Galsworthy draws memorable characters in this book. Old Jolyon, who is in the process of discovering that he loves and misses his son - a notable crack in his facade. Young Jolyon, who has recklessly followed his heart, only to discover that he too is a true Forsyte in his own way. James: tall, thin, rigid, insecure about his perceived inferiority to older brother Old Jolyon,and unable to find anything helpful to do about his son’s marriage other than mess things up. (His usual lament: “Nobody ever tells me anything.”) The corpulent Swithin Forsyte, unable to comprehend the fine line between tasteful and gauche. There are fewer characters than in a typical Victorian novel, but the portraits here are a bit deeper and more complex.

At its core, this book is about the way that we value the appearance of good over the doing of good. While moralizers will appreciate that bad behavior reaps its bad consequences, they will be disquieted by the fact that the author believes that good behavior cannot fix bad circumstances. Irene’s affair causes destruction to herself, her husband, and her lover. But the real damage was done when she and Soames married. There was no good result. No amount of pretending on their part could save the marriage, which should have been terminated long before the inevitable catastrophe, particularly since there were no children involved. However, the need to keep up appearances postponed the disaster until it was too big for anyone to fix. And in the end, Soames and Irene are both left miserable in the cages that they and society have forged.

Note on Family Happiness:

Tolstoy came close to marrying a young woman, but broke it off at the last minute. He then wrote about how the marriage would have been had they married - from the point of view of the woman, who was clearly not happy. I will admit that I am glad that I read this short novel - and the even more depressing The Kreutzer Sonata - while in high school. I think they destroyed a lot of my foolish naivety about marriage and sex, and made me determined to both choose well and learn how to maintain a passionate relationship if I did marry.

I still think that Family Happiness has one of the most memorable - and devastating - last lines in all of literature:

That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time.

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